The Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels would marvel at how Roger Ailes built FOX News into a voice of the opposition during the Obama years using subtle racism and overt dishonesty. Goebbels would admire how FOX News was able to infect the minds of millions of viewers who don’t gather information from other sources in a nation that at least constitutionally guarantees a free press.
FOX News in the post Roger Ailes-era (more on that later) turned from opposition propagandists to state television on a dime, beginning January 20, 2017. MSNBC, an excessively political and partisan cable channel which served largely as a mouthpiece for the Obama Administration and to a large extent the Clinton Campaign feel into a confused position while CNN, more neutral and journalistic in its approach seamlessly moved into a posture of a critically important check on the power and statements of a Chief Executive with authoritarian instincts (it’s worth noting MSNBC and its parent NBC News appeared to have entirely different editorial policies during the Obama years). CNN much like The New York Times has taken its role as defenders of a free press and free society to heart, using objective and journalistic means to make critically important points.
CNN for what it’s worth was incredibly critical of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, unlike MSNBC which largely served as a mouthpiece for the Administration. CNN consistently reminded viewers of the drone war as well as often featuring guests critical of policy thaws toward Iran and Cuba. The CNN coverage of Benghazi was almost as dramatic as FOX’s at times. For many on the right to simply claim CNN has a double standard toward Trump as opposed to how they covered Obama is dishonest and disingenuous.
Back to FOX. Calling them “state television” might seem over-the-top until you actually observe the behavior and editorial drift of the network over the last two weeks. Let’s start Friday night when a Federal Judge overturned Donald Trump’s Executive Order. CNN broke the news before 7:20 pm ET and had a panel ready to discuss the ruling. Erin Burnett followed by Anderson Cooper at 8 pm ET facilitated the discussion. Bob Ferguson, the Washington Attorney General who filed the successful suit was interviewed twice in the next hour on CNN and once on MSNBC.
Meanwhile FOX News continued with a Martha MaCallum “town hall” show on the Trump Presidency where oddly those opposing Trump were almost entirely minorities, some visibly so based on dress – a subtle way of conjuring racial animus among the FOX News audience toward minorities (often FOX’s racism is cloaked in these subtle ways but is obvious to more seasoned media viewers and those who study American history such as myself).
Then at 8 pm ET, Jesse Watters came on the air and didn’t address the court ruling until about 8:25 pm continuing initially with prepacked segments with a patronizing tone toward Trump opponents and playing his usual subtle racial cards (Watters has become the FOX News poster child for cleverly working subtle racist commentary into his segments). The delay in reporting the news and discussing it, can be inferred was caused by the need to formulate reactive talking points and the importance of being on the same page as this Administration Watters and his colleagues are in the service of currently.
FOX News has transitioned beautifully into an unquestioning propaganda arm of a Chief Executive with authoritarian instincts thanks in large measure to the exodus of three female hosts, Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly and Greta van Susteren. While all three hosts were conservatives (despite Rupert Murdoch’s claims that van Susteren was a liberal when testifying in front of a Congressional Committee in the 2000’s.) they did take a critical lens at times to the orthodoxy on the right. Carlson’s sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes led to an exodus of real talent from the network leaving FOX with a lineup more or less of conservative hacks with the exception of Shepard Smith and Brett Bair.
Of particular interest is Tucker Carlson who took Kelly’s prime time slot. Carlson has reinvented himself as a Trump apologist and user of subtle racial code like other FOX hosts a decade after being viewed as one of the smartest and most intellectual conservative commentators in Washington. Carlson’s method is to book a liberal on his show and ambush them with mis-characterizations and misrepresentations. It is on the surface a stark departure from Carlson’s past. Carlson voted against George W. Bush in 2004 and openly mused about voting against the GOP nominee in 2008.
Perhaps Carlson really is the premier conservative intellectual who sees the brilliance of Trump’s policy ruminations. Or perhaps he simply didn’t like Bush’s inclusive idea or building a coalition with Hispanics and prefers a lily white Republican party. One would be idly speculating as to Carlson’s motives considering he would attack FOX News in his CNN and MSNBC days (including in a book he wrote at the time) but now enjoys a plum prime time slot on the network he previously attacked. Carlson’s show is Trump propaganda 101 right out of the Ailes playbook.
On the day of the women’s march around the country, FOX very clearly and blatantly downplayed the size and importance of the movement while fluffing up the reaction to Trump’s inaugural. They also parted company with frequent Trump critic, principled conservative George Will as a FOX News Contributor the same day. This morning, FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace, in an old Roman manner spent more time discussing NFL Football than Trump’s policies or the mounting opposition to his leadership. Roman Emperors would give the public amusement in the form of games when the going got rough – FOX appears prepared to use NFL Football in the same manner (A little point here on me personally – I don’t watch American Football anymore and have watched maybe two Super Bowls in the last 15 years so perhaps I was more annoyed by this than most).
MSNBC proved in the Obama years that as a network they were far more concerned about placating and promoting the Democratic Party than actual progressive policies or taking a critical lens to the actions of establishment Democrats. Recall that MSNBC in 2009, much like FOX in the last two weeks, consistently downplayed the grassroots opposition to President Obama. Additionally, MSNBC as time went on became a talking a stalking horse for the Democratic Party, a not a critical media outlet or a progressive network with the exception of a few hosts.
The dumbing down and polarization of America has been a great contribution of cable news. But on the left where for years opinions were formed from being well-read, listening to balanced debates on NPR, reading thoughtful commentary in places The Atlantic or New Yorker gave way to the same sort of lazy punditry, narratives and analysis that is offered in the era of cable news channels. MSNBC contributed greatly to this and from my vantage point, a completely unprepared Democratic intelligentsia in 2016.
But MSNBC was never quite able to pull off the FOX News trick, because after all liberals still have a streak of non-conformity in them. FOX News however today speaks to the great unwashed who take the word of the cable news network as gospel. That’s a great boon for an authoritarian figure like Trump who can now use FOX News as state television, and it’s even more telling that the network is obliging the fearless leader.