2016 presidential primary season is in full swing, which means, among other things, that Fox News’ ratings are skyrocketing. Fox News has been the most watched cable news network in the country for 12 straight years, regularly pulling in more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined.?During the first Republican primary debate of this?season, Fox clocked its most-ever (24 million) viewers, making the two-hour show the highest-rated non-sports cable telecast of all time.
Over the last ten?years, everyone I know has lost a friend or family member or mentor to Fox News. Like me, they have watched helplessly?as people they love have?become part of the conservative punditry herd and, over time, traded their compassion for paranoia; their thoughtful opinions for manufactured outrage; and their empathy for hateful rhetoric. These people — these moms and dads and aunts and uncles and grandparents and brothers and sisters and pastors and politicians and friends — have been deceived?into believing that Fox News and Fox-approved talk radio hosts provide the only commentary they can trust.
What these people so dear to us fail to understand is that Fox News is not only uninterested in being fair and balanced; it is also?uninterested in being a reliable source of news. That’s because Fox News is playing a zero-sum political game in which every major news story is?an opportunity to use their viewers as pawns to advance the power and agenda of the most extremist ideology of the Republican Party.
Consider?Trayvon Martin. After he was murdered by George Zimmerman, multiple journalists pointed out that Fox News had been oddly silent on the subject. Until they had a firm grasp on how to mold the story to their benefit, they refused to report on it. Then, as Media Matters senior fellow Eric Boehlert explains: “Obama addressed it, and once Obama enters the conversation about race, you know, [Fox News]?went from zero to a hundred … they decided that the story was partisan, and that supporting Trayvon Martin was the Democratic position, supporting the guy who killed an unarmed teen was the Republican conservative position, and so they set up the markers, and went for it.”
When a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown, Sean Hannity proved Boehlert’s claim. Hannity was practically giddy when he announced to his audience: “Zero for three, a three-time loser! President Obama on high-profile race cases.”
Study after study after study?after study has shown?that Fox News viewers are the most uninformed and misinformed people in America. One recent study even found that people who didn’t watch any news programs at all had a firmer grasp on the reality of current events than those who only watched Fox News.
Rather than adhering to any kind of journalistic standard when reporting the news, or — as is the case with liberal-leaning MSNBC — reporting truthfully on the news and offering ideological commentary grounded in facts, Fox News starts with their end goal in mind and works backwards. How can a news story be used to damage their viewers’ perceptions of President Obama or the Democratic Party? How can a news story be used to bolster Republican politicians, or advance the causes of Republican-leaning policy influencers like the National Rifle Association or evangelical Christians? How can a news story be used to vilify causes championed?by progressive Americans?
Once they’ve settled on the outcome they want,?Fox News shapes its narrative and sets?in motion its brainwashing?cycle.
Fox News’ use of propaganda to isolate and indoctrinate its viewers is deliberate and terrifyingly effective.?It thrives off of fear-based sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and dogmatic?intolerance toward anyone who is not a straight, white Christian.
The Fox News Propaganda?Cycle
I’ve been studying Fox News’?methodology?since 2004, when I saw someone I love get pulled?into their orbit and transformed for the first time. This article is the culmination of all my research.?Below you’ll see a chart I made outlining the way Fox News and their talk radio counterparts use classic propaganda techniques to?isolate and indoctrinate their viewers/listeners. And below that, you’ll find an explanation of each technique, along with examples of?what these methods look like in action. There are thousands of examples to choose from. I only picked?a handful.
“When you’ve got the national liberal media working compulsively on your behalf, it is very difficult to break through the noise to the reality.” – Lou Dobbs, November 2012
“The liberal elite” is?a concept created by Richard Nixon’s campaign during his bid for presidency in 1960. Feminists who were advocating?for workplace equality; black people who were working to end racist violence, segregation, and laws against interracial marriage; and anti-war demonstrators who were weary of the war in?Vietnam were making white men uneasy, so the Nixon campaign began branding those activists and their sympathizers as “the liberal elite.” Good old hardworking white men like Nixon were the real Americans, and the “liberal elite” were a threat to a traditional, God-approved, Founding Fathers-sanctioned way of life.
Fox News has piggybacked off Nixon’s strategy and expanded it with wild success.
Creating a false dichotomy is a propaganda technique used to oversimplify complicated issues and force?people to believe?they have an either/or choice. The group creating the false dichotomy knows many choices are available, but for their message to be successful, they must?convince listeners that their?choices are limited. Fox News and its talk radio counterparts don’t?simply position themselves?against MSNBC; they position themselves?against literally every other source of information. You can choose the good guy, or you can choose the bad guy. You can get your news from Fox and Fox-approved talk radio hosts (true patriots who are trying to save the country) or you can get your news from the liberal media (deceitful or delusional people who are trying to destroy the country).
Maintaining a false dichotomy is?essential?for Fox News. If their viewers receive information or analysis from?any other group, no matter how apolitical or nonpartisan that group is, viewers will be forced to confront the misinformation that is pressed onto them by Fox News.
Ad nauseam is a propaganda tactic that involves repeating a phrase or an idea over and over and over until an audience begins to accept it as fact. Fox News uses the ad nauseam?technique in every step?of their propaganda cycle, but it’s most crucial?in the isolation phase because it’s most effective when a viewer/listener’s?media sources are limited. After creating the false dichotomy between Fox and every other news source, Fox pundits scorn the “liberal media” or “mainstream media” with relentless fervor. Political wins that don’t line up with conservative ideology are?caused by the evil liberal media. Anyone who questions Fox News is part of the lying liberal media. If you read something on the internet that made you doubt Fox News, it’s because the internet is controlled by the manipulative liberal media.
Hour after hour, day after day, Fox uses the phrases “liberal media” and “mainstream media”?to perpetually reinforce the false dichotomy that isolates Fox viewers from reality.
Confirmation Bias and Cognitive Dissonance
Once a person has settled on a core belief, they are likely to seek out information that validates that belief and avoid information that challenges it. They are also more likely to bend evidence to fit inside the paradigm of their belief than they are to alter their belief to align with evidence suggesting their belief is incorrect. The practice of accepting only information that confirms something you already believe while rejecting any information that challenges that belief is called confirmation bias. Having?core beliefs challenged causes cognitive dissonance.
One of the main reasons Fox News is so effective at using cognitive dissonance to keep people away from other news sources is that Fox has?strategically aligned itself?with evangelical Christianity. So, if one of Fox News’ teachings is called into question, Fox itself is called into question; and if Fox is synonymous?with God’s politics, God’s politics?are called into question; and if God’s politics are called into question, God is called into question. Therefore, any challenge to Fox is framed as an attack on God himself.
Creating cognitive dissonance by?framing oneself as God’s true ally and spokesperson is one of the most powerful?propaganda techniques of all time. It has worked?for fascists on a national scale and it has worked?for cult leaders operating out of barns. It is especially compelling in the United States,?where our belief that we are God’s chosen people?has been methodically woven into our national identity?since?John Winthrop gave his “City on a Hill” speech in 1630, before ever setting foot on this continent.
“The days of [minorities] not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution.” – Rush Limbaugh, June 2009
“This is the new America; this ain’t your father’s America.” – Dick Morris, November 2012
The most important component of maintaining a?world built on propaganda is creating an enemy who is?excluded from an in-group. Bouncing?off of Nixon’s concept of traditional Americans, Fox has cultivated an image of its in-group (for?its in-group)?as people who?love God, who love their families, and who love their country. Once the parameters of the in-group have?been established, the process of othering begins. By exploiting pre-existing beliefs, images, and negative stereotypes, an out-group is formed. In the case of Fox, this out-group, again, aligns with Nixon’s definition of the “liberal elite”: people?who challenge the oppression of the established power structure.
Once the enemy has been created, there’s no need to appeal to logic.?In her fantastic book?Enemy Images in War Propaganda,?Marja Vuorinen?explains that humans tend to think of themselves and their in-groups as possessing all the qualities of good virtue?(“honesty, righteousness, purity, proper manners, hard work, right religion”), and in an attempt to preserve that fragile self-image, humans project the opposite attributes (“evil, untruthful, cooked, lazy, superstitious, barbaric”)?onto groups of people who are not like them. Fox is addictive not only because it feeds a specific ideology, but also because it provides daily reassurance that Fox viewers are God’s chosen Good Guys by reiterating that the “liberal elite” are the Bad Guys.
Projection/flipping is?simply falsely accusing someone else of the doing/being the thing you’re responsible for doing/being.?These techniques are Fox News favorites. They are used in every step of Fox’s propaganda cycle, but they’re especially effective at creating enemies.
Character assassination is a propaganda technique used to attack a person, rather than an idea, by discrediting, defaming, demonizing, or dehumanizing them. Fox News?does not only use character assassination against liberal politicians and organizations; it also uses character assassination against innocent?people involved in tragedies that could be catalysts for progressive changes,?like greater?equality for racial minorities or gun control. For example, Fox News has made it a common practice to create heroes out of the racist white men who kill?innocent black teenagers.
Scapegoating is a propaganda technique used to place blame on an innocent group or individual to move blame?away from the group or individual responsible for the problem, or to make sweeping generalizations about a group of people based on the actions of a few.
Appeal to Fear
“I have to pick on the ACLU because they’re the most dangerous organization in the United States of America right now. Theirs by far. There’s nobody even close to that. They’re, like, second next to Al Qaeda.” – Bill O’Reilly, June 2004
“Why has the Black Lives Matter movement not been classified yet as a hate group? I mean, how much more has to go in this direction before someone actually labels it as such?” –?Elizabeth Hasselbeck, August 2015
Creating a climate of fear is essential to all propagandists, and Fox News is no exception. Fear is a primitive and often?irrational emotion, so messages that appeal to fear bypass the brain’s logic center and land right in the?hypothalamus, which controls a person’s fight-or-flight response. Like I mentioned above, Fox News’ out-group includes anyone who is not a straight white Christian, so it’s very easy for the network?to exploit their viewers’ irrational fears of every minority group in America. The white victimization narrative is a cornerstone of Fox News’ (and Fox-adjacent talk radio hosts) programming. The idea they perpetuate is that?the way of life treasured by hard-working, God-fearing, America-loving, family-first Conservatives is under constant threat by minority groups.
Media scholar/sociologist?David L. Altheide’s book,?Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis, points out that “the poor, dispossessed, and most recently franchised segments of society are disproportionately?associated with the largest fear application.”
The people who consume Fox News’ messages do so in a state of perpetual state of?fear; reason?is replaced by anxiety, and the ability to think logically is lost.
Minority-baiting is a propaganda technique used to prey on fear that is based in otherness. Fox News accomplishes this by reaffirming the bigoted, ignorant beliefs their viewers have ingested throughout the course of their lives from TV, movies, books, advertising, political campaigns, and American foreign policy propaganda; then, they create a false narrative in which the stereotyped minority is threatening the American?way of life.
In Ian Haney López’s masterwork on the language of race, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, he describes?coded language?as words or phrases that “trigger racial anxiety and allow plausible deniability by crafting language that lets the speaker deny that he’s even thinking about race.” One of Fox News’ most successful and despicable propaganda tactics is perpetually suggesting that people who talk about race are the real racists, while methodically weaving coded racial messages into their programming.?Here are just a few examples:
Stereotyping is a propaganda technique in which pre-existing ideas about a?racial, ethnic, or cultural group are exaggerated and used to make generalizations that usually perpetuate discrimination and inequality. Fox News stereotypes by using coded language, yes, but they also stereotype by presenting “dramatic anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, promoting isolated events as trends, [and] depicting categories of people as dangerous.”
Create Alternate Reality
“By the way, who ended slavery and Jim Crow? Christians. The Rev. Martin Luther King. Christians. Christianity is the reason we don’t have slavery in the world today.” – Tucker Carlson, February 2015
Misinformation is simply spreading false information?that is intended to deceive. Fox News constantly, purposefully misinforms its viewers.?I’m going to list a handful of examples below with an annotation about which of the aforementioned propaganda techniques the misinformation is used to play into.?There are entire websites dedicated to correcting Fox News’ lies on a daily basis.?Remember that Fox News viewers overwhelmingly accept these lies as irrefutable facts.
The propaganda technique of purposefully confusing people is different than misinforming. Instead of presenting outright lies as facts, confusion is implemented by presenting deliberately vague generalities so the audience can fill in the blank with the messages they’ve already received about people who have already been othered.?It’s talking around an idea with willful?ambiguousness for?the purpose of obscuring facts.
Rewriting history is simply?lying about events that have already happened. It’s a type of misinformation in which the propagandists’ current opinions are justified by presenting an inaccurate view of the past.
Though Fox News will deny it, one of the reasons Donald Trump has been so successful in Republican Primary polls is that he’s explicitly saying what Fox News has been using coded messages to say for the last decade. Fox has?convinced their viewership that brown people are inherently?criminal, and black people are inherently?lazy, and gay people are?in opposition to God, and women don’t deserve the same rights as men or control over their own bodies. It’s not surprising that when Trump bluntly gives voice to these opinions, many?Republicans — the majority of whom consume Fox News at least weekly — support him. He is doing nothing more than parroting the message of Fox News with more directness. When two white dudes?attack a homeless Latino man and pee on him, citing Donald Trump as their inspiration, that is a direct effect of Fox News propaganda cycle.
My goal with this article isn’t to ridicule people who watch Fox News; my goal is to to make plain this deliberate, manipulative cycle Fox traps its viewers inside, so we can use our knowledge?to begin to set our friends and family free.
Armed with these truths, maybe we won’t all feel so helpless during this?election season.