On Jan. 6, a mob, having been fed lies about a “stolen” presidential election, waged an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Provoked by messages of grievance and anger over the years and directed toward institutions of government (the so-called “deep state”) and mainstream news (the so-called “fake news”), the mob embraced the false narrative of demagogues, including the then-president of the United States.
The war over truth has been going on for a long time. A pastor once said, “It’s all about the voices we choose to listen to.” Filmmaker Ken Burns recently stated that the United States is currently in the grip of three viruses: COVID-19, white supremacy and misinformation.
In November 1969, Vice President Spiro Agnew went to Des Moines, Iowa, and delivered one of his first speeches attacking the news media.
Agnew accused broadcast news of being controlled by liberal elites who did not represent the views of America. His speech had been authored by Pat Buchanan, one of President Richard Nixon’s speech writers. As the Des Moines Register recounted 50 years later, Buchanan said the strategy was to “terrify the networks” and to “discredit their reporting in the minds of millions.”
Repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 during the Reagan administration laid the groundwork for the current media landscape. The Fairness Doctrine required licensed radio and television broadcasters to present contrasting viewpoints on controversial issues of public importance.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Rush Limbaugh was the first to declare himself “liberated from the East Germany of liberal media domination.” Limbaugh experienced a meteoric rise after his debut on the radio station WABC in New York City in 1988 between the Democratic and Republican conventions. Limbaugh has demonized his liberal opposition with labels such as “environmental wackos,” “feminazis” and “Communist News Network,” thus enhancing his popularity with conservatives.
In 1996, Rupert Murdoch created Fox News to appeal to a conservative audience, and hired Roger Ailes as CEO. Ailes had served as Nixon’s executive producer for television during Nixon’s 1968 run for the presidency. Ailes also served as a campaign consultant for President Ronald Reagan and then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush.
It is because of Ailes’ influence that Fox News personalities such as Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham host prime-time shows designed to appeal to conservative viewers by bashing liberals and demonizing individuals, groups of people, and members of the media, whom they associate with the liberal elite.
Fox News commentators deliver commentary and opinion. Facts are another matter. When former Playboy model Karen McDougal sued Fox News over claims made by Tucker Carlson that she had committed extortion, Fox News lawyers argued that “Mr. Carlson cannot be understood as having stated facts, but instead he was delivering an opinion using hyperbole for effect.” The court found that his statements were political commentary and not reasonably understood as factual.
Unfortunately, such hyperbole has destructive consequences. In recent years, Fox News personalities have demonized political opponents, promoted conspiracy theories and embraced the term “deep state” to create a culture of grievance and distrust toward government institutions, Democratic politicians, and career civil servants. The consequences have included credible death threats to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, government whistleblowers, and even Dr. Anthony Fauci and his family.
Fox News provided a platform for Donald Trump and Republicans to claim voter fraud and a narrative of a stolen election during the election of 2020.
A Jan. 28 letter to the editor in LNP | Lancaster Online revealed the effect of the message of conservative media: “Those of us who watch Fox News are aware that potentially unlawful or constitutional acts ... contributed in some fashion to Biden’s victory.”
Except that unlawful and unconstitutional acts did not contribute to President Joe Biden’s victory. Frequent and passionate repetition of falsehoods does not transform lies into truth, even when aired by your favorite television network. Facts, the rule of law, and the Constitution prevailed. The courts found no evidence of widespread fraud. Biden won the election.
Nevertheless, Fox News provided platforms for unsupported assertions of a stolen election and oxygen to the fire of insurrection.
Republican members of Congress were emboldened by the stolen election narrative. Many were willing to throw out the votes of millions of voters to overturn the election.
Hannity turned his wrath on those who dared to criticize U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley for objecting to the certified Electoral College votes of Pennsylvania and Arizona. (Hawley, of course, also was photographed during the afternoon of Jan. 6 raising his fist in solidarity with those in the pro-Trump crowd outside the Capitol.)
The disinformation continued after the insurrection. After the storming of the Capitol, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida laid responsibility exactly where it did not belong: antifa. Fox News personalities have promoted false assertions about antifa and other liberal extremist groups.
Former President Barack Obama was correct when he asserted: “The denial of facts runs counter to democracy.”
Personal attacks, false equivalencies (whataboutisms) and straw-man arguments are too common. These strategies may attract viewers through appeals to emotion, but they are antithetical to the standards of traditional journalism. They mislead, enable false narratives, and increase polarization. They are destructive to our democracy.
Traditional or mainstream news, adhering to traditional journalistic standards, ensures increased accountability, more accurate fact-finding, and a better-informed public.
In the absence of the Fairness Doctrine, critical thinking is essential. So-called “news” that merely confirms our biases and inflames our emotions is poisonous. It must be acknowledged that partisan reporting is not the exclusive domain of conservatives, but conservative media, including Fox News, have distorted the truth on a larger scale with greater detriment to our civic discourse.
In a democracy in which free speech is a right and misinformation harms our democracy, it is extremely important that we choose wisely the voices to which we listen.
Gregory Hand, a Manheim Township resident, is a retired U.S. Army civilian attorney (1989 to 2017). He served as an Army judge advocate in Germany and as a local prosecutor in Dubuque, Iowa, from 1980 to 1989.