The Foxification of American Democracy, Part 2

Shadia B. Drury

Donald Trump is a creation of Fox News because all of the seemingly outrageous things he says are incontrovertible platitudes to an audience nurtured by Fox News. When a Muslim gunman killed forty-nine people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Donald Trump declared that President Barack Obama knew something about the shooting before it happened. Obama, Trump charged, is the “founder” of ISIS and is “honored” by what is clearly America’s deadliest enemy. Ordinary people find these claims either shocking or laughable—but to a Fox News audience, they are established verities.

The picture of America that has emerged out of the Trump campaign is consistent with the picture of the country that Fox News has been cultivating for twenty years. In the world of Fox News, the “liberal elite” that governs the nation is made up of self-serving traitors, tyrants, and usurpers bent on destroying the country to augment their own wealth. They are oblivious to the hardships of the people, who have lost their jobs to outsourcing, so that the large corporations that fund their political campaigns can enlarge their profits. To make matters worse, the liberal elite has concocted useless wars that profit arms manufacturers—wars in which the children of the people are maimed and killed—while those of the elite remain at home safe and sound, pursuing lucrative careers as bankers and fund managers.

The fact that Donald Trump is a multimillionaire and part of the same wealthy, corrupt, liberal elite that Fox News has been ranting about for so long is not a strike against him. He has confessed that he has gamed the system; he has repented and is now eager to make amends. Since he understands the pernicious workings of the corrupt system, only he can fix it. As he told a Christian Right audience, this is his only hope of getting to heaven. It follows that whatever shady business dealings or tax evasions the media can dig up against Trump are irrelevant, because there is nothing a Christian audience loves more than a repentant sinner.

Liberals cannot dismiss either Fox News or Trump as megaphones for the lunatic fringe. Their paranoid view of the world is not totally without foundation. The United States is not, strictly speaking, a democracy; it is an oligarchy in the precise sense of the term—rule of the rich in their own interests. Without campaign-finance reform, the repeal of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, the prosecution of the bank managers who profited from the 2008 recession, the repatriation of manufacturing jobs, and more, the ruling elite will not become more accountable. Then there is the American penchant for regime change and nation building—wars that Trump has rightly decried. All these reforms require a seismic shift in economic and foreign policy.

The trouble is that neither Fox News nor Trump is well-equipped to advocate or initiate reform. By supporting Trump, Fox News is repudiating Republican policies it has long championed—the wars of the second Bush administration, regime change, exporting democracy, gargantuan tax cuts for the rich, low corporate taxes, and opposing any increase in the minimum wage. Trump lacks the intellectual depth to be the vehicle of these substantial reforms. He vacillates between these legitimate issues and the dogmas of the Republican Party without being aware of the contradictions involved.

Then there is the Second Amendment. The right to bear arms was intended by the Founders to allow a citizen army to defend the country—not only against foreign aggression but also from tyranny or usurpation by the government. In the world of Fox News, Democrats are determined to abolish the Second Amendment—in so doing, disarming the people so the tyranny of the liberal elite cannot be challenged. Fox News insinuates that the law against violent insurrection is applicable only to lawful governments. It follows that the Second Amendment is necessary to unseat illegitimate governments. By delegitimizing Democratic administrations, Fox News legitimizes violent insurrection—and invites calamity. How did it come to this? How has a television channel that thrives on slander, paranoia, and half-truths become such a powerful, possibly deadly player in the American democratic process?

It all began with Ronald Reagan’s endless appetite for deregulation. Since the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of 1934, Congress regarded the airways as belonging to the people, with broadcasters licensed to use them as a public trust. Broadcasters were obligated to create the conditions for rational deliberation, not incite suspicion and inflame partisanship. Their duty was to inform, not indoctrinate.In 1959, Congress moved yet further in that direction by adding the “equal time” amendment to the Communications Act of 1934, which required that equal time be made available for legitimate opposing political views and interests. This “Fairness Doctrine” was upheld by the Supreme Court in the landmark case Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, concerning a radio station that broadcast a personal attack on a journalist without providing him with an opportunity for a response.

However, in 1987, shortly after Rupert Murdoch had established his Fox Broadcasting Company, Ronald Reagan decided that the Fairness Doctrine contravened the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and was, therefore, unconstitutional. Some members of Congress were furious; they tried to make the Fairness Doctrine a law, not just a regulation. Unfortunately, that legislation failed in 1987, when it was vetoed by Reagan.

Reagan supporters claimed that the Fairness Doctrine was created in the infancy of broadcasting, when there were very few stations. Now that there were so many, they argued that the principle was obsolete. However, a mere plurality of stations does not prevent a slick and well-funded network from peddling falsehoods, half-truths, slander, and paranoid conspiracy theories; nor does it prevent a plurality of broadcasters from becoming homogeneous corporate megaphones.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

“Fox News legitimizes violent insurrection—and invites calamity. How did it come to this?”

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