A democracy cannot function when truth is irrelevant to political debate, when facts are manufactured at will, when voter persuasion is no more elevated than a schoolyard shouting match. But we’ve sunk that low. How did it happen?
Over the past few decades, right wingers created vast propaganda organs masquerading as sources of news.
Obviously the biggest of them is Fox News, owned by extreme ideologue Rupert Murdock and family. Fox distorts reality in three ways: it invents “news stories” that are fundamentally lies; it repeats “facts” from others that are outright fabrications; and even when information is truthful, it is presented with an emphasis that makes people think something false is actually true. Fox Broadcasting doesn’t just televise cable news, of course. It’s a network of 17 owned-and-operated stations in league with more than 185 affiliates.
Another major right-wing organ is the Sinclair Broadcasting Company, which operates 193 television stations in about 90 U.S. markets. Recently, Sinclair required their on-air hosts to broadcast a “forced read,” an editorial that was pro-Trump and anti-news media. While the “forced read” was unusual, Sinclair commonly sends “must-run” packaged right-wing propaganda video segments to the stations it owns. “Sinclair’s probably the most dangerous company most people have never heard of,” said Michael Copps, the George W Bush-appointed former chairman of Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the top US broadcast regulator.
On top of that there’s Rush Limbaugh, Christian right broadcasting, and a flood of blatantly right-wing magazines, pollsters, and websites. If we look at them honestly, none are “news” media. They are news-themed entertainment for the conservative base. People can now get all their political and policy information from sources that are not attempting to deliver facts.
We can’t stop well-financed right wingers from abusing the First Amendment. But why do legitimate reporters and news networks insult themselves by pretending that they’re in the same business as Fox and that crowd?
Before the advent of cable news, and even afterwards, the mainstream media—newspapers, radio, and especially television networks—used to act as watchdogs, alerting the public when political officials, candidates, campaigns and functionaries went just too far. News reporters weren’t always alert or objective, but people quoted in the media could not lie with impunity.
Times have changed. The mainstream media has slowly changed its “rules” to substitute balance for truth. In just about any mainstream news story (that is, not including editorials and columns), the reporter will quote one side and then the other, providing a balance of views. But this technique sacrifices the truth when independent research and objective reporting would find that one side is lying—which is now extremely common. The right wing fully understands these “rules” and uses them to launch outrageous falsehoods, usually on Fox. The mainstream media then repeats the lies and balances them with a quote from the other side. The mainstream reporters will almost never state an obvious truth or call out an obvious lie. Just when we need reporters to act as referees, they’ve turned into play-by-play announcers.
A corollary of the “balance” rule is that reporters feel they have to blame both parties nearly equally. Gridlock, therefore, is the fault of both parties even when Republican obstruction tactics are unprecedented. Money in politics is a bipartisan problem, even when Republicans grab the lion’s share. And both sides must be blamed for lying, even when that assertion is itself a lie. Frank Bruni recently published a perfectly disgraceful example, equating Bill Clinton and Donald Trump! On progressive blogs we call this “false equivalency,” but that’s an idea rarely expressed elsewhere. As a result of this corollary, the media’s so-called “fact-checkers” are frequently the worst purveyors of false information. Bending over backwards to balance their columns, they declare that some detail where they quibble with a Democrat’s interpretation of statistics is the moral equivalent of a calculated lie invented by a Republican’s campaign.
Why did these people become reporters in the first place? Surely most went to journalism school with an idealistic desire to expose truth—the profession doesn’t pay enough to justify another motive. Can’t they summon up a little pride and, at least when it really counts, tell readers the real-world truth in language that average Americans can understand?
What kind of campaign can we expect in the fall of 2018? An ugly one. We’ll see an escalation in lies and deceit, with many candidates trying out the tactics that have worked so well for Donald Trump. That is, unless we can persuade some portion of the mainstream media to do their jobs.