Many of the political disagreements I’ve had with staunch progressive friends end with their telling me I “shouldn’t watch so much Fox News.” Whatever the political topic, I can usually expect this precise dismissal. Apparently, no other explanation than, “You are wrong because… Fox News” is necessary. My other conservative friends and colleagues report similar interactions and the identical “you shouldn’t watch so much Fox News” retorts. The implication is that Fox News viewers are brainwashed by an evil, cult-like media machine.
I don’t claim to be a genius, but I’m pretty smart and reflective. After these exchanges, I can’t help wondering how these left-of-center friends can be so convinced that their abilities to tell the difference between accurate news coverage and propaganda are superior than conservatives’ skills to detect bias. Even though we have comparable levels of education, why do they consider themselves so much smarter that the rest of us? Are they really less susceptible to brainwashing than I, with my advanced degree, post-graduate training, and twenty-two years of college teaching experience in English, history, and political science? What gives them more insight than my fellow Fox News-watching friends, two of whom are English professors, two of whom are history professors, three of whom are math professors, one of whom is a neo-natal nurse, and one of whom is a rocket scientist? (I confess I love throwing the rocket scientist friend cred around.) How did these progressives somehow manage to avoid brainwashing while the rest of us dolts succumbed to it?
Turns out that progressives had a watchdog organization to help them see the light. Media Matters for America famously declared a “war” on Fox News in 2010, but the right-leaning network had been in MM’s sights going back to the early 2000s. Media Matters was founded by David Brock, a former Republican journalist who changed party affiliation to become a Democrat. Brock supposedly founded Media Matters to counteract the conservative Media Research Center. One of the stated objectives of Media Matters is to correct what the organization claims are outright lies and distortions of conservative media. Media Matters employs an army of journalists and fact-checkers to scrutinize right-leaning reportage and commentary. By 2013, however, Media Matters declared that the “War on Fox” was over and that they had sufficiently discredited conservative media’s reputation. Consequently, they declared victory and moved to other important priorities. Many Democratic politicians and operatives like John Podesta and Hillary Clinton have been involved with Media Matters. While the stated objective of Media Matters is to expose bias, the organization itself certainly has partisan leanings. Still, Media Matters takes pride in its scrutiny of Fox News. As reported in The Huffington Post in 2013, Bradley Beychock, one of MM’s CEOs, stated, “Media Matters watches Fox, so you don’t have to.”
“We watch Fox so you don’t have to.” Hmm. If any organization is doing brainwashing, wouldn’t it be one that tells people not even to listen to all the inappropriate things those lying right wingers say? Basically, Media Matters’ mantra translates to a message all its own: “Don’t worry your pretty little heads. Just let us interpret the bias and misinformation on your behalf.” This is not to suggest that Media Matters has never uncovered legitimate bias and misinformation in conservative media. But perhaps its motto is also why many of us conservatives think our “don’t watch so much Fox News” friends sometimes sound a little vacuous and robotic. They don’t actually watch Fox News. Media Matters got the word out that it’s bad, so they accept the narrative. The Fox. News. Is. Evil. mantra exudes a cult-like vibe all its own.
Although Media Matters has been instrumental in creating a narrative that Fox News viewers and conservative talk radio listeners are stupid and brainwashed, other progressives have offered similar indictments of conservative media. Humorously, they, too, sometimes reveal a cultish, “I’ve sold my soul for the greater political good” mentality.
In 2015, Jen Senko produced a documentary called How Fox News Made My Dad Crazy, which in turn spawned a cottage industry of articles and reporting patterned on her premise: An older relative, once an enlightened, tolerant Democrat sensitive to matters of racial and gender equality, suddenly transforms into a grumpy old bigot after tuning in regularly to right-wing media. The documentary features Senko’s father—who seems to be struggling with dementia or another age-related mental issue—in an extremely negative light. However, as conservative critiques of the film suggest, Senko may be the one with the problem. Writing in The Federalist, Mark Hemingway observes, “Senko has quite deliberately made a film that invites the public to pass judgment on her own aging father. She thinks her father’s obsessed with politics, but all he did was rant and rave to people he thought loved him enough to be sympathetic. It’s his own daughter who’s fine with humiliating him in the national press so long as it ‘changes conversations’ in a way that helps Sanders get elected and stick it to the Rethuglicans.”
Perhaps Senko’s father turned into a racist after watching Fox News. Perhaps he wasn’t the enlightened Democrat she claims he was. Even so, her father’s situation does not explain why educated, middle-aged conservatives like my friends and me prefer conservative media.
Other progressive initiatives suggest that it’s not conservatives who have a problem with independent thinking. Every year at Thanksgiving, we’re treated to the “How to Talk to Your Bigoted, Conservative Uncle Ernie”-type columns, which provide the younger, hipper, and more enlightened among us canned talking points to refute old Ern’s positions on immigration, climate change, LGBT rights, and other causes. Again, like Media Matters, the individuals who pen these progressive self-help essays appear to believe it’s not possible to let people think for themselves and navigate the Thanksgiving dinner table without attempts at consciousness raising.
My intent here is not to argue that right-wing media outlets are great. It is to argue that blanket indictments of conservative media ignore the reality that the mainstream press has caricatured conservatives for decades. Conservatives did not believe they were being fairly represented in the mainstream press, so they naturally flocked to Fox News and other outlets. In a 2015 Salon interview, Humanities professor and social critic Camille Paglia asserted:
“I don’t demonize Fox News. At what point will liberals wake up to realize the stranglehold that they had on the media for so long? They controlled the major newspapers and weekly newsmagazines and T.V. networks…Historically, talk radio arose via Rush Limbaugh in the early 1990s precisely because of this stranglehold by liberal discourse. For heaven’s sake, I was a Democrat who had just voted for Jesse Jackson in the 1988 primary, but I had to fight like mad in the early 1990s to get my views heard. The resistance of liberals in the media to new ideas was enormous. Liberals think of themselves as very open-minded, but that’s simply not true! Liberalism has sadly become a knee-jerk ideology, with people barricaded in their comfortable little cells. They think that their views are the only rational ones, and everyone else is not only evil but financed by the Koch brothers. It’s so simplistic!”
Unfortunately, those who go out of their way to indict right-wing media also tend to ignore the problems with the left-wing media. Aside from the caricaturing of conservatives, the crusader mentality of leftist journalists often seems over-the-top and preachy. Who can forget the embarrassing spectacle of MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry wearing tampon earrings to protest the Texas legislature’s banning of tampons in the state house during a debate over an abortion bill? Suggesting that misogyny was at work, Harris-Perry failed to explain that the reasoning behind the ban was that some irate female activists in the rotunda were planning to throw feminine hygiene products (both unused and used) at lawmakers as they went in to vote. Whatever one’s position on abortion generally or the incident particularly, Harris-Perry diverted attention from the actual debate and to her own behavior.
Similarly, Rachel Maddow has been on a crusade against Donald Trump for some time, embarrassing herself when she promised an exposé on Trump’s taxes that is now being compared to Geraldo Rivera’s famed nothingburger story about Al Capone’s vault. The amateurism of the mainstream press during the last election cycle demonstrates that reform of both traditional and cable news outlets is long overdue.
More serious instances of media malpractice have led conservatives to turn away from certain media outlets. They remember Dan Rather’s eagerness to unseat President George W. Bush with a story relying on forged documents. Quite simply, conservatives just don’t believe mainstream media outlets will fairly articulate conservative positions on issues. They believe that liberal journalists may even deliberately try to make them look bad. Right now, former news anchor Katie Couric is embroiled in a 13-million-dollar lawsuit filed by the Virginia Citizens Defense League that alleges she deliberately edited an interview to make members of VCDL look as though they had sat cluelessly and not answered one of her gun rights questions. Couric, they contend, was stacking the deck to support her own anti-gun advocacy. Couric’s team of lawyers has filed to dismiss the suit, but she also made the following public statement: “My question to the VCDL regarding the ability of convicted felons and those on the terror watch list to legally obtain a gun, was followed by an extended pause, making the participants appear to be speechless…. I regret that those eight seconds were misleading and that I did not raise my initial concerns more vigorously.”
This is not to say that right-wing media do not deserve scrutiny, criticism, and fact-checking. Rush Limbaugh has gotten himself into trouble over the years for controversial statements (Sandra Fluke) and has been compelled to make apologies. Still, he offers fascinating, intuitive insights on politics, and I enjoy his show when I can tune in. I would even concede that perhaps it is time for Bill O’Reilly to go. Recent news stories about his behavior toward female co-workers is disturbing. My husband and I have believed for some time that his program is becoming too predictable and stale. Retirement might be a viable option. As the examples above demonstrate, however, these sorts of problems are not unique to right-wing media.
Likewise, I was not unhappy when Megyn Kelly left Fox for NBC even though I initially enjoyed her Kelly File show. However, I did not appreciate the way the first Republican primary debate played out when she and Bret Baier deliberately created drama with their line of questioning. Baier began the broadcast by asking whether the Republican candidates would pledge not to run on a third-party ticket if they did not get the Republican nomination. This question was not intended to elicit relevant answers, just start a fight among the candidates. In terms of important political topics, the issue Baier began the debate with was extremely trivial.
Kelly’s first question to Trump related to his supposed mean, sexist statements about women. A case can be made that this question might have been appropriate for Trump in an individual interview, but they were out of bounds with so many candidates vying for the nomination. Obviously, Baier and Kelly were deliberately playing for ratings and sensationalism. When the journalists become the story, they have undermined the public’s trust.
Individual mistakes like these surely deserve to be critiqued. However, Fox News is like every other media outlet—not completely bad, and not completely good. At the very least, Fox and talk radio have given voice to people who think their views have been misrepresented and ignored.
I will continue to watch Fox News, listen to conservative talk radio, and read Breitbart and Drudge Report, despite censorious suggestions to do otherwise. I will also read left-leaning publications like Salon, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, and others. I would encourage others to do the same before they tell the rest of us to “stop watching so much Fox News.” This admonition is a lazy, predictable argument that reveals more about the person making it than the people consuming conservative news and commentary.