My Fox News Nightmare: How I Tortured Myself with The Propaganda of Ignorance
Photo Credit: Dan Patterson/Flickr
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One October evening, in the midst of the 2013 government shutdown, I watched Bill O’Reilly work himself into something of a state. He sat at his desk, his hands palms upward, fingers slightly curved, as if cupping something in them. “I want Hagel.” he said, staring into the camera. “I want Hagel. I want him.” A casual observer might interpret this moment as O’Reilly expressing his fierce but tender desire for Chuck Hagel, the Secretary of Defense. More experienced O’Reilly viewers, however, will recognize it as a signal that the unfortunate Hagel had plummeted downward in O’Reilly’s estimation from pinhead to evildoer. (There are only three kinds of people in Bill O’Reilly’s world: good hardworking Americans, pinheads—people who are not actually malevolent but who are too stupid to understand the way the world really works—and evildoers.)
I know these things about O’Reilly because, for the entire month of October, I watched Fox News for approximately three hours every day, while at the same time strictly abstaining from any other sources of information about current events. The reason I engaged in this self-induced Fox News torture was that it had become clear that the right-wing media in general, and Fox News in particular, were constructing an alternate reality than the one I live in. Fox is, of course, a great driver of public opinion.
On this occasion, in which the government shutdown had resulted in death benefits not being paid to the families of soldiers killed in action, the problem was so egregious to O’Reilly that it could not possibly result from pinheadedness. No, instead there must have been heinous forces at work, and one of the devil’s minions was Chuck Hagel.
Bill O’Reilly, it should be noted, is a man whose mind is entirely undarkened by doubt. I have seen him refuse even to consider the arguments of a Notre Dame theology professor who took exception to his interpretation of the life and message of Jesus. When Juan Williams told him that Jonathan Gruber from MIT had calculated that 80% of American citizens would find their health insurance unchanged under Obamacare, O’Reilly responded, “I don’t believe that for a second…That’s what some pinhead says. That’s not a fact.”
Doubt, as well as its cousins ambiguity, complexity, subtlety, and nuance, are simply not welcome on O’Reilly’s show. Socrates said “To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable, but to be certain is to be ridiculous.” Bill O’Reilly, I imagine, would think that Socrates was a pinhead.
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A 2007 study found that in the 2000 presidential election, “Republicans gained 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points in the towns that broadcast Fox News.” The study’s estimates “imply that Fox News convinced 3 to 28 percent of its viewers to vote Republican, depending on the audience measure.” In addition to being influential, I also learned that Fox News is an extremely poor source of information about current events.
But its influence seems to far exceed the ability to sway a few votes one way or another. Fox and its friends seem to have become so influential and all-encompassing that it is actually creating an entirely separate version of reality in the minds of its most loyal viewers, one that with increasing frequency doesn’t match reality.
Perhaps the most startling pieces of evidence of this came Nov. 6, 2012, the evening of the presidential election. At about 11:25 Eastern Standard Time, Fox called Ohio, and therefore the election at large, for Barack Obama. Remarkably, Karl Rove, Bush campaign advisor and Fox News contributor, stated that Fox’s decision was premature and that it was irresponsible for the network to have made it. For over 30 minutes he continued to argue this point with news anchors Brett Baier and Megyn Kelly along with Fox’s own statisticians. The Fox News establishment, though it selects and covers stories with an eye toward advancing a right-wing agenda, is generally forced to recognize some indisputable facts, like vote counts. Rove, on the other hand, who provides political commentary, which makes up over 2/3 of their content, felt no such restriction. Finally, after one last arithmetic salvo from him attempting to demonstrate that the outcome was still in doubt, the exasperated Kelly said, “Is this just math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?”