Two Democratic members of Congress are asking giant cable providers like Verizon and Comcast some uncomfortable questions about their business dealings with three right-wing purveyors of toxic misinformation and disinformation — Fox News, Newsmax and OANN.
Among other things, according to Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney want to know what “moral and ethical principles” are involved in carrying the channels and whether they intend to keep carrying them after their current contracts expire. This is not a good road to take. As Wemple writes:
The insertion of Congress into the contractual relationships of video providers with particular news/propaganda outlets, however, is frightening. Asking questions is a protected activity, of course — one that lawmakers use all the time. Yet these questions feel a lot like coercion by government officials, an incursion into the cultural promise of the First Amendment. Eshoo and McNerney’s letter hints that, unless the carriers proactively justify keeping OAN, Newsmax, Fox News and the like, the signatories would like to see them de-platformed right away.
The very real problem is that Fox News and its smaller competitors are unique in the extent to which they spout falsehoods and outright lies about everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to the outcome of the 2020 election. But what can we do about it without posing a threat to the First Amendment?
Liberal activists have pressured advertisers from time to time, which is well within their own free-speech rights. But Fox, in particular, is all but immune from such pressure because most of its money comes from cable carriage fees. As Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of the liberal media-watch organization Media Matters for America, recently told the public radio program “On the Media”:
They can have zero commercials and still have a 90% profit margin because they are the second most expensive channel on everybody’s cable box, and Fox is in the process right now of renegotiating 40 to 50% of all of their contracts.
A far more promising avenue is one suggested by the media-reform organization Free Press. Contained within its daily missives demanding that Congress take action against Fox, Newsmax and OANN for spewing “hate and disinformation into homes and businesses across the country” is a proposed solution that we all ought to support: mandating à la carte cable so that consumers would only have to pay for the channels they want. (Bye bye, ESPN!)
The problem with these right-wing purveyors of lies isn’t that they exist. It’s that, unless we’re willing to cut the cable cord, we’re forced to pay for them whether we watch them or not, whether we’re appalled by them or not. It’s time to bring that to an end.
So yes, there’s a way to do something about cable hate without raising constitutional issues. Reps. Eshoo and McNerney should take note.
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.
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.
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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