The fairness doctrine is dead and buried. Let’s stop trying to bring it back to life.

Following the death of Rush Limbaugh, a number of observers — including me — noted that Ronald Reagan had paved the way for him and other right-wing talk show hosts by ending enforcement of the fairness doctrine. That rule, part of the FCC’s toolbox for decades, required broadcasters to air opposing views and offer equal time to those who had been attacked.

So why not bring it back? It’s a suggestion I’ve seen a number of times over the past week. But though the idea of enforcing fairness on the airwaves has a certain appeal to it, the fairness doctrine is gone for good, and for some very sound reasons. For one thing, it applies only to broadcast, a shrinking part of the audio and video mediascape. For another, you can’t apply it to new technologies without violating the First Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld the fairness doctrine and that simultaneously started the clock ticking on its eventual demise is Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC, a 1969 decision based on the “scarcity rationale” — the theory that because the broadcast spectrum is limited, it may be regulated in the public interest.

The unanimous decision, written by Justice Byron White, involved an evangelical preacher named Billy James Hargis, who anticipated the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson by a good decade. In a 15-minute tirade, Hargis attacked a journalist named Fred J. Cook, who had written a critical biography of Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate.

According to Hargis, the newspaper where Cook had worked fired him for making false accusations against city officials, and was a communist sympathizer besides. Cook contacted the Red Lion-owned radio station in Pennsylvania where he’d heard Hargis’ rant and demanded equal time. Red Lion refused, citing its free-speech protections under the First Amendment.

Justice White’s decision follows two main threads — that the FCC was well within its authority, as granted by Congress, to enforce the fairness doctrine and order Red Lion to provide Cook with an opportunity to respond; and that the reason the FCC had such authority was because of limits to the number of radio stations that can be on the air in a given coverage area. For instance, White writes:

Before 1927, the allocation of frequencies was left entirely to the private sector, and the result was chaos. It quickly became apparent that broadcast frequencies constituted a scarce resource whose use could be regulated and rationalized only by the Government. Without government control, the medium would be of little use because of the cacophony of competing voices, none of which could be clearly and predictably heard.

Later on, he adds:

Because of the scarcity of radio frequencies, the Government is permitted to put restraints on licensees in favor of others whose views should be expressed on this unique medium. But the people as a whole retain their interest in free speech by radio and their collective right to have the medium function consistently with the ends and purposes of the First Amendment. It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.

Red Lion argued, among other things, that technological advances were making the fairness doctrine obsolete. Justice White replied that new uses for additional broadcast spectrum were quickly eating up that additional capacity, and that the demand was likely to exceed supply for many years to come. It was a crucial point — and it also anticipated the situation that developed in the post-Reagan era.

White’s decision explains why the scarcity of broadcast spectrum was the key to upholding the constitutionality of the fairness doctrine. I want to drive that home for those who think a new fairness doctrine could be applied to, say, satellite radio, cable television and the internet. Without scarcity, there is no constitutional rationale for the regulation of content. And with cable and satellite, there are hundreds of options; with the internet, the choices are theoretically infinite.

If Fred Cook wanted to respond to the not-so-good reverend today, he could attack him on Twitter, start a podcast, set up a blog — whatever. But he would not be able to demand redress from the radio station given that he would have multiple other ways of making his voice heard. (He could also sue for libel if he believed Hargis’ words were false and defamatory.)

The central role that scarcity plays in these legal calculations can be seen in another case where there was no scarcity — Miami Herald Publishing v. Tornillo (1974), in which the Supreme Court unanimously overturned a Florida law requiring newspapers to offer a right of response to political candidates who had been criticized.

In a unanimous decision, Chief Justice Warren Burger writes that even though media concentration and the demise of newspaper competition had led to a scarcity problem similar to that which prevailed in broadcast, it was the result of market forces rather than the unbreakable physical limitations of the broadcast spectrum. In order to start an over-the-air radio or television station, you need a license from the government, whereas anyone, at least in theory, is free to start a newspaper. Burger writes:

[T]he implementation of a remedy such as an enforceable right of access necessarily calls for some mechanism, either governmental or consensual. If it is governmental coercion, this at once brings about a confrontation with the express provisions of the First Amendment and the judicial gloss on that Amendment developed over the years.

First Amendment protections are extraordinarily high, and they can only be breached for extraordinary reasons.

When Reagan’s FCC stopped enforcing the fairness doctrine in 1987, it cited the rise of cable TV as signaling the end of scarcity. I would argue that the FCC acted too soon. But by the mid-1990s, there was no longer any good reason for the government to regulate speech simply because it had been broadcast over the public airwaves.

Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Alex Jones and the like have done serious damage to our democracy. But as Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1927, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

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Rush Limbaugh’s career was made possible by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton

Rush Limbaugh. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

Rush Limbaugh, the toxic right-wing talk show host who died Wednesday at the age of 70, came out of a regulatory environment that had changed utterly from what had come before. Although I like to tell my students that everything can be traced back to Richard Nixon, it was changes implemented by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton that gave us decades of Rush.

Starting in the 1930s and ’40s, the Federal Communications Commission required radio and, later, television stations to be operated in the public interest. The theory was that the broadcast spectrum was limited, so station operators were licensed and required to abide by rules such as the fairness doctrine. Right-wing talk would have been unimaginable during those years, since station executives would have been obliged to let the targets of Limbaugh’s attacks respond and to provide airtime to liberal hosts.

Reagan simply let those regulations lapse, and Limbaugh’s rise coincided with Reagan’s presidency. All of a sudden, a hate-monger like Rush was free to spew his bile every day without putting the stations that carried his show in any jeopardy.

The next step in Limbaugh’s rise was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed into law by Bill Clinton. The law was mainly seen as a way to regulate cable TV prices and encourage competition. But the act also removed any meaningful restrictions on the number of radio stations any one company could own in a given market or nationally.

The law led the rise of massive corporate radio chains such as Clear Channel and Cumulus. These companies had in many cases taken on substantial debt in order to build their empires, and the way they serviced that debt was by slicing local programming and loading up on cheap national content like Limbaugh’s show. It’s a dynamic that continues to play out. As recently as a year ago, iHeartMedia, the successor company to Clear Channel, decimated WBZ (AM 1030), Boston’s only commercial news station.

Although some folks call for the restoration of the fairness doctrine, that no longer makes sense. The scarcity rationale that provided the legal basis for regulation is long gone, with satellite and internet radio offering hundreds if not thousands of choices. Podcasts have eaten significantly into the audience. Radio has fractured, just like most forms of media. Though I would like to see ownership caps restored, even that seems less relevant than it did a quarter-century ago given the multiplicity of audio options that are out there today.

That fracturing also means a radio show like Limbaugh’s could never become such a massive phenomenon today. Fox News long since surpassed Limbaugh in terms of audience and influence — and now they’re being threatened by new competitors like Newsmax, OANN and conspiracy-minded internet programming such as Alex Jones’ InfoWars. Rather than one big Rush, the mediascape is littered with a bunch of little Rushes. It’s not an improvement.

Limbaugh, of course, helped give rise to Donald Trump, and the two men have a lot in common — towering self-regard served up with heaping doses of racism, misogyny and homophobia. It’s no wonder that Trump presented Limbaugh with the Medal of Freedom. This piece, published by HuffPost shortly after Limbaugh’s death, is brutal but accurate.

It’s a terrible legacy. But Limbaugh seemed content with his choices right up until the end of his life.

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How our partisan media divide is fueling Republican radicalism

Photo (cc) 2017 by Stephen Melkisethian

Previously published at GBH News.

Distrust of the media is nothing new. The percentage of Americans who say they have faith in news organizations has been falling for at least a generation. But the widening partisan nature of that distrust has left Republicans increasingly uninformed. And that, in turn, helps explain why the Trumpist right espouses conspiracy theories on topics ranging from COVID-19 to QAnon.

Over the weekend, the Pew Research Center published a roundup of “20 striking findings from 2020.” Checking in at No. 13 was a survey from earlier this year showing that Republicans lack faith in the media to a far greater extent than Democrats.

There are many layers to the survey, but here’s a particularly telling data point: 60% of Republican and Republican-leaning respondents cited a “desire to mislead” as one of the principal reasons that news outlets make mistakes, compared to just 32% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. Overall, 78% of Democrats and Democratic leaners who strongly disapprove of President Donald Trump “expect that the news they get will largely be accurate” compared to just 39% of strong Trump supporters on the Republican side.

Such findings have to be seen in the context of what media sources people rely on for their news and information. The evidence shows that Trump supporters have isolated themselves from mainstream discourse.

As far back as 2014, Pew found that “consistent conservatives” were “tightly clustered around a single news source,” with “47% citing Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics.” Other studies, such as a 2017 MIT-Harvard Law School effort, showed that liberals consumed a far more varied media diet than did conservatives. The power and influence of Fox News has only grown since then, notwithstanding the recent success of Newsmax and OANN, which are more willing to indulge Trump’s lies about the election.

Mainstream outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR are hardly perfect, of course. The Times and the Post, in particular, often cater more than they should to the liberal sensibilities of their subscribers. But, however flawed they may be, they are guided by journalistic principles such as truth-seeking and verification, whereas their counterparts on the right, such as Fox’s prime-time hosts, the Gateway Pundit and Rush Limbaugh, engage in little other than right-wing propaganda.

The effect of this asymmetric polarization in media consumption is clear enough in politics, as we are currently witnessing an unprecedented assault on the outcome of a presidential election that wasn’t even close. But it manifests itself in other ways as well.

Take, for instance, No. 19 on Pew’s list — a survey showing that 41% of Republicans and Republican leaners who’ve heard of the QAnon conspiracy theory believe that it’s either good or very good for the country, compared to just 7% on the Democratic side.

QAnon, in case you haven’t heard, is based on the belief that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats are involved in an international pedophile ring and that Trump is secretly working to defeat them. Pew notes that, incredibly, more than a dozen candidates for the House and Senate last fall, all Republicans, were QAnon supporters, or at least Q-curious. Two of them actually won election to the House.

Or consider Pew’s No. 1 finding, which is as unsurprising as it is enraging: “Since the very beginning of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, Democrats have been far more likely than Republicans to see COVID-19 as a ‘major threat’ to public health.” How wide is the split? According to a November survey, 84% of Democrats and Democratic leaners see it was major threat but just 43% on the Republican side.

The partisan gap on this measure,” Pew said, “remains about as wide as at any point during the outbreak and stands in contrast to the large shares of both Republicans (83%) and Democrats (86%) who say the outbreak is a major threat to the U.S. economy.”

Those two findings explain a lot. With the exception of a few GOP officials like Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, Republicans — starting with Trump himself — have led the charge against shutdowns and mask-wearing. Though Democrats and Republicans are roughly equal in their view that COVID-19 threatens the economy, Democrats see those public-health measures as necessary for getting the pandemic under control while Republicans see them as assaults on freedom.

Which is why many Trump supporters are willing to engage in behavior that puts both themselves and the rest of us at risk. Or as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told Fox News host Tucker Carlson last spring: “There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for our children and our grandchildren.” No wonder we’ve now lost more than 300,000 American lives to COVID-19.

Pew’s No. 20 could be a bad omen for Mark Zuckerberg. A majority of Democrats and Republicans said they believe social-media companies are censoring political views — although that belief was more pronounced among Republicans.

Many of Pew’s other findings documented the misery we’re all experiencing during this terrible year. International travel is down. For the first time since the Great Depression, a majority of young adults are living with their parents. Four in 10 people surveyed said either they or someone in their household had been laid off or taken a pay cut. More than half know someone who has died or been hospitalized because of COVID.

This past weekend, violence broke out as Trump supporters rallied in support of their false belief that President-elect Joe Biden stole the election. In Michigan, electors needed a police escort to the state capitol so that they could cast their ballots for Biden. A group of House Republicans are threatening chaos next month. Trump shows no signs of backing down, raising the prospect of unrest for months to come.

We all sense that the hyperpolarization that has torn the country apart in recent years and that has accelerated under Trump has reached a tipping point. What the Pew list shows more than anything is that this split is a consequence of the Republican Party becoming increasingly radical, violent and undemocratic.

A lot of that can be traced back to our media habits. Most of us rely on journalism to stay informed. And a sizable minority has gotten sucked down a bottomless hole of falsehoods and conspiracy theories.

We’re all looking forward to 2021. We’ll get vaccinated. COVID-19 will slowly begin to recede. The Biden White House will restore some sense of normality.

In the long run, though, we remain in a very dark place.

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How the right-wing media weaponize unvetted science

Santa Clara, circa 1910. Photo via Wikipedia.

My Northeastern colleagues Aleszu Bajak and Jeff Howe have written a commentary for The New York Times about how the right-wing media weaponized a Stanford study that suggested COVID-19 infections in Santa Clara, California, might be far more widespread than had been previously thought.

The study showed the infection rate might be 85 times higher than the official estimate. What excited the right about this was that it would mean a much lower death rate — possibly as low as 0.12%. So, gee, let’s open up, shall we?

The larger point Bajak and Howe make in their commentary, complete with data visualizations, is the danger of unvetted science ripping through the media so that it can be exploited for partisan purposes. The Stanford study, a so-called preprint that had not yet been peer-reviewed, turned out to be flawed. That’s not to say there isn’t some valuable data in it. But, as Bajak and Howe write:

The instant sharing of valuable data has accelerated our race for vaccines, antivirals and better tests. But this welter of information, much of it conflicting, has sown confusion and discord with a general public not accustomed to the high level of uncertainty inherent in science.

As it turns out, I spent three hours watching Fox News’ prime-time lineup on April 20, a day when yet another not-ready-for-prime-time study was making the rounds. This one was from the University of Southern California, which suggested — according to a press release (!) — that “infections from the new coronavirus are far more widespread — and the fatality rate much lower — in L.A. County than previously thought.” The release went on to note that the data showed the infection rate might be 28 to 55 times higher than experts had estimated several weeks earlier.

Tucker Carlson touted it. So did Laura Ingraham. “They were predicting doom and gloom,” she asserted, claiming that the response to COVID-19 would have been completely different if officials knew the fatality rate was so low.

Healthline, a respected source of health-related information, analyzed both studies in some depth and took a measured approach in assessing their importance: “There are disagreements about one study’s validity, and experts point out the statistical models and manner that participants were chosen might have biased the results. Although there’s agreement that the findings are plausible.”

What isn’t changed by any of this is that more than 80,000 people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19 in just a few months. And that toll would have been much higher if not for the extraordinary actions taken by state and local governments.

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In the age of pandemic, Fox News is threatening our safety, our health and our lives

Photo (cc) 2015 by Johnny Silvercloud

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tucker Carlson knows what’s good for you. Have you heard that the coronavirus disperses more readily when you’re outdoors? It’s right here in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And did you know the Chinese have discovered that most people contracted COVID-19 when they were inside? So why does the liberal media and political elite want you to stay cooped up in your home?

“Being outside is far safer. It’s also good for you,” the Fox News host told his viewers. “The question is why are our leaders hurting us on purpose. And the answer is: Because they can.” He added: “You may be suffering intensely, but they’re enjoying it.” In case you didn’t quite get the message, a graphic off to the side read: “Shut Up & Obey.”

For three hours on Monday, from 8 to 11 p.m., I sat and watched as Fox News’ three prime-time hosts — Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham — spewed distorted facts and vitriol at their viewers like some dubious-looking guy without a mask who sneezes in your direction at the supermarket.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but I suppose it could have been worse. Like their lodestar, President Donald Trump, Fox is no longer calling COVID-19 a Democratic “hoax.” The threat of a lawsuit may have something to do with that. But now that it appears the pandemic’s toll may not be quite as horrifying as some had predicted (mainly because people are taking social-distancing seriously), Fox’s Big Three are serving up a toxic brew of disdain for elites, doubts about science and disgust with foreigners and poor people.

Maybe it was because Carlson’s show was the first stop in my ordeal, but I thought his hour was the most coherent — and, thus, the most corrosive.

During the course of his show, we were told that criticism of the gun-wielding protesters calling for an end to the lockdown was an affront to the First Amendment; that a study by the University of Southern California shows COVID-19 may be far more widespread, and therefore less dangerous, than previously thought; that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and others are presiding over a “police state” by encouraging people to snitch on those ignoring social-distancing rules; and that those dastardly Chinese not only let COVID-19 escape from a lab in Wuhan, but they’re selling drones to U.S. police departments that are probably spying on Americans and sending data back to Beijing.

We were even treated to a return visit by Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick, who achieved instant notoriety a few weeks ago when he said he was ready to die in order to save the economy. “The abuse you took was so disconnected from what you actually said,” Carlson told Patrick — before Patrick, you know, said it again: “There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for our children and our grandchildren.”

Carlson offered up a weird and disturbing amalgam of exaggerations, unproven assertions and paranoia. There may be something to the USC study, but that’s of little comfort to the families of the more than 43,000 people who have died so far in the United States, or to the medical workers who are risking their lives every day. We do need to know more about the lab in Wuhan, as Josh Rogin wrote in The Washington Post recently. But using it to whip up hatred and xenophobia is loathsome.

I can’t even describe how Carlson closed without first assuring you that I’m not making this up. He showed a sculpture of two Greek goddesses shaking hands, and then of Dr. Anthony Fauci saying he’d just as soon see that particular custom faded into history. That was followed by a recent quote from Fauci telling a Snapchat audience that he wouldn’t condemn Tinder hookups as long as the participants understood the risks they were taking. Well, there you go. Case closed.

“They’re children playing dress-up,” Carlson said of Fauci and others in authority. “It’s scary. These are the people in charge of the country.”

***

At least Carlson offered a narrative thread I could more or less follow. Hannity, Fox News’ top-rated host, was strictly random-access. He began with a rapid-fire, non-linear rant about a New York Times story reporting that a Fox News fan named Joe Joyce had gone on a cruise and died of COVID-19, in part because Hannity had called concerns about the virus a “hoax.”

Trouble was (and Hannity appears to have a legitimate complaint), Hannity had made that comment only after the fan had taken his cruise. The Times then edited the story to reflect that fact without appending a correction, according to a report in Breitbart News. “This woman exploited a man’s tragic death,” Hannity said of the Times reporter, Ginia Bellafante. “She’s a hack. She works for a disgraceful organization.”

This went on interminably, with Hannity offering timelines that he did, too, take COVID-19 seriously, and so did President Trump, and Nancy Pelosi eats ice cream (I never did quite get that, but he mentioned it multiple times), and on and on and on.

Later, we were treated to some more China-bashing, repeated praise for Trump’s ban on travel from China, and an interview with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem — a Republican who, according to Hannity, has been able to contain the spread of the virus without trampling on people’s liberties. If I’m not mistaken, though, Noem was reluctant to buy into Hannity’s narrative.

“I want to see New York City open,” Hannity said.

“Well, Sean,” Noem replied cautiously, “New York City is definitely not South Dakota.”

Believe it or not, Hannity closed with that unrepentant reprobate Roger Stone, who’s heading off to prison in about a week after having been convicted of lying under oath, among other things, in connection with the Russia investigations. “What happened to you,” Hannity told Stone, “should never happen to any American.”

***

Carlson offered indignation, Hannity rage. Ingraham invited her viewers to relax with an hour’s worth of sneering contempt.

She derided Democrats for “taking the viral path to socialism.” She showed Trump praising the protesters as “a very orderly group of people,” a sentiment she agreed with — hailing them as salt-of-the-earth small-business owners and students who are afraid for their futures. “Of course they want to see the vulnerable and the elderly safe and secure,” she said, but added they’re upset that bike shops remain open while churches are closed. Bike shops, I tell you!

I could go on. There were the Chinese drones again, an attack on the World Health Organization, the ritual mockery of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (not her only appearance of the night, I should note), a swipe at California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s choice of Tom Steyer to co-chair his state’s economic-recovery effort (Ingraham wanted us to be sure we knew that Steyer favors slavery reparations), more reports from random doctors that COVID-19 isn’t as deadly as it’s been portrayed, and even criticism of the One World concert for inviting Michelle Obama and Laura Bush to deliver messages but not Melania Trump. One of her guests, Raymond Arroyo, went so far as to deride that decision as “partisanship,” notwithstanding Bush’s status as a member in good standing of the Republican Party.

But rather than dwell on any of that, I’ll close with something that struck me as quintessentially Ingraham — her scorn for poor and working-class people who might make a bit more money than they are accustomed to for a few months as a result of the government’s $1.1 trillion bailout.

You may recall that this was Sen. Lindsey Graham’s excuse for holding up the legislation as well as the subject of a righteous rant for the ages by Sen. Bernie Sanders: “Oh my God. The universe is collapsing. Imagine that.”

Well, Ingraham, whose net worth has been estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars, is still steaming over the very thought of those unemployed service workers living large at taxpayers’ expense. She began by warning of “the unintended consequences” of the bailout, asking: Is there a chance that a big chunk of the workforce won’t go back to work because they’re making more by staying home?

When she took up the topic again, in the closing minutes of her show, she was joined by two guests — former restaurant-chain magnate and presidential candidate Herman Cain and a restaurateur from West Palm Beach, Florida, named Rodney Mayo. And, at least from where I was sitting, it seemed that neither of them was able to process and respond to the cruelty she was spouting.

“Provisions that Democrats forced into the legislation have made it more lucrative for people to be unemployed,” Ingraham said, adding that she’s heard from two — two! — restaurant owners that they don’t expect their employees to return to lower-paying jobs.

Cain did not respond directly, saying instead that people who are unemployed should start looking for jobs now, before the money runs out. “Those employees who you’re talking about are not thinking outside the box,” he said. Now, you might ask, “What jobs?” But at least he didn’t follow Ingraham’s lead. Mayo didn’t answer her at all, focusing instead on his own restaurant’s challenges.

To channel Bernie Sanders: The notion that we should get worked up because low-paid workers might get a few extra dollars for four months is shameful. But Ingraham is apparently beyond shame.

***

recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 65% of those polled thought President Trump was too slow to address the pandemic; 66% were more concerned that state governments would lift restrictions too quickly than too slowly; and 73% believed the worst was still to come.

This suggests that those who are devoted to fact-based messaging — governors from both political parties, the scientific establishment and the mainstream media — are being heard and believed. This wrenchingly painful lockdown, social-distancing and other measures are slowing the rate of increase. In some places, we may have even started on the downward side of the curve. Most Americans understand that’s proof these drastic steps are working, not that they were unnecessary in the first place.

Unfortunately, a significant minority believes otherwise. Fed on a media diet of Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones and Fox News, many of them see these tragic developments as a conspiracy cooked up by elites who hate them. The late statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that we are all entitled to our own opinion, but not to our own facts. But that was then. This is now.

Fox promotes its own facts, scaring its viewers about things they shouldn’t be afraid of while making them complacent about things they ought to be worried about. More than anything, Fox acts as a perpetual feedback loop with Trump, giving him his talking points and then amplifying those talking points when he makes them part of his own fractured, hateful discourse.

Several years ago, the legendary television journalist Ted Koppel confronted Sean Hannity on the set of “CBS Sunday Morning,” answering “yes” when Hannity asked if Koppel thought he was “bad for America.” Koppel then said to him: “You have attracted people who are determined that ideology is more important than facts.”

That’s dangerous even in the best of times. In the midst of a crisis like the current pandemic, the propaganda offered up during prime time by Hannity and his fellow hosts is a threat to our health, our safety and our lives.

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Fox News’ dangerous coverage of COVID-19 is going to get people killed

Photo (cc) 2007 by Jason Eppink

The toxic combination of President Trump and Fox News has reached dangerous new levels, as the network has shifted from dismissing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, to (briefly) acknowledging its virulence, to pushing Trump to end the extraordinary measures being taken to slow its spread. Three data points:

  • On Monday, New York Times columnist Ben Smith wrote that Fox major domo Rupert Murdoch has made a bad situation worse by leaving his hands-off son Lachlan in charge: “Fox failed its viewers and the broader public in ways both revealing and potentially lethal. In particular, Lachlan Murdoch failed to pry its most important voices away from their embrace of the president’s early line: that the virus was not a big threat in the United States.”
  • On Tuesday night, Paul Farhi and Sarah Ellison of The Washington Post reported that Trump’s bizarre, potentially lethal embrace of ending COVID-19 restrictions weeks or months sooner than medical experts recommend — even if the oldsters die — comes straight from Fox: “Early this week, the cable network’s most prominent figures began urging the president to ditch the restrictions and get people back to work, even if doing so risks the public’s health. The commentary dovetails with, and may even have encouraged, Trump’s expressing a desire for businesses to start reopening after the federal government’s 15-day, stay-at-home period ends on Monday.”
  • This morning, Tom Jones, who writes the Poynter Institute’s morning newsletter, took Fox to task for hosting a Trump town hall without challenging any of his dubious assertions: “Mostly because of the incompetence and softball approach from host Bill Hemmer, the two-hour town hall produced little in the way of accountability, clarity and specifics. Once again, Trump’s message to the American people felt more like the substitute for one of his rallies than a Q&A to inform them about one of the worst crises we have ever seen.”

You have to wonder what the late Roger Ailes would have done if he were still in charge. Yes, under Ailes, Fox spouted Republican propaganda and claimed it was “fair and balanced.” But Ailes’ version of Fox was at least nominally tethered to reality, even flirting with the “Never Trump” movement during the 2016 Republican primary campaign.

What’s happening now is incredibly dangerous and is going to get people killed.

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How Fox News is helping to destroy the planet

Photo (cc) 2015 by Johnny Silvercloud

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Want to fight climate change? Tell your elderly relatives to turn off Fox News.

new survey about global warming by the Pew Research Center provides reasons for optimism. A majority of Americans favors more federal action on environmental issues, including climate change. Most respondents said we should put more emphasis on developing alternative energy sources than on expanding our use of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas.

But there is one huge caveat: older, conservative respondents aren’t inclined to do much of anything — and many of them continue to believe the fiction that climate change has more to do with natural causes than with human activities.

“A strong majority of liberal Democrats (84%) say human activity contributes a great deal to climate change, with near consensus among them that human activity contributes at least some amount to climate change (96%),” according to the survey report. “In contrast, about half of conservative Republicans (53%) say human activity contributes a great deal (14%) or some (39%) to climate change. Another 45% of this group says humans play not too much or no role in climate change.”

Indifference to doing something about climate change, the survey adds, increases with age — the older the respondents, the less likely they are to want the government to take action.

Although Pew doesn’t say it, these findings coincide perfectly with the demographics of Fox News, which caters to older, conservative viewers. Cable news viewers in general are old — MSNBC, which appeals to liberals, has an even older audience than Fox. But it’s Fox, not MSNBC, that pumps out a steady stream of climate-change denialism and skepticism.

Earlier this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported on findings that showed rejection of climate science among ordinary people is uniquely American — and that Fox News was the likely reason.

Citing survey data, the author, Dana Nuccitelli, wrote that “Republicans who watch Fox News are more than twice as likely to deny human-caused climate change than Republican non-viewers, and 62 percent of Republicans watch Fox News.” Nuccitelli added that the data “suggests that the presence of Fox News and other conservative media outlets may be the primary explanation for why climate denial is more prevalent in the United States than in other developed countries.”

And it’s further proof that Rupert Murdoch, whose family runs Fox News, is one of the most dangerous people on the planet.

Looking for some specifics? In just the past few months, Fox prime-time host Sean Hannity has mocked U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., for linking the severity of Hurricane Dorion to climate change. Another host, Tucker Carlson, referred to the September climate strike as “adults hoping to exploit children for political purposes.” And Laura Ingraham called climate activism by Greta Thunberg and others “globalist” and “socialism in a new mask.”

It sounds ludicrous. But when your Uncle Bert and Aunt Gertrude watch hours upon hours of this stuff, the effect is to produce a combination of anger, cynicism and inertia that makes it nearly impossible to break through with serious ideas about how to save the planet. And let’s not forget that Fox functions as state television for a president who declared on Twitter in 2012 that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

Nor is there anything new about Fox News viewers believing things that just aren’t true. Last spring, a poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found that solid majorities of respondents who get most of their news from Fox believed that President Trump was telling the truth about the Russia investigation. They also said they weren’t worried about future Russian interference in U.S. elections. Half of Fox News viewers believed that the Mueller report had cleared Trump of wrongdoing — even though Mueller drew a virtual road map for the House to impeach Trump on charges that he obstructed the investigation.

Then again, you could go back to the early days of the war in Iraq, when 67% of Fox News viewers believed the falsehood promoted by the Bush-Cheney administration that Saddam Hussein had worked closely with Al Qaeda.

Despite overwhelming scientific consensus that time is running out to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to rise. As one of the two worst polluters (China is the other), the United States has to lead if anything is going to be accomplished. Unfortunately, Trump’s response has been to pull out of the Paris climate-change accords and to torment California for taking action at the state level.

The role of Fox News in preventing serious action on climate change shouldn’t be underestimated. From propping up the Trump presidency to mocking science as a bastion of liberal elitism, Fox is hastening the day when parts of the planet will become uninhabitable.

The Pew survey shows that a majority of Americans wants to do something serious about climate change. It also shows that the same Foxified minority keeping Trump in office is blocking the wishes of the majority. It’s further proof that our media system, like our electoral system, is undermining our democracy.

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Cable pundits agree: Tuesday was a big night for Klobuchar and Buttigieg. Will it matter?

Amy Klobuchar earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Amy Klobuchar was having her moment. The Minnesota senator, an also-ran since entering the presidential race in the middle of a snowstorm last February, turned in her strongest debate performance Tuesday night. And now she was pressing her advantage, appearing on all three cable news outlets to repeat her message that Elizabeth Warren isn’t the only candidate with big ideas. Moderates can have them, too.

“There’s not just one idea out there. There are many,” she said on CNN. Klobuchar offered some pointed criticism of Warren as the night wore on, telling MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, “Her way or no way is how it feels every single time,” and Fox News’ Shannon Bream, “Your idea is not the only idea.”

Following Tuesday’s marathon Democratic debate, I spent an hour — 20 minutes each — with CNN, MSNBC and Fox News to get a feel for the instant take on what had just transpired. What I heard may or may not shape the conversation about the campaign in the days ahead. But the consensus was that Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg had a good night — and that, given Joe Biden’s continued inability to take charge of the race, one of them may emerge as the moderate challenger to Warren and Bernie Sanders, the leading progressives.

“To the extent that they gain, it could be at Biden’s expense,” Democratic analyst David Axelrod said on CNN. Added his nonpartisan colleague Gloria Borger: “In some ways Buttigieg explains Biden better than Biden explains Biden.”

On MSNBC, the message was the same, with Washington Post political reporter Robert Costa saying there was “a real impression tonight about Mayor Buttigieg trying to compete for that Biden vote.”

On Fox News, Bret Baier showed some clips of Biden’s “word salad” performance and said, “Joe Biden did not have a good night.” If Biden continues to fade, Baier added, Democrats will want to have the option of a moderate like Klobuchar or Buttigieg to go up against Warren or Sanders — who, Baier said (this was Fox, after all), are part of “the progressive far left.”

The big question is whether these predictions of a Klobuchar and/or Buttigieg breakout will become reality, or if they’re wishful thinking. Klobuchar may not even qualify for the next debate. The media thrive on conflict and a simple story line. In the most recent polls, Warren and Biden have established themselves as the front-runners, with Sanders not too far behind. A Biden-versus-Warren race satisfies the media’s desire for a clash between an establishment moderate trying to hang on against an insurgent progressive — but not if Biden can’t hold up his end.

Thus, Tuesday was the best opportunity for the second-tier candidates to emerge, with Klobuchar and Buttigieg making the most of it.

Buttigieg, oddly enough, had his best moment during the debate by going after Beto O’Rourke, who has been a non-factor in the campaign. O’Rourke is pushing a mandatory gun buyback plan that Buttigieg has called unworkable as well as a distraction from more modest measures that might actually get passed.

“Let’s … lead and not be limited by the polls and consultants and focus groups,” O’Rourke told Buttigieg during the debate — which brought a withering retort from Buttigieg.

“I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal,” Buttigieg said, a response that, among other things, was a not-so-subtle reminder of his military service.

During a post-debate appearance on CNN, Chris Cuomo tried to get Buttigieg to expand on his criticism of O’Rourke, but Buttigieg wasn’t going there. Instead, he stuck with his talking points that he is “the best positioned to beat Donald Trump,” and that Democrats win when they embrace generational change.

Klobuchar, on the other hand, was only too happy in her post-debate interviews to keep bashing Warren, for whom she has “a lot of respect.” (But of course!) In her interview with Chris Hayes, Klobuchar cast her own proposals to add a public option to the Affordable Care Act and rein in the pharmaceutical industry as ideas as worthy of discussion as Warren’s embrace of Medicare For All — and, ultimately, more practical. Of Warren’s oft-repeated contention that the moderates aren’t willing to fight, Klobuchar added, “I’ve really had it with that.”

Next it was on to Fox News, where Klobuchar repeated her criticisms in an interview with Shannon Bream. Klobuchar also made a pitch for right-leaning Fox News viewers who would presumably be out of reach for her more progressive adversary.

“There are a lot of moderate Republicans who agree with me,” she said, “and a lot of independents, and even some conservative Republicans.”

Thankfully, Klobuchar left out the right-wing conspiracy theorists who watch Fox’s prime-time lineup every night.

My own take? Warren was not perfect, but she was basically OK. The media are throwing a fit, not because she won’t answer their question about the tax increases that would be needed to pay for Medicare For All, but because she refuses to accept their framing. She’s answered the question: Medicare For All would result in lower overall costs for the middle class. She might be wrong, but you can’t call that an evasion.

Biden was so-so, showing some emotion over the false smears the Trump camp has directed at him and his son Hunter over Hunter’s business interests in Ukraine and China. Biden’s yelling at Warren and waving his hand in her face was, uh, interesting.

And Sanders, two weeks after suffering a heart attack, turned in maybe his best debate performance — making his points with his usual gusto, but also showing a warm and funny side, especially when Cory Booker noted that Sanders is in favor of medical marijuana.

“I’m not on it tonight,” Sanders responded.

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How Murdoch family politics shape the Fox News dystopia

WGBH News graphic by Emily Judem.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The New York Times Magazine’s massive 20,000-word takeout on the Murdoch media empire is what you might call a conceptual scoop. There is little in the way of new information, although the sheer accumulation of insider details and tantalizing tidbits is fascinating in its own way. But the real accomplishment of “Planet Fox” is that it helps us understand the Murdoch project as a coherent whole in all of its cynical, transnational, intrafamilial awfulness.

What does that coherent whole look like? Essentially this: For decades, Rupert Murdoch has built his media conglomerate in order to enhance his political power for the sole benefit of himself and his children. His method is based on synergy — that is, his control of more and more media entities wouldn’t be possible unless government officials bestowed deregulatory favors upon him, and those favors become easier for him to extract as his ever-growing control of the media makes those officials fear the consequences of saying no. His support for political figures who’ll give him what he wants has helped fuel the rise of right-wing xenophobic populism in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, all of which are suffering the consequences of the chaos that Murdoch unleashed.

There must be something in the air, as this is the third major Murdoch investigation to be published in recent weeks. Last month The New Yorker gave us Jane Mayer’s examination of the Fox-Trump mind meld, which I wrote about in an earlier column. More recently, The Intercept’s Peter Maass weighed in with a profile of Lachlan Murdoch, the heir apparent, and how he devolved from an idealistic Princeton student into one of the world’s most influential white nationalists. The Times’ contribution is to make an attempt at tying it all together.

The Times has gone all out to signal that “Planet Fox” is A Major Event. The reporters, Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg, are said to have interviewed 150 people on three continents. The story takes up most of the print magazine and has been tricked out with a vibrant digital presentation, a 14-minute video, and a “6 Takeaways” sidebar.

Will it matter? Eight years ago, it actually looked for one brief moment as if Murdoch’s world might come crashing down. The phone-hacking scandal perpetrated by his tabloids threatened his U.K. holdings and seemed like it might make the leap to the U.S. In the end, though, it fizzled, as Guardian reporter Nick Davies wrote in his book “Hack Attack.” The actual effect of “Planet Fox” is likely to be even more modest. You can be sure that Fox News’ marquee hosts, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham, will simply dismiss the whole thing as “fake news” — that is, if they mention it at all.

There is, by the way, a delightful anecdote about Hannity buried in the Times article. It seems that Hannity is too much of a toady even for President Trump’s tastes. Mahler and Rutenberg write: “Trump was also spending a lot of time on the phone with Hannity, who regularly called the president after his show. Trump had often found him to be too much of a supplicant for his purposes: He preferred his more combative interviews with Bill O’Reilly, which he felt better showcased his pugnaciousness, according to a former White House official. But Trump appreciated Hannity’s loyalty.” You can just imagine Hannity wincing as he reads those words.

The story of how Murdoch initially spurned Trump and then embraced him when it became clear that Trump was going to win the Republican presidential nomination is fascinating. That episode also traces the arc of Fox News’ transformation from a combative, conservative network at least occasionally tethered to the facts, as conceived by the late Republican operative Roger Ailes, into what it is today: a propaganda arm of the Trump administration that spews lies and conspiracy theories without regard for the public good.

Writing in The Conversation, Michael Socolow of the University of Maine argues that Murdoch’s influence has been exaggerated. Fox News’ 2.4 million prime-time viewers, Socolow observes, “means that 99.3 percent of Americans weren’t watching Fox News on any given night.” But surely the Fox effect is at least partly responsible for Trump’s enduring popularity with Republican base voters. And even if the Murdoch-controlled media are not quite as influential as they are often portrayed, it is well worth exploring the nexus of racism, corruption, and political machinations that define how the “rotten old bastard,” as the media critic Jack Shafer semi-affectionally calls Murdoch, does business.

One especially chilling detail in “Planet Fox” involves Murdoch’s seemingly endless quest to acquire Britain’s Sky network. It turns out that several of Fox’s rare acts of decency — getting rid of Bill O’Reilly over sexual-harassment accusations and ordering Hannity to stop peddling wild conspiracy theories over the death of former Democratic operative Seth Rich — were rooted solely in Murdoch’s need to impress British regulatory officials that he was sufficiently ethical to run Sky.

It gets worse. We learn that Murdoch may have used his influence to pass Brexit because, as he allegedly told one interviewer, “When I go into Downing Street, they do what I say; when I go to Brussels, they take no notice.” The Sun, a Murdoch-owned tabloid, was instrumental in the Brexit victory and all the tumult that has resulted. Regulatory actions taken by the Trump administration all went Murdoch’s way, as Jane Mayer reported in her New Yorker piece. We learn, too, that Murdoch’s son Lachlan took the family’s Australian cable station in a Fox-like right-wing direction, and that its relentless anti-Muslim rants may have been a factor in the recent massacre of 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. Two high-profile Muslim employees, one in Australia and one in the U.S., quit — one of them in 2017, although he’s speaking out now.

“Planet Fox” is not perfect. There’s a minor error involving Murdoch’s ownership of the Boston Herald. I’d have liked to hear at least a theory as to why Murdoch has maintained The Wall Street Journal as one of our great newspapers. Mahler and Rutenberg also note without comment the rise of right-wing populism in Murdoch-free zones such as Hungary, Austria, and the Philippines. In fact, many observers believe Facebook, not Fox, is the force that’s driving much of the world toward intolerance and authoritarianism — yet the Zuckerborg receives not a mention. Still, the Times has produced a comprehensive and convincing account of the carnage wrought by Murdoch and his family.

Is there hope? Murdoch is 88, so it’s hardly ghoulish to observe that he will probably not live forever. Indeed, “Planet Fox” opens and closes with a description of how he nearly departed this vale of tears in early 2018. Unfortunately, it seems that Lachlan, the more insular and right-wing of his two sons, has gained ascendancy while James, more liberal and cosmopolitan, has been pushed out. As befits a patriarchal monarchy, Murdoch’s two daughters, Prudence and Elisabeth, don’t factor into any of this.

As the story ends, we see Rupert and Lachlan riding herd over a smaller company, shorn of its entertainment assets following the sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney, waging endless war on three continents. Nothing lasts forever, of course. But it appears that we still have a few chapters to slog through before the end of the Murdoch story at long last comes into view.

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From principled conservative to Bubba the Love Sponge: The devolution of Tucker Carlson

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2018 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tucker Carlson may have finally hit bottom. Then again, maybe not. If Fox News fails to act after Carlson was exposed over the weekend for making insanely misogynist comments on a low-rent radio show between 2006 and 2011, then he will probably continue on his merry way, indulging in sexism and racism on what might be the worst prime-time program on cable news.

A brief synopsis. During the period in question, Carlson made weekly on-air calls to a show hosted by Bubba the Love Sponge, whose name you may vaguely recall from Hulk Hogan’s successful lawsuit against Gawker Media. Mrs. Sponge, as we shall call Bubba’s ex-wife, was videotaped having sex with Hogan, and Gawker published it. That, in turn, led to the demise of Gawker at the hands of Hogan’s lawyer and his secret financier, the tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who had his own axe to grind against the company.

Anyway, Carlson’s appearances on Bubba’s show were sort of like his Fox News program, only cruder and much more disturbing. Madeline Peltz of Media Matters for America, a liberal media-watch organization, has gone through many hours of audio in which Carlson defended statutory rape, used the C-word, and, as Peltz put it, “called journalist Arianna Huffington a ‘pig,’ and labeled Britney Spears and Paris Hilton ‘the biggest white whores in America.’ He also said that women enjoy being told to ‘be quiet and kind of do what you’re told’ and that they are ‘extremely primitive.’” The story includes audio clips and extensive transcripts. Carlson doesn’t deny it. More was posted Monday night, with the new cache consisting of what Media Matters calls “white nationalist rhetoric” and “racist remarks.”

The revelations about Carlson were the worst news for Fox News in, oh, about a week. Last week brought us Jane Mayer’s New Yorker story detailing the multifarious ways in which Fox now functions as President Trump’s chief propaganda arm, as well as weekend host Jeanine Pirro’s assertion that U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s hijab is somehow a violation of the Constitution. (Fox condemned those remarks.)

Now, forgive me for taking a detour, because I want to talk about an earlier, better version of Tucker Carlson. To my mind, one of the stranger and more disheartening developments in conservative media in recent years has been Carlson’s devolution from a stylish writer of smart magazine pieces to a ranting racist and misogynist.

My first exposure to Carlson came in September 1995, when The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine founded by Bill Kristol and funded by Rupert Murdoch, made its debut. Back then I was the media columnist for The Boston Phoenix. I took a look at the Standard’s first issue and pronounced most of it to be a snooze. The exception was an amusing piece by Carlson, who contacted various celebrities about a petition they’d signed calling for a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal, then facing the death penalty after he was convicted of murdering a police officer. Carlson innocently asked his targets what they actually knew about the case, which turned out to be not much.

After that, Carlson was someone I checked in with from time to time. I admired a long profile he wrote for Tina Brown’s Talk magazine of then-presidential candidate George W. Bush, whom he depicted as cruelly mocking Karla Faye Tucker, a murderer and born-again Christian he’d sent to her death when he was governor of Texas. On one of my visits to Washington around the same time, Carlson took me to lunch at The Palm. He was utterly charming. The only disconcerting note was when he genially berated me for not keeping a gun at home in order to protect my family.

I should add that many people have had similar experiences with Carlson. Last fall Lyz Lenz wrote a long profile of Carlson for the Columbia Journalism Review in which she quoted a number of editors and others who worked with Carlson back in the day and who can’t believe how far he’s fallen — fallen being a term of art, of course, given that he’s never been more prominent or highly compensated than he is right now.

“What happened to Tucker Carlson?,” Lenz wrote. “People in media ask themselves this question with the same pearl-clutching, righteous tone they use when discussing their aunt in Connecticut who voted for Trump.”

Sadly, the answer to Lenz’s question is obvious enough. Late last year The Weekly Standard died — or, rather, was killed by its last owner, Philip Anschutz. In its final incarnation the Standard had established itself as an outlet for principled conservatism that was usually (though not always) harshly critical of Trump and Trumpism. Kristol, a leading voice of the #NeverTrump right, as well as several like-minded conservatives, have gone off to found projects such as The Bulwark (which preceded the Standard’s closing) and a yet-to-be-named venture announced by Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes. Anschutz is now lavishing attention and money on another property he owns, the pro-Trump Washington Examiner.

Meanwhile Carlson, whose intellectual traveling companions were once thinking conservatives like Kristol and John Podhoretz, is now mentioned in the same breath as Trump toadies such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. It’s a matter of prosperity over principle. Too bad one of the most gifted journalists of his generation turned out to be nothing but a cheap hustler.

Research assistance was provided by Northeastern University student Caroline Hanlon.

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