Okay, but before the misogyny, Donald Trump made a surprisingly accurate allusion to Greek mythology.
On Thursday night, Fox News Channel hosted a Republican presidential primary debate with 10 of the 17 Republican candidates. At 24 million viewers, it became the most viewed non-ESPN program in cable history. Hell, even I tuned in for part of it (after watching the more interesting Canadian leadership debate) — the first time I’ve ever intentionally watched Fox News. Possibly even the first time I’ve watched Fox News and wasn’t also stuck in a train/bus terminal or airport.
The debate beat out last year’s record-breaker for a non-sports event, an episode of The Walking Dead, by a margin of 6.6 million viewers. The previous record-holder for a cable news event was Larry King’s 1993 moderation of a CNN debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot on NAFTA’s proposed ratification in Congress. Even that audience was 7 million smaller.
This debate had more than 20 million more viewers than the first Republican debate in 2011. Analysts credited — who else but the reality TV star? — Donald Trump’s anticipated presence for generating widespread awareness of exactly when the debate would be, so that more people didn’t miss it. Sadly, the clown car that is the 2016 Republican presidential field has officially become one of America’s top reality TV programs, it seems. A reality show like The Bachelorette only pulls in 8 million viewers at the most these days.
However, in general, Broadcast TV often still generates much larger audience numbers than cable on a fairly regular basis, although there too sports events continue to be the mega-draw. Still, the Thursday night debate exceeded the average viewership of the past decade’s most popular non-sports network show, NCIS, for both the most recent season and any other season, including its peak in 2012 at 21.34 million viewers.
Another interesting comparison point is against series finales on network TV. So for whatever it’s worth, in absolute numbers, this debate’s audience was between the finale viewership counts for St. Elsewhere (22.5m in 1988) and Full House (24.3m in 1995) — 19th and 18th respectively on the list of all-time highs for network TV series finales. However, it has been more than a decade since any network TV series finale exceeded the viewership of Thursday night’s debate. For example, the debate audience was nearly twice the audience of the much-anticipated 2014 finale of How I Met Your Mother.
Remarkably, the “JV debate” earlier in the day was still one of Fox News Channel’s highest-rated primary debates in history, although 18 million fewer people tuned in and there was barely even a live audience.
It’s pretty well known that among Fox News’s “infotainment” programming (between its official news segments) the show Fox & Friends is perhaps the most devoid of a link to reality. But it does spit forth, within a vast mine of crap, some particularly putrid gems worth looking at in greater depth.
One such recent gem was a segment with Allen West, a hyper-conservative former Congressman from Florida and advocate of the Tea Party movement, perhaps best known for his undying rage toward Muslims. (He is also known, among critics, for his borderline war crimes in Iraq that led to his early retirement from the U.S. Army — a fact the Fox News hosts did not bring up when repeatedly calling him “Colonel West.”)
During this segment, the show asserted (with little daylight between his claims and the hosts’ statements) that the Muslim Brotherhood is about to become a party on everyone’s voting ballots, right alongside Democratic and Republican candidates.
Now, there are many things wrong with that claim (besides the fact that it’s 100% made-up). It’s hard to know where to begin.
For one thing, the framing of the claim is outlandish because anyone could start any party (as many have indeed done) and it would still not be on the same level as the Democrats and Republicans — certainly no more than if I were to launch the “American Easter Bunny Supremacy Party” or whatever. But we’re talking about the network that tried to convince its viewers that the “New Black Panther Party” was a revolutionary force sweeping the nation and oppressing white voters, rather than two old Black men in berets looking cranky outside a single polling place in Philadelphia.
So, for today and the segment in question, it’s probably not worth my time to rehash the theme that Fox News is crafting an entirely fabricated reality that with each passing day shares fewer properties — nay, even laws of physics — with our dimension. If you want more on that, you’ll want to read my popular 2010 treatise entitled “The Right-Wing Alternate Universe.”
(Shout out, though, to their extensive world-building and long-running character development work on this Fox Newsiverse. They should host a con or have a wikia or something, so Fox News Channel nerds can discuss continuity error resolution and alternate timelines.)
But the real reason I wanted to bring up this segment was the claim that a consortium or coalition of legitimate Muslim-American and Arab-American lobbying organizations were trying to put together a political party. That’s not actually true, as you’ll see from this quotation from the segment, where he elides two entirely different concepts of
1) a political party and
2) a voting bloc (a group of voters who informally vote together based on a shared interest).
From the Informed Comment summary of the exchange (if you haven’t watched the clip yet):
“They’re forming some type of political party, a voting bloc as they call it,” West said.
“In this country!” Doocy emphasized.
“That’s right! To institutionalize policies that favor them,” West agreed, adding that they wanted to “destroy America from within using a civilizational jihad, and that’s exactly what you see happening.”
Ok, so in reality (as he tacitly acknowledges without formally acknowledging) no one is actually forming any type of political party. A “voting bloc as they call it” is exactly what every major group of united voters is called in every democracy in the world, but he makes it sound like a concept so exotic and Middle Eastern it just walked out of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights holding hands with Scheherazade.
If all the labor unions in the United States endorse a candidate and organize to get their membership to back that candidate, they have formed a voting bloc, not a political party. They’re not suddenly now “The Labor Party.”
But look at that other remark he tosses in there. He says they (the Muslim/Arab-American interest groups) want “to institutionalize policies that favor them.”
That’s a fancy way of saying they want to pass laws that are in line with their goals (of reducing discrimination against Americans who are Arab and Muslim and of promoting better cultural understanding).
If you listen to the clip of Allen West talking, but then read closely the words coming out of his mouth, it’s the political equivalent of Andy Daly’s (very funny) “Jerry O’Hearn, veteran standup comic” character who just says banal and vacant statements in the expected cadence and rhythm so it sounds like he’s doing a routine, without having to make actual jokes (much like West says banal facts but makes them sound shocking).
Daly has said that he developed the character after he accidentally timed a joke wrong one time and audience members laughed automatically at the pause rather than at the punchline because they thought he had already said it.
Similarly, Allen West can just say normal stuff in a scary way — “a voting bloc as they call it” or “to institutionalize policies that favor them” — and suddenly it has great meaning.
But actually, for the tea party movement, as I’ve argued before, there is great (negative) meaning to the idea of (other!) people voting for candidates that will pass “policies that favor them.” Read more
“AFD 71 – Return to No-Ethics Land”
Half Episode due to UD Athletics: An update on the ethics scandal discussion in Ep 50. Michael from Pound 4 Pound Boxing Report talks about the latest Fox News ignorance. Tunisia gets a new constitution.
– ThinkProgress:”Former Virginia Governor and Wife Indicted on 14 Felony Counts Over Gifts Scandal”
– TPM: “The Eight Juiciest Revelations From The Bob McDonnell Indictment”
– Washington Post: “McDonnell rejected plea offer to face one felony, spare wife any charges, avoid trial”
– Media Matters: “Fox’s Bolling: “I Don’t Think There’s Racism,” Because We Have A Black President And Black Entertainment Channels”
– Media Matters: “Fox’s Eric Bolling’s Race Problem”
– BBC: “Tunisia’s NCA Agrees to New Constitution”
– Foreign Policy: “Egypt’s Women Fight Back“
The irony of the internet age and the rise of social media under autocratic states is that it not only hasn’t brought an end to traditional replacement-of-reality-with-alternate-reality propaganda (à la the Soviet Union’s totalitarian media) and toppled all the dictators, but it has actually provided new opportunities for some of the propagandists. Propaganda is not just co-existing but flourishing, at the moment, even in places with ample internet access.
Person of the Year
Case in point: Egyptian government propagandists on state-run and pro-coup television were so eager to promote their new dictator, General Sisi, that they convinced everyone that Egyptians could control the outcome of TIME magazine’s person of the year selection and ordered them all to vote for him in the magazine’s online reader poll — which has no affect on the final choice for the magazine (which the editors pick). More Egyptians voted in the global internet poll, open to anyone, than the number of Americans or Indians who voted. Then when General Sisi won that reader poll, Egyptian media produced a fake cover of TIME and reported (falsely of course) that he had been officially chosen by the magazine as Person of the Year.
Obviously, given their easy access to outside media, most internet-using Egyptians are probably well aware of the distinction, whether or not they voted for him in the poll. It’s worth remembering, however, that a lot of Egyptians still get their news from television media and, unlike their Twitter-savvy brethren, aren’t necessarily exposed to alternate sources of information. So if the TV says TIME magazine picked their nation’s leader as the global Person of the Year, and shows a cover to prove it, then they might not know otherwise.
American TV News
Television is by nature an authoritative, one-way medium that many viewers can’t contradict or fact-check easily (and tend not to, even if they can). Thus, propagandists can exert a heavy influence without much to challenge them. And in the modern era, they can couple it with the power of the internet rather than being undermined by it.
The Egypt story might seem provincial and irrelevant to us in the United States, but let’s not forget that a majority of Americans — particularly from the older generations — still get their news from television each day. The influence of TV news producers, while substantially more open to challenge in the United States than in Egyptian state media, is still a powerful force with a rigid narrative.
Viewers receive a narrow (partly by nature of the time-restricted format) and often repetitive message and are strongly encouraged to put their trust in the networks — local, national, or cable — that they are being told The Truth. Network brands are marketed like other products through heavy promotion. The promos urge people to maintain high brand loyalty to a particular delivery service of what is (theoretically) open information that should — if it’s really The Truth, as advertised — be more or less the same across brands.
The Fox Delusion
Fox News Channel, of course has taken this philosophy much further. They brag that they are the highest-rated cable news network … after years of convincing viewers — who skew older and count on television to be factually accurate — that the news world outside (except for right-wing talk radio, of course) is filled with lies and treachery, and that only Fox News Channel and its hosts’ radio shows are able to bring you The Truth. So everyone on the conservative end of the spectrum jumped on the bandwagon long ago and stayed put, resulting in its rise to the number one spot (while liberals split over a range of sources). For a regular viewer, adjusting that dial away from Fox News means being exposed to the “liberal media” conspiracy beyond.
Fox News Channel broadcasts are riddled with demonstrable errors — not just in analysis, but in basic statements of empirical, encyclopedic facts — as many a media fact-checking website has shown every day. Its viewers know better by now than to check outside the channel or its partners for the facts, though, so there is little danger they will be exposed to reality. When they go to vote in U.S. elections, they are doing so based on information received almost entirely if not solely from one news universe that has built all its analysis upon totally fabricated underlying facts. It’s not just skewed interpretations being delivered to viewers, but even foundational “facts” lacking in truth.
All this holds true even in an age of easy access to a literal world of factual information, via the internet. The internet, for a Fox viewer, instead of a source of contradicting reality, becomes a network of websites affiliated with Fox News or run by other devotees and like-minded ideologues.
Thus, as I have discussed extensively before, Fox News, right-wing talk radio, and the conservative blogosphere have established an entire unchallenged, closed-loop parallel universe of news “reality,” much in the way a totalitarian government’s state media would. And just as with Egyptian TV’s fake TIME magazine Person of the Year cover, Fox News Channel is able to propagate its elaborate fiction through traditional means, with help from the internet, rather than being genuinely subverted and exposed by the internet, as we might have expected.
What does the future hold?
The internet, social media, and freer access to information around the world will undoubtedly play a major role in opening societies and exposing fictions presented as news — and certainly the U.S. internet community has already been ripping apart fraudulent news stories in the traditional media for many years and forcing corrections (from outlets that aren’t trying to create a parallel reality).
But for the moment, at least, the rise of the internet is not the cure-all for propaganda, whether on U.S. cable or on authoritarian governments’ TV stations. The meeting of the internet and propaganda isn’t like throwing water on the Wicked Witch of the West. The narratives and fictional worlds of propagandists don’t dissolve instantly in the presence of access to information. But eventually, they will crumble.
The interim period will not be without consequences. How do people, including Egyptians or Fox News fans, react when confronted by the harsh light outside the cave? Ultimately this confrontation will inevitably occur, as it always has, despite the propagandists’ efforts to steer people to favorable sources. Whether the clash with reality occurs in the form of the loss of U.S. election if you were under the false impression that everyone agreed with the worldview Fox News nurtured in you, or in the form of realizing at newsstands in a few weeks that TIME magazine hasn’t put Dear Leader on the cover after all, people seem react in two ways.
The first reaction is turning in anger to wild conspiracy theories that explain the disjunction — i.e. that inscrutable minority forces must be controlling outcomes — and encourage extreme responses to “correct” the conspiracy — i.e. that the opposing faction must be destroyed. The second reaction is accepting that the propagandists have misled their audience about The Truth outside.
Sadly, many people find discovering themselves massively wrong or realizing they have been to duped to be extremely embarrassing or humiliating. (Being manipulated is something that happens to other people.) And so these people generally resist accepting they have been conned at all costs, even if it means embracing the extreme conspiracy theories and doubling down on their misguided beliefs. And that’s when the politics in a country get really scary.
I’m working on a longer post on the specific news story in question here, but I wanted to point out this segment by Jon Stewart that shows the alternate universe FOX News creates for its viewers:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
|Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
|Glenn Beck Airs Israeli Raid Footage
Actually, it’s really true of all the right-wing media. They get people to watch/listen to their news exclusively because they create whole alternate universes that tell you can only get that news from them. Now, other networks will tell you CNN=Politics or whatever or that they’re the best source of coverage, and sometimes they’ll claim to have a story exclusively… but few non-conservative media outlets go to such lengths to tell you can literally not find the news anywhere else because of pervasive bias and conspiratorial propaganda flooding the other airwaves.
People who only listen to right-wing radio and only watch FOX News to get their information often seem to live in their own shared world. I’m betting this is probably strongly a function of the alternate universe presented by right-wing media that constantly reminds them that not only will they miss critical news by checking elsewhere but that they will hear only propaganda by listening to or watching anybody else.
What are the consequences? First, the audience begins to think the vast majority of Americans share their political views and policy aims, when that’s not the case, and then they begin to turn to deeply-rooted conspiracy theories to explain how forces of evil are keeping their (minority) agenda at bay for so long, and the right-wing media feeds it. It’s the only possible explanation when you get your politics from a source espousing the same view and never showing that others might disagree or why.
But there’s another bigger consequence, regarding the content itself, not just the frame constraining that content. Intellectual critics, including those on the right, accuse the right-wing media of feeding a closed information loop, which sometimes even feeds itself so directly that it’s hard to tell when the media personalities (Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, etc.) eventually believe their own lies or still lie consciously. A recent example of a rigidly closed information loop is how the right-wing media, which loves to demonize the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and has made it quite the boogeyman over the years, willfully ignored what the ACLU was actually doing so it could create an alternate reality where it was doing what their preconceived expectations said the mythical-demon ACLU would do…
Conservative blogger (and critic of the closed information loop) Conor Friedersdorf wrote up the details on Trueslant last week:
On May 5, aka Cinco de Mayo, five students at a high school in Morgan Hill, California wore American flag attire to class. “The vice principal asked two of the boys to remove American flag bandannas that they wearing on their heads and for the others to turn their American flag T-shirts inside out,” the local NBC affiliate reported. “When they refused, the boys were ordered to go to the principal’s office.” The story got picked up in the national media, bloggers debated whether the boys were being patriotic or deliberately insensitive, and almost everyone at least agreed that in this country they were well within their rights to wear the American flag.
I am very interested in one aspect of the discussion that followed this story. The conservative blog Stop the ACLU is a natural place to begin. “Cinco De Mayo Means Suspension of Free Speech and Patriotism,” their post began. “At least in Morgan Hill, California where they live by the rules of political correctness gone crazy.” The ultimate reaction: “Absolutely ridiculous! Where is the ACLU?”
From there, Friedersdorf next almost exhaustively examines (and you should read the post), big-name to small-name right-wing media personalities/op-ed writers/bloggers to their random commenters — all of whom access the same information loop — and finds the right wing uniformly echoed this view: Limbaugh, News Real Blog, Ralph Wenzinger, Speak Now America, Elijah Friedman, Pirate’s Cove, The Old Jarhead, etc. etc… They all demanded to know where the ACLU was on this or claimed the ACLU was defending the school. And as he conclusively showed further, the ACLU was not only already on the case and defending the boys’ right to wear the shirts, but they have historically already served as legal counsel in four separate cases on the exact same issue.
It being extremely rare for authorities to crackdown on American flag wearing in the United States, it says something that the ACLU has invested resources in four separate instances of this behavior.
It’s almost as if the conservative media complex is systematically misleading its audience about the nature of the ACLU, so much so that right-of-center commentators across the Internet spontaneously mocked the organization for failing to intervene on the right side of this case, despite it being precisely the kind of case where the ACLU reliably does exactly what the critics themselves would want.
Perhaps the confusion comes from listening to talk radio hosts and reading blogs that cast all of American politics as a grand struggle between the left and the right, liberals and conservatives, tyranny and liberty. The rank and file, rightly judging that the ACLU operates on the left, automatically concludes that they are the enemy in any case worth caring about.
His conclusion? When a blog called Stop the ACLU is leading the charge in creating an alternate reality of a specific incident and lying about or being unaware of what the real ACLU was actually doing, the information loop (or as I call it, an alternate universe) not only exists but exists as an imperviously closed system. And he sounds like he pities the people who are closed inside the system:
The right cannot adeptly navigate a political environment that it is systematically misled about.
As much as the adherents of Beck, Limbaugh, et al. make me want to tear my hair out most of the time, I do almost feel sorry for them. It’s so delusional.
Some people, of course, try to create false equivalences and say that this happens on the left as well. That’s simply not true. There’s a reason why FOX News is the “highest-rated” cable news network: the left fragments to multiple competing sources or goes to a variety of media for news. Yes, most of us could broaden our horizons, but our frame of reference is nowhere near as constrained, unified, or repetitive. (Even on this blog, with a bunch of writers from basically similar backgrounds, we often sharply disagree with each other and read different sources with different views on the same events or policies.) The American right sticks to a narrow range of sources that all feed on each other in a continuous loop of opinions and alternate realities of events, and that loop tells the audience not to go elsewhere so as not to corrupt their minds with propaganda. Thus that’s where the average listener and viewer is getting virtually 100% of his or her political information. Rush Limbaugh doesn’t call his loyal listeners “dittoheads” for nothing.
And, sadly, they’re busy trying to run all the rational/intellectual conservatives out of town, thereby purging their ranks of people who aren’t engulfed in the system, people who might moderate their excesses and find ways to compromise and still get conservative agenda items passed. They accuse these intellectual conservatives of being elitists or brainwashed by the mainstream “liberal” media. What’s left isn’t pretty.
It’s a struggle to have a rational conversation with a person who lives and breathes that information system because they walk into the discussion with a completely different set of “facts.” Why is there no common ground these days in both family political arguments and the broader American political scene? Because a large chunk of the participants working from a different planet altogether. If not a separate right-wing alternate universe.