For professional reasons, I watch a lot of Fox News. And it’s not easy to fully convey its nightly mendacity — or how programs are little more than RNC video ads. Of course, two weeks ago the cable network was caught hyping the Andrew Breitbart political smear of Shirley Sherrod, first on its Web site and then on Hannity and O’Reilly. But like repeat pyromaniacs who waltz away from the fires they set, Fox has neither explained what went wrong nor apologized for it.
To help viewers spot the next Sherrod, here’s a brief guide to the six parlor tricks Fox uses to mislead the credulous:
- Rhetorical questions. “Is the N.A.A.C.P. racist?” asked Bill O’Reilly last month, leading some viewers to an obvious-though false-answer. “Will the [New Start treaty] leave the U.S. defenseless until it’s too late?” wondered anchor Megyn Kelly. Rinse. Repeat. Every day.
- Creating reality by repeated slogans. Fox’s anchors and hosts reiterate certain loaded phrases to see if they’ll catch on and reframe the political conversation. The only problem with “death taxes” and “death panels” and “climate-gate,” however, is that they all describe made-up stuff.
- Conclusory lies delivered with certainty. To rational minds, facts lead to conclusions; at Fox, conclusions lead to “facts.” The key is that they are said so quickly and authoritatively that they seem self-evident. So the stimulus hasn’t created one job … or any private-sector jobs … or not very many.
I encountered this in 2000 when I was on O’Reilly. In one of many efforts to show that Christians were an oppressed minority, the host asked why nativity scenes were barred from public places but menorahs weren’t. I agreed that both should be barred since they were comparable religious symbols. On his next show, he called me “anti-Christian” because I would allow a menorah but not a crèche. Whoa. When I asked for a retraction, his producer blithely said, “Well, Bill had a different interpretation.”
- Highlight out-of-context aberrations and ignore all contrary data. Did you know that Ted Williams always struck out? I can prove it with a tape showing his whiffs, but not those hits producing a lifetime .344 batting average. Did you know that Barack Obama largely created all our deficits? Actually, George Bush’s last budget anticipated a deficit of $1.3 billion in Mr. Obama’s first year, and America’s debt today comes largely from Reagan’s and Bush 43’s tax cuts and deficits, as David Stockman explained in a New York Times op-ed last week.
- McCarthyism and causation. Liberals are evil because in 1969 the Weathermen issued a manifesto suggesting revolution in America, said Glenn Beck on two shows last week. Without explanation, this 40-year-old report was somehow linked to Mr. Obama and his appointees.
In this category goes repeated references to Mr. Obama as Hitler or a Nazi. Mr. Beck did this so often that comedian Lewis Black strung them together on The Daily Show in what he called a medley of Beck’s “Hitler Tourette’s Syndrome.”
- When in doubt, race-bait. This is not to accuse Fox of racism, which is a losing argument since, in America today, it appears to be worse to call someone a racist than to be one.
What we do know is that Fox relishes targeting minority leaders and groups-from Sonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” comment, to ACORN, Van Jones and two weirdos in Philly supposedly discouraging white voters and purporting to be members of the previously unknown New Black Panther Party. Some 50 Fox segments highlighted the latter-or about 50 more than the number of segments about suppression of black voters the prior decade. Also, recall when Beck called Obama a “racist … he has problems with white people” (like his mother)?
And can we suspect that race may have something to do with the way every night Mr. Hannity disparages a president, who got 53 percent of the popular vote, as “the anointed one” and the way the network cheerleads for the insane Birther movement?
Fox apparently believes that the race problem in America-after slavery, the Civil War and then Jim Crow-is not racism but reverse racism. This is surely a surprise to black families, which average one-tenth the net worth of white families and whose children are seven times more likely to serve time in jail than a white youth convicted of an identical offense. (This perhaps explains why 1.38 percent of its viewers are black.)
As Rachel Maddow concluded in a recent MSNBC commentary, Fox is nightly engaged in a search for black scarecrows to frighten white America. The ultimate goal, the trifecta, is a person or incident that could do to Obama in 2012 what Willie Horton did to Michael Dukakis in 1988. Ms. Sherrod certainly was a candidate for this role, until reality intervened.
Whenever someone attacks Fox on these grounds, their defenders quickly say that the left and the right both rant. If anyone has a similar Niagara of evidence on MSNBC, please send it to me.
Does Fox matter? After all, it attracts 2.1 million viewers a night out of 300 million Americans. But the combination of Fox plus filibusters plus big corporate donations has allowed an intense minority in America to often thwart the big Democratic majorities in Congress and a Democratic presidency.
When it comes to being “fair and balanced,” Faux News reminds me of a spokesman for the magicians’ trade association who, in explaining the popularity of his members, said “some people want a fraud they can really believe in.”
Mark Green, the former NYC Public Advocate, is co-editor of Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President.