Donald Trump has made his love for Fox News perfectly clear, but he’s more than a simple fan. The president and the right wing news network are engaging in a pattern of misinformation that has kept the mainstream media spinning in a vicious cycle not seen since the days of Joe McCarthy.
The question arises, if Fox News sets the president’s agenda, then who sets Fox News’ agenda?
The misinformation and propaganda campaigns work this way: Fox News, daily, introduces speculative news stories designed to distract from or minimize Trump’s foibles, spread misinformation or attack his critics.
After a Fox News broadcast, which Trump by his own admission watches religiously, he uses the power of the White House, through Twitter and other means, to legitimize and amplify the false or misleading claims, usually without a shred of evidence or factual basis.
Because he is the President of the United States, however, the rest of the media feel compelled to cover his statements on their face, without providing any test for truthfulness or accuracy in their initial reporting.
Of course, there are “fact checking” outlets that do a pretty good job verifying or debunking fake news. But they are secondary news sources. Their reporting usually comes days after Trump’s misinformation has taken on a life of its own. In other words, the damage is already done.
Added to this are the president’s almost daily attacks on the news media using the same tactics and language espoused by the vilest dictators. The practical effect is to keep legitimate media outlets on the defensive, forcing them to cover his outlandish claims over and over to prove they are “fair” and “unbiased.”
Why does the media cover a story that is demonstrably false? Because it comes from the president.
The last time the media was caught in a similar vicious cycle was during the McCarthy era in the 1950s. Most of the reporters and news directors on major media outlets weren’t even born back then and have been doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
Back then, a proliferation of news media outlets were highly competitive, and reporters were nothing more than scoop hounds. They wrote what they were told by people in positions of power and rushed the “news” out to get a beat on competitors.
That journalistic mindset paved the way for McCarthy, a junior U.S. Senator who unleashed the 1950s Red Scare, one of the darkest periods in American history.
At the height of the Cold War, McCarthy claimed Communists had widely infiltrated government and other institutions, including Hollywood and the news media. The hysteria that followed had a chilling effect on society unseen before or since.
McCarthy leveled sensational charges without any evidence to back them up. Yet for months, the media reported each new claim, creating a national hysteria.
His undoing only came after McCarthy challenged the U.S. Army with charges that Communists had infiltrated the highest echelons of the Pentagon. Congress held what became known as the Army-McCarthy hearings, among the first ever televised to the nation.
It took a journalist the caliber of Edward R. Murrow to finally call McCarthy’s bluff in a series of historic broadcasts over the nascent medium.
The lessons of McCarthyism were clear. Statements by government officials, by virtue of their vast power and influence over our everyday lives, could not be taken at face value, but must be subjected to intense scrutiny, fact-checking and context.
For the next three decades, through Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, those lessons stuck. But in many ways, the media have returned to the 1950s.
The Internet has provided easy and unlimited access to millions of people and led to an explosion of media outlets, operating without, in many cases, any regard for the canons of journalistic ethics.
This devolution has opened the floodgates to a torrent of information and paved the way for massive manipulation of the news, driven by the immediacy of the Internet and social media.
Fox News has one major advantage over other right-wing propaganda outlets. Its reports carry the imprimatur of the President of the United States. Despite the fact that he has been proven over and over again to be a manipulative, unprincipled liar, he still controls the news cycle with his statements.
Once the president “legitimizes” an issue, no matter how misleading, it echos across social media. By the time his statements are debunked, the public and media have moved on to the next Trumped up issue.
Meanwhile, real stories like Puerto Rico, the deficit, government corruption and immigration are pushed to the background.
So far, this vicious cycle has continued unabated. Even though any number of media outlets have done stories about it, this generation’s version of Edward R. Murrow has yet to emerge among the editors, news directors and reporters who make up the media.
As a result, the vicious cycle continues, with serious consequence for the nation. This type of dangerous manipulation of public opinion was thwarted once before. It’s time for the media to step up again, before there is no escape from its corrosive effect on our Democracy.