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.
+ Fox News radio host Todd Starnes calls notoriously anti-LGBT restaurant Chick-Fil-A “the official chicken of Jesus.”
+ Bill O’Reilly fights an imaginary war to preserve the celebration of Christmas.
+ When Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson went on his now-infamous homophobic tirade in GQ, Sean Hannity called Robertson’s remarks “old fashioned traditional Christian sentiment and values.” Erick Erickson said Robertson “spoke openly of his Christian faith. Because he offended a secular left at war with orthodox Christianity, he must be punished.” And Jim Pinkerton called his suspension from the show “a purge of Southern white Christian patriotic culture out of TV.”
“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.
+ On a November 2012 episode of The O’Reilly Factor, notorious bully Bill O’Reilly lambasted dishonest media culture and “vicious” people from the far-left, saying: “There are entire media operations that exist solely to promote ideology; it’s obviously a bad situation that is getting worse.” He is describing himself and Fox news with alarming clarity, but accusing the “liberal media” of his crimes instead.
+ In May 2012, President Obama was asked on The View whether or not he expected the presidential election to be close. He replied, “When your name is Barack Obama, it’s always tight.” President Obama was referring to the tactics conservative pundits have used paint him as a non-American with sympathies and ties to radical Middle Eastern terrorist groups. That afternoon, however, Fox News regular Monica Crowley called the president “bigoted” for suggesting many Americans view him through a racist lens. This is flipping in a nutshell: When a victim calls you out on your bigotry and your suggest that they are the bigot and you are the victim.
+ Glenn Beck — who has a long history of spewing racist rhetoric against black people, Muslims, and undocumented workers — accused President Obama of having “a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture.”
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.
+ When Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman, Fox News guest Doug Burns said, “I know everybody keeps sarcastically saying about the Skittles. You could probably kill somebody with Skittles. The thing is, yeah, you’re spinning a lot of hypotheticals. And you could break a bottle of iced tea, right, with the jagged edge, and you could kill somebody with it.” Geraldo Rivera insisted that Martin’s “hoodie is as much responsible for [his] death as George Zimmerman was.” After which he continued to paint a menacing picture of the unarmed teenager and defend Zimmerman’s decision to kill him.
+ After Eric Garner was killed by New York City police who used an illegal chokehold on him, Fox News went to great lengths to blame his murder on Garner himself. The coroner’s report stated that Garner died of “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” However, Fox News sought commentary from pundits who blamed Garner’s other health issues for his death, believed Garner had it coming because he was selling cigarettes illegally, or denied that he was even placed in a chokehold at all.
+ After unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot multiple times by Officer Darren Wilson, Fox News hosts repeatedly asserted that Brown was a “bad guy,” a narrative that included the perpetual presentation of false information.
+ When Freddie Gray was killed in the back of a police van in Baltimore, Fox News contributor Bo Dietel said, “I’m just hoping they did toxicology [on Gray]. Possibly he was on drugs.” When Geraldo Rivera arrived on the scene in Baltimore to cover the protests, he said residents seemed to be “looking for trouble.”
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.
+ On The View in 2010, Bill O’Reilly said the reason he opposed a mosque being built near Ground Zero was because: “Muslims killed us on 9-11.”
+ The idea for an international cultural center in Manhattan was derided by Bill Hemmer as “the first stop for a radical jihadist who comes to America who wants to go pray.”
+ On The O’Reilly Factor, Ann Coulter said if all Muslims would boycott airlines we could dispense with airport security altogether.”
+ Megyn Kelly: “Jesus was a white man, too.”
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:
+ When Fox News talks about “State Rights,” they’re invoking the language used as a coded racial appeal during the Civil Rights Movement that gave states the right to ignore federally mandated racial integration.
+ The phrase “illegal alien” triggers fears about immigrants being criminals who want to undermine the American way of life.
+ Phrases like “Defender of marriage” or “defender of faith” are used to position advocates of LGBT equality as people determined to destroy marriage or destroy faith.
+ Words like “thug,” “ghetto,” and “hood” are used to other black people and their cultural expressions while drawing to mind violent images from pop culture.
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.”
+ When Fox News talks about “welfare” and “food stamps,” they do so with the unspoken suggestion that these programs are about lazy minorities taking wealth from hard-working white people. Same with “entitlement society.”
+ The phrase “black-on-black crime” suggests that black people are inherently criminal, and that all violent actions taken against them are justified because white people are defending themselves/their family against someone who is, or likely will be, a criminal.
+ Following O’Reilly’s The View appearance during which he said “Muslims killed us on 9-11,” Brian Kilmeade defended him on Fox & Friends by saying: “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.”
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.
+ In March 2010, Fox & Friends co-anchor Gretchen Carlson said the Texas Board of Education is was considering new history textbooks that would “eliminate references to certain holidays, Founding Fathers, the Constitution! I mean, no surprise that Christmas, they want to get rid of that because they’ve been doing that for the last couple of years, but c’mon, the Constitution?” Untrue. (Isolate viewers: ad nauseam, cognitive dissonance.)
+ In January 2014, on Fox & Friends, Brian Kilmeade said Colorado welfare recipients can turn their benefits into cash at ATMS, which they will do to buy marijuana. Untrue. (Appeal to fear: minority-baiting, coded language, stereotyping.)
+ In April 2014 Todd Starnes said that liberals had figured out a Facebook algorithm and “all the people getting banned from Facebook are somehow conservatives.” Untrue. (Isolate viewers: false dichotomies, ad nauseam. Create an enemy: character assassination.)
+ In February The Five co-host Dana Perions said about climate change: “The temperature readings have been fabricated, and it’s all blowing up in their (scientists’) faces.” On the same panel, Kimberly Guilfoyle called climate change research “fraud science.” Obviously untrue. (Just pure misinformation, as are 72% of Fox News claims about climate change.)
+ In September 2014, Britt Hume said that President Obama was sending a much larger force to deal with Ebola in West African countries than with ISIS. Super untrue. (Appeal to fear: minority-baiting, coded language.)
+ And let’s not forget Birtherism. In 2013, 64 percent of Republicans still believed President Obama was not born in the United States. (Appeal to fear: minority-baiting, coded language, stereotyping.)
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.
+ Looking at the way Fox News and its viewers bumbled around in various states of bewilderment after the 2012 election is the perfect way to illustrate that point. In the build-up to election day, the math that lead multiple long-respected, nonpartisan polling organizations to forecast a win for President Obama was condemned by Fox News as “scientific gobbledygook,” “liberal media noise,” and “numbers that parrot the mainstream media.”
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.
+ After the 2012 presidential election, Fox News blamed President Obama’s campaign for many of the public perceptions about Mitt Romney that led to his defeat. However, it was Republican candidates who crafted those messages during the primary campaign season. Fox told its viewers President Obama was responsible for Americans believing the narrative that Romney “was a vulture, that he was a vampire,” a “Vulture Capitalist.” In fact, it was Rick Perry who coined the phrase and Newt Gingrich who continued to promote it. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire who ultimately became one of Romney’s chief financial supporters, is the one who financed Gingrich’s now-infamous “King of Bain” attack documentary.
+ In an attempt to paint President Obama as soft on terrorism, Eric Bolling, co-host of the Fox News program The Five, said there were no terrorist attacks in America during President Bush’s time as president: “America was certainly safe between 2000 and 2008. I don’t remember any terrorist attacks on American soil during that period of time.” Not a single person on the panel pointed out that Bolling had either forgotten or was deliberately excluding 9/11, the most devastating terrorist attack in United States history. When Bolling was called out by basically every non-Fox new organization in the country, he said that he misspoke, but that the “radical liberal left” was “being petty” for expressing outrage over his lie.
+ In January 2013, Sean Hannity told Fox News viewers that there were 8.3 million fewer Americans working than when President Bush left office in 2008, which was completely untrue.
What kind of effects do we see when large numbers of people are consuming baseless propaganda under the impression that it’s news journalism? Well, a study conducted by Cambridge’s Journal of Politics found that all Americans — not just evangelical Christians or diehard Republicans — are susceptible to Fox News’ message. Democratic members of Congress became more sympathetic to Republican causes after being exposed to Fox News. Their hostility toward Mexican immigration increased, for example, as did their belief in inaccuracies about climate change and the Iraq war. Fox News deliberately misinforms its viewers about things like climate change to score political capital, and most scientists now believe the earth is on the brink of its sixth mass extinction. Fox News not only fosters a culture of terror and hate; it also purposefully contributes to the destruction of the literal planet.
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.