Path to a Diminishing Democracy: The Threat of Fox News

Laura O’Brian


It is by no means a novel endeavor to denounce conservative media outlets for their often sinister operating practices and wanton dissemination of agenda-driven, sensationalist propaganda, which they distribute rather brazenly under the guise of “factual news.” The rather less-than-ideal qualities of institutions such as Fox News Channel, the cable news channel owned by the Murdoch media leviathan, News Corporation, seem almost so obvious as to make writing about them largely redundant. Yet Fox News Channel has managed to eclipse other cable news networks in popularity for the better part of a decade. The picture cannot be so clear for the millions who made Fox the most viewed cable news network for the 39th consecutive business quarter this September (according to Nielsen data).


 The tactics of conservative media sources quite transparently echo the conventions of traditional propaganda efforts and inculcation campaigns. These include the promotion of paranoid and derogatory attitudes towards those who disagree with the network's designated set of acceptable views, the relentless partitioning of the country into warring segments: those who constitute “real Americans,” and those who are so-called “enemies of freedom” and “enemies of America.” The channels also engage in the incessant repetition of familiar, pre-packaged slogans designed to rouse patriotic sentiments and shallowly evoke the foundational principles that viewers believe themselves to uphold.


Fox News Channel is also host to one of the world's most impressive collections of token slogans and Orwellian misnomers, the flagship of this collection being their infamous trademark, “Fair and Balanced.” Not even Fox's hosts manage to defend their catchphrase with any kind of consistency; they market their product as fair and balanced, but simultaneously boast of their programming's partisan qualities, exalting themselves as “the counterweight,” to an otherwise relentlessly liberal media.

 But there are more such crystallized ironies peculiar to the Fox News Channel, including Bill O'Reilly's “No Spin Zone,” and “You Decide,” the channel's election coverage slogan. This latter obfuscation strongly embodies the essence of the problem. Fox News, and the mass media in general, want its viewers to see themselves as free agents, deciding for themselves what to think. Understanding the methods of Fox's news broadcasting is essential to understanding the recent, rapid rise of a neoconservative syndrome characterized by thinly veiled tendencies towards bigotry, ignorance, complacency, nationalistic fervor, and uncritical conformity with conservative orthodoxy.


 The role that the mass media plays in our democracy is defined by the vast scope of its size and concentration. A shrinking number of companies control the operations of nearly all of the media outlets that the public can readily access. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman outlined the destructive forces wrought by the so-called industrialization of the media in their seminal book Manufacturing Consent. According to their model, the profit-orientation of media companies serves to promote cross-ownership of media sources by single companies, encourage the merger of smaller companies into massive conglomerates, and determine the angle and scope of the broadcasts and reports according to the motivations of the wealthy business elite, who are increasingly placed at the helm of the major media companies. Individuals engaging in a national conversation and exchange of ideas will internalize the perceptions and perspectives to which they are exposed, and the diversity of views suggested to them will be highly limited by the concentration of media ownership. 


Increasingly, the directors and owners of media companies come from the big-business community, and possess a vested interest in confining the national conversation in order to serve their own needs. A telling report from Pew Research Center on the State of the News Media for 2011 found that “Seven of the top 25 newspapers in America are now owned by hedge funds, which had virtually no role a few years ago”  Outside business management, for example by  operators of hedge funds, often involves consideration of non-media industry investments Some companies owning major media outlets are involved in highly politicized industries such as arms-manufacturing, the primary example being General Electric.


 Additionally, the media business depends upon the security of the company's relationship with the government and other regular sources of information. Yet this model of the media business manages to maintain the semblance of providing a forum for free and open discussion. Moreover, the sheer size of these companies and the prohibitive cost of running a media outlet that is not corporately structured renders smaller media outlets attempting to provide a public voice incapable of competing on the same level as the larger conglomerates.

 The influence of these companies and the views of their executives on the national conversation is clear. Fox News Channel routinely issues companywide memos that instruct hosts and pundits on how to portray news stories. Recent emails leaked to the watchdog group, Media Matters for America, have exposed Bill Sammon, Fox News' Vice President and managing editor in Washington, issuing directives to the channel's employees to start referring to the “government-option” or “government-run option” in lieu of  the “public option” during the national healthcare debate, in order to stymie the proposal's rising popularity. In another email from December 2009, Sammon instructed pundits and anchors to “refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without immediately pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question,” despite the fact that inquiries by many major groups of scientists and members of the press  had all uniformly concluded that there was no evidence that the data on climate change and the major impact of human activities on this phenomenon should be called into question.


 In light of the business orientation of media companies, it is no surprise that Fox News Channel promotes ideological agendas. CEO Roger Ailes' extensive background as a political consultant for Republican campaigns and administrations suggests even broader political motivations for the channel's broadcasting. A New York Magazine article by Gabriel Sherman profiling Roger Ailes and the recent managerial machinations within the channel depicted Ailes as the de facto arbiter of Republican presidential campaigning. The article reveals that consultation with Fox News' CEO is a requisite for any candidate seeking the Republican nomination, according to sources quoted in the May 2011 article.


 The striking influence of major media's executives on the journalistic integrity of reported news has wide-ranging effects. The content influences the outcomes of congressional legislation and political campaigns. But it is also reasonable to presume that even the more liberal-oriented media companies likely engage in a limited, biased debate aimed at safeguarding the interests of their owners and maintaining friendly relations with their principal sources of information. It is sheer hypocrisy, then, for conservative media outlets to become enraged at what they perceive to be “liberal bias,” since they operate by the same business model as their rivals. The channel is a primary example of a company that engages in top-down control of agenda-driven content. The existence of bias is in general a direct result of the fact that the majority of available news content comes only from a small set of companies, managed and owned by a small set of individuals.


 While it may be granted that news companies exhibit bias, sometimes even a so-called “liberal” bias, the political agenda of Fox News Channel poses a more disturbing threat to the national public interest simply because it preys more readily on the basest human instincts. It appeals, in times of national turmoil and economic distress, to individuals' tendencies towards fear of minorities and members of communities that are perceived to be “alien.” Simultaneously, it encourages unquestioned nationalistic fervor, soliciting people to gather behind rallying cries that “America is the greatest country in the world.” The implicit notion underlying this practice is that criticism of America, its policies, and its institutions, is a kind of treason (or at least the conservative policies and institutions they construe as “American”). More importantly, the ideas promoted by the network are dangerous; enacted, they would have devastating impacts on income inequality, public health, safe access to natural resources, and the ability of Americans to coexist peacefully in their community and maintain a reasonable standard of living.


 Fox News Channel has managed to sequester and polarize its audience so effectively that, increasingly, these audiences receive less and less information from other sources. They turn toward the network to reaffirm the views nurtured and exploited by the media outlets to which they have previously turned.  According to a 2010 Pew Research poll, “Four-in-ten Republicans (40 percent) now say they regularly watch Fox News, up from 36 percent two years ago and just 18 percent a decade ago. Just 12 percent of Republicans regularly watch CNN, and just 6 percent regularly watch MSNBC,” whereas “as recently as 2002, Republicans were as likely to watch CNN (28 percent) as Fox News (25 percent).”


Nationalism, bigotry, and paranoia with respect to perceived “enemies” are the hallmark of public outreach efforts employed by tyrannical regimes throughout history.  Such human tendencies have always existed,  but galvanizing the public to implicitly espouse these kinds of beliefs places a democratic society in jeopardy.

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