I recently had a chance to see “Citizen Hearst” on PBS’s “American Experience.” It was extraordinarily well done. Despite clocking in at nearly four hours, with much of the time given over to talking heads, my attention never flagged. Partly it’s because there was so much high-quality archival footage. Partly it was because the subject, the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, is just so compelling.
There was only one aspect of Hearst’s career that I thought got short shrift. Years ago I read William Andrew Swanberg’s 1961 biography of Hearst. (Confusingly enough, Swanberg’s book was also called “Citizen Hearst,” but the documentary is based on a different book — “The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst,” by David Nasaw, who appears in the film.) I distinctly recall that Hearst’s papers were sympathetic to Germany during the early years of World War I, so he faced a crisis when the U.S. entered the war. His solution: adding the name “American” to many of his papers.
Another omission from the documentary is more conceptual than factual. The film seems to take it for granted that we’ll never see another media figure who wields power the way Hearst did. Well, what about Rupert Murdoch? If anything, Murdoch has more power and is more dangerous. His Fox News Channel has become the single most important force driving the crisis of democracy that we’re contending with at the moment.
In that sense, “Citizen Hearst” is not just a well-made film about a historical figure. It’s a cautionary tale.
The Fox News star’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, has already invoked the First Amendment. But there is, in fact, no constitutional protection for journalists who are called to testify in court or, in this case, before a congressional committee. The problem, as the Supreme Court explained in its 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision, is that granting such a privilege requires defining who’s a journalist and who isn’t. And the First Amendment belongs to everyone.
That said, the government is generally loath to force journalists to testify because of the chilling effect it would have on the ability of news organizations to operate as independent monitors of power. It would be well within bounds for the committee to decide that Hannity is not a journalist. He was a close confidant of Donald Trump when Trump was president, was a featured speaker at a Trump rally and, in his communications with the White House, made it clear that he was a member of Team Trump.
But this brings us back to one of the central dilemmas of the Trump years. Hannity’s behavior was so over the top that it’s easy to say he’s not a journalist. Still, you can be sure that Trump’s defenders will point to far more ambiguous situations and say, “What about?” Ben Bradlee’s friendship with President John F. Kennedy comes to mind, as does Walter Lippmann, the ultimate insider.
The problem facing members of the select committee is that if they subpoena Hannity and other Fox News personalities, they would do so in the certain knowledge that Republicans will claim a precedent has been set and abuse it as soon as they’re in a position to do so. I have little doubt, for instance, that New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet and former Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron would be forced to testify about their papers’ coverage of the Russia scandal.
Which is why the select committee is hoping that Hannity will accept its invitation to testify voluntarily. If he refuses (as he almost certainly will), then it will have to decide whether to issue a subpoena — a move that could have far-reaching consequences.
It was obvious to just about everyone that the media were going to face a challenging year after losing the artificial stimulant provided by the Trump presidency. “Will audience and revenue resume the downward track they had been on for years before Trump demanded everyone’s unwavering attention?” I asked last January.
The answer: Yes, indeed.
David Bauder of The Associated Press has pulled together the numbers. The situation is especially grim on cable news, where weekday prime-time viewership was down 38% at CNN, 34% at Fox News and 25% at MSNBC. (Fox still has by far the largest audience of the three.)
I’m not shedding any tears, crocodile or otherwise. Cable news is bad for you. The formula at all three consists of keeping you riled up and angry so that you don’t change the channel. Fox adds weaponized right-wing propaganda about COVID, the Jan. 6 insurrection, critical race theory and more. So please, touch that dial.
Then again, everything’s down, not just cable news. Viewership of the three network evening newscasts — higher quality than their cable brethren — declined 12% to 14%. Unique monthly visitors to the websites of The New York Times and The Washington Post dropped — although paid digital subscriptions to the Times are up, and that’s the metric that really matters. The Post, on the other hand, reportedly dropped from about 3 million to 2.7 million digital subscriptions toward the end of the year.
None of these numbers is inherently bad. We were glued to the news to an unhealthy extent during Trump’s presidency, as we all wondered what demented action he was going to take next. Then, in 2020, we had COVID to deal with as well.
There is still plenty of news taking place. COVID remains with us, the Republican Party has gone full-bore authoritarian and Trump has never really gone away. But things are a bit calmer, if not necessarily calm.
With national news commanding fewer eyeballs, will some of that attention be diverted to local journalism? I’d like to hope so. But with hedge funds and corporate chains hollowing out hundreds of community newspapers, in a lot of places there just isn’t enough to command attention.
Please support this free source of news and commentary by becoming a member of Media Nation for $5 a month. Just click here.
Chris Wallace has finally stopped providing undeserved cover for Fox News, announcing at the end of his show today that he was leaving. He’ll host a show on CNN’s new streaming service.
Wallace deserves some credit for remaining a bastion of sanity on a network that’s embraced the hardcore Trumpist right and all of its lies and fantasies. But he’s 74 and has made a lot of money at Fox; let’s not get carried away.
I’ve heard three questions come up since CNN suspended, then fired, Chris Cuomo for his inappropriate involvement in his brother Andrew’s defense against charges that he’d sexually harassed and assaulted women. I don’t know the answers to any of them. But they’re worth framing as we think about the extraordinary events of the past week.
1. Why did it take so long for CNN to act? The original bad actor in all of this was CNN head Jeff Zucker, who allowed Chris to host Andrew on his show when Andrew, as governor of New York, was winning widespread praise for how he had handled the early stages of the COVID pandemic.
It may have struck many people at the time as a harmless diversion during a very dark period. You may recall that Chris himself contracted the virus. But it was unethical, and in the months to come we learned just how unethical. Remember, Andrew ended up being accused not just of groping women but of grossly mismanaging the pandemic as well.
Then the drip, drip, drip started, as we learned that Chris had advised his brother and taken part in meetings as the sexual-misconduct scandal became increasingly serious. Zucker may have worried that suspending or firing one of his stars would have only called attention to his own role, so he let it go.
The revelations that were reported last week, though, weren’t just more but were also different. They showed that Chris had abused his position by, for instance, trying to find out what stories other journalists were working on. This went way beyond anything Zucker could have reasonably foreseen, and thus may have given him the freedom he needed to do what he should have done earlier.
No doubt Zucker’s hand was strengthened further when Chris Cuomo was hit during the past few days with a sexual misconduct allegation of his own — his second.
2. What about Sean Hannity? I’ve heard a number of people ask why Chris Cuomo has to go when Fox News did nothing about Hannity’s close relationship with Donald Trump. To which I can only respond that Fox, notwithstanding good work by a few of its journalists, is not really a news operation. It’s a propaganda outlet whose stock in trade is lies and ginned-up culture-war stories about issues such as race and the evils of vaccinations.
CNN is not what it used to be, and I’m not a fan of its prime-time line-up of opinionated talk shows. But it’s good to see that management still cares enough about the network’s reputation that it’s not going to stand for a host who breaks all journalistic boundaries — even if he didn’t do much journalism on the air. To imagine that Fox News would take similar action is to believe that Fox and CNN are in the same business. They’re not.
And wouldn’t it be great if CNN ultimately decides to replace Cuomo’s 9 p.m. talk show with an actual newscast? I’m not holding my breath.
3. What about Jeffrey Toobin? You may recall that CNN suspended Toobin as its legal analyst after he was caught pleasuring himself during a Zoom meeting. Many observers were surprised when the network took him back eight months later.
I’m not sure what that was about except to note that the incident took place during a New Yorker staff meeting, where Toobin was a writer. The New Yorker fired Toobin and shows no signs of being willing to take him back. CNN may have figured that it would be unfair to banish Toobin permanently for something he did for another employer. Still, it’s hard to watch Toobin without going “ewww.” And I say that as someone who liked his work both at The New Yorker and on CNN.
Finally: What an extraordinary downfall for the House of Cuomo. I revered their father, Mario; long before 2020, though, I was aware of Andrew’s thuggish reputation as governor. Chris struck me as an amiable lightweight. Scandals like this have a human dimension that can’t be overlooked. Andrew and Chris got what they deserved — but I feel bad for their mother, Matilda, who, at 90, is still very much with us.
At the heart of a bombshell report showing that AT&T nurtured and enriched the far-right One America News cable network is a larger, more ominous issue: a broken media system that forces all of us to subsidize content we don’t want — and that, in this case, is actually undermining democracy.
Last week Reuters uncorked the results of a massive investigation into the tangled relationship between the two companies. Reporter John Shiffman, delving deep into court records, showed that OAN’s 2013 launch came at AT&T’s instigation and that the telecom giant’s continuing patronage is responsible for some 90% of OAN’s revenues.
“They told us they wanted a conservative network,” OAN founder Robert Herring Sr. said of AT&T executives during a 2019 deposition. “They only had one, which was Fox News, and they had seven others on the other side. When they said that, I jumped to it and built one.”
OAN first came to prominence last fall, after Fox (briefly) refused to lend credence to Donald Trump’s claims of election fraud. OAN and another far-right cable net, Newsmax, soared in the ratings by embracing Trump’s falsehoods. Today both networks, along with Fox, have positioned themselves as firehoses of misinformation and disinformation about the election, the Jan. 6 insurrection and COVID-19.
At a time when the reach of even small media outlets can greatly exceed their core audience through amplification on Facebook and other social networks, what OAN tells its audience matters a great deal.
But why would a major corporation like AT&T subsidize a shady operation like OAN? After all, high-powered business executives tend to be conservative in the old-fashioned sense of the word — they don’t like taxes or regulations, but they do like stability. The second to last thing a company like AT&T wants is for a Confederate flag-waving mob to storm the Capitol. And the last thing it wants is to be associated with a media outlet that revels in such anarchy.
The answer may lie in our perverse cable television system, which forces us to pay for channels we don’t want and which in turn depends on favors from the government in order to keep the money spigot flowing.
According to Shiffman’s reporting, in 2014 AT&T was attempting to acquire the satellite service DirecTV, and its executives were concerned about whether they might run afoul of regulators. OAN and another network owned by the Herrings, WealthTV, were already running on U-verse, a smaller outlet that AT&T owned. So AT&T suggested that it run both channels on DirecTV as well.
By doing so, court documents suggest, AT&T could allay worries that the acquisition would make it more difficult for independent networks to be carried by major cable providers. The optics of reaching out to carry a conservative network may have been helpful even though Barack Obama was president at the time.
“What we seem to see here,” writes Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, “is that regardless of personal politics AT&T was operating in and expanding in one of the most regulatory-dependent industry spaces — telecom, cable TV, internet service, content — and they wanted more conservative programming because that helps get regulatory help.”
Now, it’s also true that AT&T is a fading player in the cable wars, and that OAN is carried by other providers. So it’s not necessarily a slam dunk that AT&T enabled OAN for the sole purpose of obtaining regulatory goodies from the FCC. But if Marshall’s theorizing is correct, then it’s a good illustration of how our media system works on behalf of giant corporations and against the rest of us.
There is a simple solution to this, which I’ve written about before: breaking the connection between cable services (and, in the case of DirecTV, satellite) and programming. Beyond basic local channels, require that cable companies offer additional channels on an à la carte basis. If you want the Food Channel but don’t want HGTV, you shouldn’t have to pay for both. You could pay only for the news channels you want as well.
Of course, all of this comes at a time when we can see that cable TV will eventually go away as more and more people cut the cord and get all their video programming through the internet. So the problem I describe is one that will eventually be solved on its own.
Yet technologies can take a long time to die. AM radio is still with us, as are print newspapers. Similarly, we may assume that cable TV will be with us for years to come, even as its audience shrinks and ages.
Given that, it makes sense to let us pay only for the channels we want. Such a move would be pro-consumer and pro-democracy. And it would remove incentives for corporations like AT&T to promote dangerous propaganda for the sole purpose of appeasing their regulatory overlords.
The latest findings from the Pew Research Center about trust in journalism are depressing but not surprising. Pew’s report, written by Jeffrey Gottfried and Jacob Liedke and published last week, shows that the gap between Democrats and Republicans continues to widen.
Over the past five years, the percentage of Republicans and Republican leaners who have some trust in national news has dropped from 70% to 35%. Meanwhile, 78% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say they have “a lot” or “some” trust in national news organizations.
The problem, as always, is the asymmetric polarization that has come to define our politics and our media consumption. If you spend all your time engaging with media outlets that tell you Donald Trump won the 2020 election, the Jan. 6 insurrection was no big deal, vaccines are dangerous and critical race theory is poisoning your (white) children’s minds, then you are going to distrust any news to the contrary. Essentially it’s a small number of right-wing sources of propaganda, led by Fox News, versus everyone else. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen put it this way:
Headline for me is that Republicans trust everything less, including social, often seen as a freewheeling alternative to The Media, icon of right wing resentment theatre. Flooding the zone with shit works. It lowers trust in the entire system, so the worst among us can profit. https://t.co/FzLwGDJ7yV
Trust is higher for local news organizations than it is for the national media, but even here there’s a partisan gap. Two weeks ago I wrote about ways that community journalists could connect with conservatives, and yes, they should try. If we are ever going to overcome the partisan divide, it’s going to have to start at the local level. At the same time, though, we can’t pander to false beliefs. So it’s a dilemma with no obvious solution.
With the delta variant spreading and COVID-19 rates climbing in all 50 states, President Joe Biden last Friday offered some tough words for Facebook and other social media companies that are enabling lies and misinformation.
“They’re killing people,” he said. “I mean, look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people.”
Biden was not wrong. But despite the enormous reach of Facebook, only one media outlet has devoted itself to injecting falsehoods about the pandemic into the nervous systems of its audience on a 24/7 basis. That, of course, would be Fox News, the right-wing cable station that tells its viewers, over and over, that vaccines are dangerous and that wearing a mask to prevent COVID-19 is ineffective — and, in any case, is not worth the price we’d pay in giving up our freedom.
Anne Applebaum, a staff writer for The Atlantic, put it well in a tweet reacting to Biden’s warning to Facebook and its ilk: “Surely Fox poses as big or even bigger problem?”
Consider a recent exchange between Fox’s biggest star, Tucker Carlson, and Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter and frequent Fox guest who’s become a notorious purveyor of pandemic falsehoods. “Masks are useless,” Berenson said, although he added that an N-95 medical-grade mask might be of “some minor benefit.” Mainly, he said, mask directives are “symbolic,” explaining, “If I don’t see people wearing masks I forget to be scared, and that’s why they want people wearing masks.”
Berenson wasn’t done. In response to gentle prodding by Carlson, he said, “The vaccines unfortunately appear to be declining in effectiveness very quickly.” He complained that he’d been suspended by Twitter for saying just that, and he urged Carlson’s viewers to subscribe to his Substack “before I get kicked off Twitter.”
"Biden aims blistering attack at tech companies over vaccine falsehoods"
Carlson responded by appearing to agree with Berenson. “The big media outlets are committed to lying and censorship,” he said sympathetically. “It’s terrifying.”
Carlson’s show is the top-rated program on cable news, drawing some 3 million viewers every weeknight. That may pale in comparison to the reach of social media. But unlike Facebook, where you’re going to encounter news about your family and friends, cat photos and the like along with the occasional falsehood, Fox is pushing this stuff at all hours of the day and night.
As CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy put it: “Rupert Murdoch, who was among the first in the world to receive a coronavirus vaccine, but who pays people who intentionally fear-monger to millions of people about them, must be smiling about all the attention Facebook is getting. Facebook is allowing for the spread of misinfo, but at least, unlike Fox News, has made some effort to reduce it.”
From “Fox & Friends” in the morning to Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham at night, Fox in recent years has morphed from a somewhat normal conservative news and opinion outlet into pure propaganda.
Last week, Media Matters for America released a study that showed the extent of Fox’s disinformation campaign about COVID and vaccines. Media Matters is liberal and partisan, but it also has a reputation for getting its facts right. The findings were sobering.
“From June 28 through July 11, 57% of segments about coronavirus vaccines on the network included claims that undermined vaccination efforts,” according to the report. The biggest offender was the “Fox & Friends” morning show, followed by Ingraham, though Carlson wasn’t far behind.
During the two-week period, the report said, “Fox personalities and guests made 216 claims undermining or downplaying vaccines or immunization drives. Out of those, 151 claims came from pundits on the network, which represented 70% of the total. Fox pundits described vaccine efforts as coercive or government overreach 103 times and described vaccines as unnecessary or dangerous 75 times.”
This is pure poison, and it goes a long way toward explaining why Trump supporters are lagging on vaccinations, and why we’re all wondering how soon we’ll be under a mask mandate once again.
The Washington Post and Time magazine weighed in earlier this month with in-depth profiles of Carlson, who has become perhaps the most influential force in right-wing politics since the semi-departure of Trump and the death of Rush Limbaugh. Both profiles focused on his racism — a worthy subject, for sure, but no doubt a sign that the stories were assigned before the recent resurgence of the pandemic.
Gillian Laub of Time, though, did manage to work in some key COVID-19 material into her piece, eliciting a ludicrously offensive answer from Carlson when she asked if he’d been vaccinated. He called the anodyne question “super-vulgar” and parried with “What’s your favorite sexual position and when did you last engage in it?”
Laub also noted that, early in the pandemic, Carlson took COVID-19 more seriously than his fellow Fox hosts and even urged then-President Trump to change course. As a result, researchers found that Carlson’s viewers modified their behavior in practices such as hand-washing sooner than did Hannity’s fans.
There are some recent signs that Fox is hedging its bets. Steve Doocy of “Fox & Friends” has been praised for pushing back against his anti-vaxxer co-host Brian Kilmeade. (Both sides!) Even Hannity has been edging toward encouraging his viewers to get vaccinated. But it’s Carlson with the most viewers and influence, and there’s little evidence that his bosses are going to intervene.
Is there anything that can be done about the toxic influence of Fox News? It would be exceedingly difficult. Occasionally you hear some talk about reviving the FCC’s fairness doctrine, which required broadcasters to air opposing views and offer equal time to those who had been attacked. But even if that were politically possible, it would be unlikely to pass constitutional muster. The fairness doctrine applied only to over-the-air television and radio, not cable TV, since the airwaves were regarded as a finite, publicly owned resource.
In any case, such a heavy-handed approach might not be necessary. Congress could require cable providers to offer à la carte service so that no one would have to pay for Fox News or any other cable channel unless they wanted to. No more bundling. Personally, I’d probably keep Fox so I could check in on what they were saying from time to time. But I’d happily give up the 57 flavors of ESPN I’m forced to pay for and rarely watch.
For now, though, we’re stuck with Fox and the baleful influence it exercises over our entire culture. People are literally dying because of the false beliefs they harbor about COVID-19, and Fox is one of the principal vectors for spreading those beliefs.
Donald Trump himself has urged people to get vaccinated. But that’s not the message being delivered to the Trump supporters who tune in to Fox News every day. As a result, some 47% of Republicans say they are unlikely to get the shots, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, compared to just 6% of Democrats.
Over the course of the next few weeks, more people will get sick and more people will die. We may be told to wear masks in public once again. New restrictions may be put in place. We were so close to beating COVID-19, and now we’re moving backwards. For that you can thank Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and the rest of their ilk at Fox.
Most of all you can thank Rupert Murdoch, for whom misery and disease is just another profitable day at the office.
What’s interesting about Preston Padden’s unburdening of himself with regard to Rupert Murdoch and Fox News isn’t in what he says. It’s that he said anything at all.
Padden, a former high-ranking executive in the Murdoch empire, wrote a commentary for The Daily Beast earlier this week in which he lamented the Fox News Channel’s devolution from “a responsible and truthful center-right news network” into what it is today: a propaganda arm of Trump Republicans who promote the Big Lie about the 2020 election, peddle deadly falsehoods about COVID-19, and stir up racial animosity by fear-mongering about Black Lives Matter and Antifa. (He should have mentioned climate change while he was at it.) Padden writes:
Over the past nine months I have tried, with increasing bluntness, to get Rupert to understand the real damage that Fox News is doing to America. I failed, and it was arrogant and naïve to ever have thought that I could succeed.
No kidding. Now, it’s true that Fox News wasn’t quite the toxic cesspool that it has become in the age of Trump. Prime-time talk-show hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Greta Van Susteren were reasonable and dealt for the most part with facts. Sean Hannity was paired with a liberal, the late Alan Colmes.
If you squinted, you could make a case that Fox was a right-wing version of what the liberal network MSNBC is today. But I don’t know that it was ever “a responsible and truthful center-right news network”; more like a hard-right outlet whose most outlandish outbursts were at least grounded in some semblance of truth.
Now, though, it’s nothing but lies, racism and conspiracy theories, especially during prime time, led by onetime rational thinker-turned-white supremacist Tucker Carlson. Padden attribute this to Murdoch’s “deep-seated vein of anti-establishment/contrarian thinking,” but he’s giving Rupe way too much credit. It’s money and ratings, and nothing more. That’s all it’s ever been.
The golden age of cable news, in my curmudgeonly view, stretched from 1980, when CNN was founded, to 1996, when Fox News and MSNBC came along, ending CNN’s monopoly.
It’s not that I like monopolies. Competition is good. But after the one became three, the race to the bottom was on, with all of them going with opinionated talk shows in prime time rather than covering the news. It almost doesn’t matter that CNN and MSNBC are liberal and relatively grounded in the truth while Fox is firmly a part of the conspiratorial extreme right. The point is that if it’s news you want rather than hot takes, you need to turn elsewhere.
But if the golden age has long since passed, the green age only started to fade recently. From 2015 through Jan. 6, 2021, all things Trump drove cable news ratings and revenues into the stratosphere. So what’s next for cable news in the post-Trump era? As I wrote in March, the future looks uncertain, with cable news ratings — and, in fact, audiences for all news organizations — down considerably. When the news is more or less normal and inspires something other than horror and perverse fascination, well, maybe “Beat Bobby Flay” looks like a better alternative.
Earlier this week, Vanity Fair published a lengthy article on the state of cable news by media reporter Joe Pompeo. It’s filled with interesting details and insights. What’s depressing about it, though, is that there isn’t a single executive who’s quoted, either on the record or anonymously, who talks about how moving the focus away from Trump might give them an opportunity to serve journalism and democracy better than they do now. It was all about ratings before. It still is.
Pompeo quotes Rich Greenfield, a media analyst with LightShed Partners, on what the future is likely to hold:
It honestly feels like we’re back to the run-up to the 2016 election, like we’re going back in time five years to when cable news was really about old people. The volatility, the anger, the hatred that was spewed across cable news over the last few years, from both sides, clearly brought an audience. I would feel very comfortable saying I don’t think we’ll ever see sustained full-year ratings like we’ve just seen.
OK, so maybe that’s how cable news will serve democracy: by reaching smaller audiences.
At the beginning of 2019, I wrote a column headlined “Five Ways to De-Trumpify Your Life.” No. 4: Stop watching cable news. There are many superior sources of news and information. If there’s major breaking news taking place, sure, I’ll tune in to CNN. If Anderson Cooper is at the anchor desk, I might even stick around.
But the class of the television news universe is the “PBS NewsHour,” which has improved and toughened up considerably over the past few years. We record it every night; we rarely watch the whole thing, but we appreciate the intelligence and context, which you just can’t get elsewhere.
And yes, I’ll watch Rachel Maddow occasionally, too. She’s smart and well-informed, and her politics are pretty much the same as mine. But it’s entertainment as much as it is news, and what’s important isn’t always entertaining.
As described by Pompeo, it sounds like cable news is going to be the same as it ever was, only with fewer viewers. It’s a lost opportunity. But what did we expect?