Creating a Fox News for the left

This article is one of three being co-published by The Nation and CJR as part of a special issue of The Nation on “Media in the Trump Era,” available online in full on March 2.

Donald Trump would not be president today were it not for the help of Fox and Friends. Their frenzied cheerleading for the birther candidate and their relentless bashing of Hillary Clinton wasn’t the only reason for last November’s outcome, but it was an indispensable one. Clinton started the 2016 race burdened with some of the highest unfavorability ratings of any candidate in modern history: 43 percent of the electorate told pollsters they disliked her. As a result, Clinton essentially had to run the table with the remaining 57 percent—a daunting task.

Nothing, including her own sometimes questionable actions, did more to boost her negatives than the right-wing media, which has been attacking her since she appeared on the scene as the wife of candidate Bill Clinton in 1992.

Nor were Hillary’s presidential prospects the only casualty. The United States is the only advanced country in which the denial of climate science is taken seriously in governing circles. ExxonMobil and the other fossil-fuel companies that spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars promoting this denial are the number-one culprits, but Fox and Friends rank a close second: It was their ceaseless repetition of such corporate disinformation that embedded climate denial in right-wing ideology and made it a litmus test for Republican politicians.

When I say “Fox and Friends” here, I’m not talking about the Fox News morning show of the same name. Rather, it’s my nickname for the larger right-wing media infrastructure of which Fox is the most visible and influential member. This infrastructure of cable-TV outlets, talk-radio stations, websites, newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses has exerted enormous influence on America’s public discourse and political life for nearly 30 years, ever since it began taking shape with the nationwide rollout of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show in 1988. This right-wing infrastructure dwarfs its left-of-center counterpart. Is anyone surprised, then, that right-wing views enjoy so much more visibility and influence in today’s United States?

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Collectively, the news media wield perhaps the greatest power there is in politics: the power to define reality. The journalistic choices of news organizations send a message, consciously or not, about what is—and isn’t—important at any given moment and who should—and shouldn’t—be listened to. Are the Standing Rock pipeline protests being covered by CBS, or ignored? Who gets quoted in The New York Times, and how prominently? Which authors are invited on NPR programs, and which are shunned?

 

The right-wing media’s unabashed boosting of Trump and savaging of Clinton, along with its slanted coverage of issues from Obamacare to terrorism, had a decisive impact on what millions of Americans believed and how they voted.

 

Such decisions shape the ideological air we breathe and the political actions we take: whether we vote for candidate X or candidate Y (or vote at all), whether we take to the streets in protest or hope the police bust heads. The media’s power over how people think, feel, and act is ubiquitous, but it is exercised in such a routine manner that many do not recognize it as power. Like fish in water, we take it for granted.

Fox and Friends were veritable kingmakers in 2016. Fox itself was the loudest media voice during the presidential campaign: 19 percent of all voters named it as their main source of campaign news, according to a Pew Research Survey—ahead of CNN, the other TV networks, and even social-media platforms like Facebook. In the Republican primaries and general election alike, the right-wing media’s unabashed boosting of Trump and savaging of Clinton, along with its slanted coverage of issues from Obamacare to terrorism, had a decisive impact on what millions of Americans believed and how they voted.

It is past time to build a countervailing independent-media infrastructure—not to mimic Fox and Friends’ delivery of propaganda disguised as news or to slavishly carry water for any political party or cause, but rather to bring professional, truth-telling journalism to large numbers of Americans, many of whom trust neither Fox and Friends nor the mainstream media to tell the truth. What an independent-media infrastructure would look like—what outlets it includes, how they’ll relate to one another, which delivery systems will be utilized—is a matter for discussion.

This is an uncertain moment for American journalism, and not simply because a bombastic new president has declared himself at “war” with the media. The economics of journalism are under stress like never before, as the rise of digital platforms has fractured mass audiences, slashed revenues, and given many the dangerous impression that no one needs to pay for journalism.

But the independent media could well attract much larger audiences if smart strategies are adopted. Bernie Sanders often pointed out during his presidential campaign that poll after poll attests to the fact that most Americans agree with progressives on most issues, from taxing the wealthy and raising the minimum wage to protecting the environment and defending immigrant rights. The challenge is to connect with that audience, which requires recognizing the fundamental role that the media play in shaping our politics and then investing resources accordingly.

 

Bill Moyers, the legendary public broadcaster and former special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson, is one of many progressives who have sought to crack this problem. When Rupert Murdoch created the Fox network in 1996 and named Roger Ailes, the former Republican image-maker, to run its news division, Moyers saw what was coming. He warned a small group of very wealthy progressive philanthropists that, with Murdoch’s fortune and Ailes’s talent behind it, Fox could transform the US media and political landscape by distributing well-produced if journalistically fraudulent “news” to vast numbers of Americans. If progressives didn’t want to be left behind while Fox and Friends shaped the news and political agenda, Moyers argued, they had to create their own equivalent to Fox. And they had to buttress that new television network with a constellation of radio stations, and print and online outlets, comparable to the one that fed—and fed off of—Fox News’s programming.

“I didn’t want to create a progressive network as a mirror image of Fox—a propaganda arm of the Democratic Party or an ideological operation that would twist the world to that ideology,” Moyers recalled in an interview with The Nation. “I had more in mind, and actually used these examples: a journalism more in the mold of the BBC at its best—unafraid of power and not complicit with it, reporting what conventional journalism overlooked or wouldn’t touch, getting its viewers as close as possible to the verifiable truth…with a strong and independent muckraking mission.”

Moyers’s appeal failed, as have numerous others over the years, and the reasons why demand examination. It’s puzzling, to put it mildly, that progressives have not drawn the obvious lessons from the right-wing media’s enormous successes over the past quarter-century.

 

It’s puzzling, to put it mildly, that progressives have not drawn the obvious lessons from the right-wing media’s enormous successes over the past quarter-century.

 

“Progressives have historically not made unified, effective communications a priority,” says David Fenton, founder of a progressive communications firm. “The progressive world, unlike the right, does not have a TV network or legions of talk-radio hosts. However, we do have enormous potential power if we adopt more of the basic principles of marketing and communications, such as simple messages and enormous amounts of repetition to target audiences. Our opponents do this routinely. It comes naturally to them, as they mostly have business or marketing backgrounds.”

Consciously or not, most progressive organizations, donors, and candidates are following a theory of social change that trusts the mainstream media to report progressives’ actions and analysis fairly. According to this theory, coverage by Democracy Now! or Mother Jones or, yes, The Nation is all very well, but it preaches to the choir. Much better to get one’s story covered by ABC, USA Today, or their mainstream counterparts.

The problem is that the mainstream media usually don’t deliver. Of countless possible examples, consider the coverage of Sanders’s presidential campaign. Certain that a democratic socialist held no electoral appeal, mainstream media at first ignored Sanders, and then downplayed the idea that he could win, despite primary victories and polls consistently showing him doing significantly better than Clinton would against Trump. The substance of his positions—tuition-free college, health care for all, fighting climate change—was barely noted, much less explained, especially by the TV coverage that remains most Americans’ main source of news. Newspaper opinion pages did consider substance but almost always condemned that of Sanders, especially near the end of his run. Opinion pieces in The Washington Post ran five to one against him, Thomas Frank observed in Harper’s; “ignorant,” “unrealistic,” and “reckless” were just some of the adjectives applied.

There are honorable journalists at mainstream outlets, but they operate within definite limits. Cenk Uygur, founder of the hugely popular Young Turks news site, tells a revealing story about why he resigned from MSNBC. In 2011, Uygur was hosting the 6 pm daily newscast for MSNBC. Ratings were good, but according to Uygur, the head of MSNBC said that the tone of the show “concerned” him. “We’re not outsiders,” the executive allegedly told Uygur. “We’re NBC. We’re insiders.” And Uygur was supposed to start acting like it. Uygur didn’t take the hint and ended up leaving the network. “This is how your news media gets watered down,” Uygur wrote in an email to supporters. “The big networks are totally captured by the corporate and political establishment, and they don’t want to upset the status quo.”

 

Fox and Friends, by articulating an unabashedly right-wing take on the world and accumulating a large audience in the process, in effect convinced the mainstream media that the political spectrum extended much further to the right than they had recognized.

 

By instinct, mainstream news organizations are political centrists, a characteristic that Fox and Friends exploited over the past quarter-century to push mainstream coverage significantly to the right—arguably their single greatest achievement. The old business model of commercial television, radio, and newspapers called for appealing to the largest audience, which dictated offering news and commentary that spoke to as broad a spectrum as possible. Thus, mainstream news outlets developed a habit of hewing close to the ideological center—or, more precisely, what they perceived as the ideological center. Like Goldilocks’s porridge, their coverage would be not too liberal, not too conservative, but just right.

Fox and Friends, by articulating an unabashedly right-wing take on the world and accumulating a large audience in the process, in effect convinced the mainstream media that the political spectrum extended much further to the right than they had recognized.

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Right-wingers had long accused the media of harboring a liberal bias as part of a larger ideological offensive driven by right-wing think tanks and the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Now, the marketplace seemed to be confirming it.

As a result, the mainstream media continued and indeed accelerated the rightward shift that began under Reagan. The most extreme examples involved supposed scandals that were first asserted by right-wing media outlets but then picked up, amplified, and legitimized by the mainstream, often despite a notable absence of evidence or relevance to government affairs. Hillary and Bill Clinton’s alleged murder of White House aide Vince Foster, Bill’s extramarital affairs, and, later, the racist slander that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States and thus wasn’t a legitimate president all took root in the right-wing media before graduating—with a massive assist from Donald Trump—to vastly larger audiences. While the mainstream outlets didn’t embrace the birther slander, they did cover and thereby legitimize it, and they didn’t definitively call it out until the end of the 2016 campaign. By then, the right-wing media’s repetition of the slander had built enough mass support to put Trump within striking distance of the White House.

 

An independent-media infrastructure should not, of course, traffic in falsehoods or otherwise stoop to the right’s level. The truth, compellingly told, is enough. But an independent-media infrastructure does need to be built out, and this will require marshaling substantial amounts of money, talent, and resources. It will also require acting with both speed and patience: speed, because the very future of democracy is at stake under Trump; patience, because one reason Fox and Friends wield such influence today is that they have been building their brand for more than a quarter-century.

One needn’t start from scratch; valuable pieces of the puzzle are already in place. Despite operating on budgets that are a tiny fraction of what their counterparts on the right and in the mainstream media enjoy, some progressive outlets already reach sizable audiences. Democracy Now! is broadcast on more than 1,400 radio and cable stations and is available, via the satellite channels Link TV and Free Speech News, in 34 million US households. The Huffington Post receives more than 70 million unique visitors every month.

Progressive outlets often punch above their weight in terms of impact. “Mother Jones silenced Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign with the ‘47 percent’ video,” observes Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, the executive director of the Media Consortium, an alliance of 82 independent progressive outlets, including Mother Jones, Democracy Now!, AlterNet, and The Nation. “Amy Goodman brought national attention to Standing Rock when she was arrested there [last] September.”

Still, the rap against progressive media remains that it preaches to the choir, and the choir ain’t that big. Kaiser fields the question again and again from potential donors: Why don’t her member organizations reach more people? “Well, they would,” she replies, “if they had the funding for marketing and promotion.”

 

What delivers impact is not so much any individual outlet; rather, it’s the overlapping collective reach of the entire infrastructure.

 

Providing such funding is an immediate priority for building out an independent-media infrastructure: Give existing outlets with a proven track record the money they need to reach their full potential. If Sanders is right that the majority of Americans agree with progressives, it stands to reason that they would be interested in journalism that treats their views fairly. But reaching them requires promotion and marketing. Over time, it will also require other investments: hiring more reporters, editors, managers, and publicists; buying equipment and studios.

Another early priority is closer collaboration, including a joint news feed on social media. “We need to create a trusted, branded source of progressive news with real reach on Facebook,” urges David Fenton. “This would be a kind of Reader’s Digest effort that would take the best progressive content from all sources and get it far more reach and penetration on Facebook than would happen normally. It would mean investing in building up a huge Facebook audience for this content, so we have a guaranteed reach to many millions of people.”

The second stage of building an independent-media infrastructure would include creating some new institutions, especially to target audiences not currently reached. Some younger audiences prefer to get their news via short videos like the ones offered by AJ+. Larry Meli, a TV executive who helped launch New England Cable News and National Geographic Channels International, wants to create a “Heartland News” network in the Midwestern states that were critical to Trump’s Electoral College victory. “There is an opportunity,” says Meli, “to peel away some of the viewership that East Coast-based Fox News enjoys and to segment the market with an honest dose of fact-based news.”

A key lesson of Fox and Friends’ success should be kept in mind: What delivers impact is not so much any individual outlet; rather, it’s the overlapping collective reach of the entire infrastructure.  “The ‘friends’ part of ‘Fox and Friends’ is really critical,” Kaiser notes. “You need a full ecosystem of outlets to make it work. Progressives tried Air America [a national AM radio network launched in 2004]. We tried Current TV [in 2005]. They either failed or didn’t scale. But if you have lots of outlets operating in different formats and sending audiences to each other, you can build a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts.”

Will all of this cost money? Yes, lots. Getting serious about media will require progressives to increase their spending on journalism by orders of magnitude. That may seem like a nonstarter, but in fact there are plenty of deep pockets on the left; they just haven’t invested, thus far, in media. Besides, as the schoolteachers’ bumper sticker warns: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” The American people are by no means stupid, but they’ve been swimming in a sea of media-imposed ignorance for many years. That’s not the only reason a narcissistic know-nothing now occupies the Oval Office and, God help us, controls the nuclear codes, but he certainly wouldn’t be there otherwise. If this predicament doesn’t cause us to rethink old strategies, what will?

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Mark Hertsgaard is The Nation’s investigative editor at large.