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 The Stanford study, a so-called preprint that had not yet been peer-reviewed, turned out to be flawed.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.
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.
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.
A 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.
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.
Want to fight climate change? Tell your elderly relatives to turn off Fox News.
A 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 watchFox 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.”
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.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The stench of corruption emanating from the White House is so noxious that it can be hard to focus on outrages that truly matter. This matters: As long rumored, but not confirmed until this week, President Trump personally intervened in the merger of media giants AT&T and Time Warner in order to punish CNN, high on the list of “fake news” outlets with which he is perpetually enraged.
The revelation is contained within Jane Mayer’s 11,500-word examination of Fox News, which appears in the current issue of The New Yorker. As Mayer describes it (and as even the most casual viewer will attest), over the past few years Fox has metamorphosed from a right-wing news operation with a shaky grasp of the truth into something much more dangerous: a propaganda outlet for Trump that serves up steaming piles of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories to its angry, fearful audience.
Not coincidentally, Fox News’ founder and guiding light, the international media magnate Rupert Murdoch, has emerged as one of Trump’s closest confidants. And Murdoch did not want to see two of his rivals merge, especially given that he had tried and failed to buy Time Warner himself just a few years earlier. Luckily for him, his business interests dovetailed with Trump’s hatred of CNN, one of Time Warner’s crown jewels.
As Mayer describes it, in the summer of 2017 Trump told his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, that the Justice Department should fight the merger. Citing “a well-informed source,” Mayer reports that Trump demanded action during a meeting with Cohn and his then-new chief of staff, John Kelly. “I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened!” she quotes Trump as saying. “I’ve mentioned it 50 times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!” As the meeting was coming to a close, Mayer writes, Cohn told Kelly, “Don’t you f—ing dare call the Justice Department. We are not going to do business that way.”
But the Justice Department did indeed fight the merger, all the while denying any political motivations. Trump’s opposition to the merger, though, has long been thought to be driven by his hatred for CNN. Cohn himself believed it, according to Mayer. And as I argued a year and a half ago, blocking the merger could have resulted in Time Warner’s falling into Murdoch’s hands, thus fulfilling Rupe’s ambitions and giving him an opportunity to Foxify CNN. (Not that CNN isn’t in serious need of fixing, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Adding to suspicions that Trump was acting on his wish for retribution rather than by genuine concerns about the social consequences of such massive mergers was that there really didn’t seem to be much of a legal case against it. The AT&T-Time Warner deal is something we all ought to be wary of. But under current theories of antitrust law, there was little reason to block it. In fact, the Justice Department’s efforts to stop it were shot down by the courts at every step along the way, and it recently got the final go-ahead.
As Jordan Crook and Danny Crichton explain at TechCrunch, the two companies are complementary businesses rather than competitors. Time Warner is mainly a content company; AT&T is a distributor. Their combination is regarded by many economists as a “vertical merger” that could actually benefit consumers, Crook and Crichton write, by giving them “access to a more comprehensive set of services, at a lower price, while still generating profits.” Besides, in a world in which the entire media landscape is now dominated by Google and Facebook, it may be that the only way to provide competition is by supercharging other media companies.
Now I’ll grant you that in my perfect media world, I would not only have ruled against the merger of AT&T and Time Warner but I’d break up Google and Facebook as well. But it’s the world of the corporate titans, and we’re just living in it. Given that, there is every reason to oppose governmental intervention motivated by presidential pique rather than by genuine regulatory concerns.
Mayer’s report appears destined to become part of the bill of particulars that the Democratic House is assembling as it investigates Trump’s corruption and possible crimes. U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said that he has “long feared Trump would use the instruments of state power to carry out his vendetta against the press he has attacked as the ‘enemy of the people.’”
Meanwhile, another media company seeking favors from the White House is playing it safe. According to David Fahrenthold and Jonathan O’Connell of The Washington Post, the cell-phone company T-Mobile, which is seeking to merge with its rival Sprint, has spent $195,000 at Trump’s Washington hotel since announcing the proposed deal nearly a year ago — far in excess of what the company had ever spent there previously.
Rachel Maddow was excited. The host of cable news’ top-rated show could barely contain her glee Wednesday night over the news that President Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had proven to be such a cooperative witness that special counsel Robert Mueller was recommending no jail time.
“Another few shoes are going to drop soon,” she told her viewers. She also pondered the mystery of why Trump never says anything critical about Flynn. “Not a peep about Mike Flynn since Flynn plead guilty and became a cooperator more than a year ago,” she said, adding, “There must be something else going on here. And, “The only other person he treats like this is freaking Putin!”
It was a different story on cable news’ second-highest-rated program. Sean Hannity was in full dudgeon over Mueller’s decision to go after Flynn for what Hannity called minor “process” crimes. Hannity instructed his viewers that Mueller had persecuted “a decorated military hero” for the sole purpose of building a phony case to drive Trump out of office.
“This is how desperate and how pathetic Robert Mueller is,” Hannity said, running through the reasons why Flynn might have decided to cooperate: finances ruined, his son facing possible jail time. “Is this,” Hannity asked, “what justice in America is supposed to look like to you?”
Welcome to the 2018 edition of the National Conversation. With the Mueller investigation on the verge of a possible denouement, I thought I’d spend Wednesday night watching “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “Hannity.” Hyper-polarization may be tearing us apart, but at the cable news outlets, it’s good for business. According to Adweek’s TVNewser, Maddow’s program on MSNBC this past Tuesday drew nearly 3.5 million viewers, more than anyone else on cable news in prime time (8 to 11 p.m.). Hannity, on Fox News, gathered just under 2.9 million.
And surely it’s no accident that that MSNBC, which leans left, and Fox, which has embraced the hard right, are dominating prime time while CNN brings up the rear. Though CNN, like MSNBC, is harshly critical of Trump and regularly draws the White House’s ire, the network has attempted to maintain at least some of its former image as a nonpartisan purveyor of actual news. MSNBC and Fox, bound by no such scruples, are free to toss bleeding chunks of raw meat to their aging viewers.
It should be noted that all three cable outlets employ actual journalists who do good work. It’s just that they are rarely seen during prime time, especially on MSNBC and Fox. Instead, the three networks offer a full line-up of talk shows, nine hours a night. And the queen and king of those talk shows are Maddow and Hannity, whose 9 p.m. programs have become appointment viewing for political partisans of the left and right.
Lest I be accused of false equivalence, let me make it clear that Maddow, for all her opinionating and speculating, helms a show that is grounded in facts. She’s smart, and you often learn something. Over at Fox, though, the Trump presidency has pushed Hannity and other hosts into an alternative universe of dark conspiracy-mongering in which the Mueller investigation is nothing but a corrupt attempt by the “deep state” to destroy a great president because of his willingness to stand up to the establishment.
Thus did Wednesday’s edition feature a conversation between Hannity and John Solomon, an investigative columnist with The Hill, who this week reported on an “email chain”purportedly showing that former FBI director James Comey and other officials had obtained a FISA warrant under false pretenses so that they could surveil Trump associate Carter Page. Inconveniently, Solomon admitted to Hannity that he hadn’t actually seen the emails, although they have been “described” to him. All right, then.
Hannity was apoplectic, calling Solomon’s story proof of a “conscious fraud upon the court” and saying it showed that Comey was trying to tilt the election toward Hillary Clinton — never mind Comey’s late hit on Clinton, when he reopened the investigation into her emails and found nothing, a move that may well have cost her the election.
The rest of Hannity’s hour was taken up with a visit from Newt Gingrich, who called the Mueller investigation “an anti-constitutional effort by the organized left” and who congratulated Fox News for being the only media outlet willing to tell the truth; an immigration “debate” with fellow Fox host Geraldo Rivera (Hannity and Rivera both support Trump’s wall, but Rivera, unlike Hannity, would do something for the Dreamers); and, believe it or not, an update on the war on Christmas, perhaps Fox News’ most enduring creation.
Maddow’s program was considerably less toxic than Hannity’s but not necessarily any more nutritious. Other than Flynn, her main interest was the fate of Maria Butina, an accused Russian operative who, we learned, stood up at a Trump event in 2015 and apparently became the first person ever to ask the then-candidate whether he would lift sanctions against Russia. (Trump responded that he’d strongly consider it.) Butina, Maddow observed, may be the link uniting Russian money, the Trump campaign, and the National Rifle Association.
Maddow was also visited briefly by the ubiquitous Democratic congressman Adam Schiff of California, who will soon become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Alex Isenstadt of Politico, who broke the news earlier this week that a foreign government had hacked the email accounts of several top Republican campaign officials.
Significantly, neither Maddow nor Hannity spent much time on the funeral of George H.W. Bush, which has brought a sense of unity to much of the country even if praise for the one-term president has been somewhat overwrought. Maddow, at least, provided a respectful overview of the day’s events. Hannity’s main interest was to bring on New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin and former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer so they could whine that Democratic praise for the late president was just another way of trashing Trump.
Cable news has long been a wasted opportunity. So much airtime. So little news. Imagine how it might be different. How about at least one hour of prime time combining news and analysis without any partisan overlay? I’m thinking of something like Anderson Cooper’s CNN program, only with more actual journalism. Or the “PBS NewsHour” with a zippier pace and better production values.
But no. Instead we have ideological talk-show hosts exploiting the passions of their audience for ratings and profits. It’s a sorry state of affairs — but one that perfectly reflects our deep and seemingly unbridgeable divisions.
Monday was a big day for Sean Hannity, the conspiracy-minded Fox News Channel host. After all, it’s not every day that the president of the United States — even one you’re as close to as Hannity is to Donald Trump — schedules the unveiling of his choice for the Supreme Court in order to give you a ratings boost. According to Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair, some White House staff members believed Trump did exactly that. Sherman tweeted that Trump may have chosen 9 p.m. at the behest of his sleazy new communications director, Bill Shine, the former head of Fox News.
Despite this propitious opportunity, Hannity didn’t really deliver the goods, prattling on for an hour with his usual talking points and his usual guests. He didn’t quite come off as bored, but his anger and his enthusiasm seemed rote. Indeed, there was a play-acting quality to the proceedings in general. Both Republicans and Democrats know that the president’s choice, Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh, is pretty much a lock to win confirmation.
Still, three themes emerged that I suspect we will hear over and over during the next few months.
The first is that we are a “constitutional republic.” President Trump made that point in his opening remarks, and Hannity repeated it several times. That might seem like a statement of the obvious. So why keep bringing it up? I suspect it’s because we are in the midst of a prolonged period of minority rule. A number of articles have been published recently documenting growing restiveness among the powerless majority.
Consider: Trump is president because for the first time in more than a century the winning candidate captured the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by a wide margin. (Remember, the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore ended in a virtual tie.) That’s not all. By 54 percent to 42 percent, voters favored Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate in 2016. And the Republicans’ victory in House races paid off in numbers disproportionate to their razor-thin margin of 49 percent to 48 percent.
No, that’s not the way we count votes in Senate and House elections. But it does show that Democrats have been shut out of power even though voters prefer them. Mitch McConnell’s deeply corrupt refusal to allow a vote on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, only served to underscore this anti-majoritarian trend. So expect to see a lot of talk in the weeks to come from Hannity and other Trump supporters that the United States isn’t really a democracy, and why that’s a Good Thing.
The second talking point I noticed is that the right wants to cast Democrats as opponents of fair play by declaring their opposition to Kavanaugh before giving him a chance to make his case. For instance, conservatives are having some fun with a statement from the Women’s March, clearly written before the Kavanaugh announcement, saying that if “XX” is confirmed it will be “a death sentence for thousands of women.”
“They would object to anyone this president nominated,” Fox News’ Shannon Bream told Hannity. “They’re going to come after him because that’s what they do,” added Jay Sekulow, a lawyer who’s a veteran of right-wing causes as well as a member of Trump’s legal team. Hannity himself warned his viewers that “the smearing, the besmirching, the fear-mongering … this all-out effort to Bork Judge Kavanaugh” has already begun. Hannity added: “They are going to lie to you. That’s what they do. You have to rely on your heart and mind and do your own research.”
Here’s the problem with the notion that the instant opposition to Kavanaugh is somehow unfair: During the campaign, Trump put out a list of 11 judges from which he said he would choose. The list was later expanded to 25. Hannity and his guests referred to the list several times Monday night as an example of how “transparent” Trump has been. Well, you can’t have it both ways. Democrats and liberals have known for many months that Kavanaugh could be picked. It would have been a surprise if they weren’t prepared with an instant reaction to every XX on the list.
The third talking point may prove to be the most substantive, especially if there’s any chance of persuading a few Republicans opposed to runaway executive power to vote against Kavanaugh. (Ha ha! I can’t believe I just typed that.) Hannity made several uneasy references to Kavanaugh’s arguing in a 2009 law review article that a president should not be subject to criminal or civil proceedings while in office, and he noted that this was a reversal of Kavanaugh’s earlier position.
In fact, Kavanaugh did a complete flip-flop. Back when he was working on Kenneth Starr’s inquisition into the great crime of whether Bill Clinton had lied about oral sex, Kavanaugh believed that the president should not get a “break,” as he put it. Now, though, Kavanaugh thinks the president should be held harmless until after he leaves office.
“Looking back to the late 1990s, for example, the nation certainly would have been better off if President Clinton could have focused on Osama bin Laden without being distracted by the Paula Jones sexual harassment case and its criminal investigation offshoots,” Kavanaugh wrote in the Minnesota Law Review. “To be sure, one can correctly say that President Clinton brought that ordeal on himself, by his answers during his deposition in the [Paula] Jones case if nothing else.”
Now, of course, we have another president facing legal jeopardy on a variety of criminal and civil fronts, from possible collusion with the Russian government to the alleged use of his charitable foundation for personal gain. It’s not difficult to understand why Hannity and his guests on Monday stepped carefully around Kavanaugh’s change of heart, even if they are secretly delighted.
Democrats, on the other hand, wasted no time in picking up on that point. On MSNBC, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said that “Donald Trump got the trifecta” — a nominee who would likely vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, kill off the Affordable Care Act once and for all, and, if necessary, help Trump “if he gets into serious legal trouble.”
That one of Bill Clinton’s persecutors may emerge as a defender of Trump’s possible legal offenses is in some cosmic sense an apotheosis of hypocrisy, even if on a personal level Kavanaugh’s reversal was sincere. I don’t expect Hannity and his crew to defend that hypocrisy effectively. But I have no doubt that they’ll defend it loudly, repetitively, and disingenuously, which in the age of Trump is all that seems to matter.