The Texts Prove, Once and For All, That Fox News Is a Propaganda Network
And American democracy has no idea how to deal with it.
1. Asymmetric Standards
You should watch Tim’s Not My Party from last week if you haven’t, because in it he does two things:
Crushes Chris Cuomo.
Asks why it’s only Chris Cuomo losing his job for breaching journalistic ethics with a newsmaker.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that point last night reading the text messages that various Fox News journalists were sending to the president’s chief of staff during the January 6 insurrection. Particularly the message from Laura Ingraham:
“Hey Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home…this is hurting all of us…he is destroying his legacy,” Laura Ingraham wrote.
The president was hurting “all of us?” Who is the “us” in that phrase?
And why was Ingraham concerned about the “legacy” of a politician she covers for a news network? Why was Donald Trump’s “legacy” any concern of hers?
I’m asking sarcastically, sort of, because we know the answer: Laura Ingraham isn’t a journalist. She is a propagandist.
This is not precisely new in the American media ecosystem. There have always been rogue propagandists (Walter Duranty). There have always been journalists who were more intimate with their subjects than they should be (too many examples to name).
But there are two aspects which are new here. The first is that these propagandists are not rogue. They are fulfilling an institutional imperative. Fox News, as an organization, knows what Ingraham and her colleagues are doing. And they aren’t just looking the other way. They’re encouraging it across the platform, because it’s their business model.
The second is that the propaganda is being done not in service of a policy agenda or political worldview, but in furtherance of an openly anti-democratic, pro-authoritarian movement.
In a very real sense, Fox News now more closely resembles RT than it does, say, ABC News.
And our country has no idea what to do about that.
The stock libertarian response to such challenges is always something akin to: The best remedy for bad speech is more speech.
Maybe that’s true. Or at least, maybe it’s the only remedy possible.
But it’s also possible that there are other mechanisms. For instance, shame. The Sainted Paul Ryan, he of the Good Republican caucus, takes money from Fox News and is still welcomed in polite society. Why is that?
Chris Wallace has recently left the employ of Fox News for CNN—and good for him. Yet Fox News is itself a subject in the news. Will Wallace be willing to answer questions about what he saw at the network candidly? Or will he retreat to euphemisms and evasions?1 I was on the news side, I can’t speak to what was going on in the entertainment side . . .
There are, presumably, many employees at Fox who are not especially interested in overturning American democracy. Perhaps they work in accounting, or HR. Maybe some of them appear on air during certain hours of the day. These are people who are just doing it for the mortgage. Or who think they can do more good working within the system.
Is that okay? Presumably there is some line of work which is so morally distasteful that doing it for the mortgage would not be deemed socially acceptable.
But if I can be honest with you—because that is what we do here—I do not believe there is any “remedy.” Because the problem isn’t Fox News. The problem is there exists a large number of Americans who want Fox News.
It seems possible—and this has been an ongoing philosophical debate since antiquity—that a liberal society is capable of meeting any challenge, except for illiberalism.
Here is a thing I can promise you, though: At The Bulwark, what we say in public is what we say in private. There are no bank shots. No double-speak. No placating one audience in order to influence another. No social lunches with the politicians we’re supposed to be covering. No back-channel texts imploring elected officials to think of our legacy.
We give you one thing: The truth.
First. Last. And always.
I’d missed this story from Airmail last month. It’s about the militia movement in Michigan and I cannot recommend it highly enough. You’ll have to give Airmail your email to read it—or you’ll have to subscribe—but this piece is an illuminating look at where America is right now.
Michigan is sometimes called “the Wolverine State,” after the snarling, vicious little beast that once roamed its forests. That animal gave the group founded by Joe Morrison its name. . . .
Details of how this paramilitary group operated are straight out of a novel by Carl Hiaasen, crossed with Thomas Pynchon. Men training with AR-15s while smoking copious weed. Deep paranoia about imminent totalitarianism. . . .
You know how it ended: last October, state and federal authorities arrested 13 men for conspiring to kidnap Governor Whitmer.
“These were not sophisticated plans,” said a federal prosecutor at one of the pre-trial detention hearings, “but if what we saw on January 6 is any indication, you don’t have to be organized. You just have to be filled with rage and lack impulse control, and that’s what these individuals were doing.”
So far, so good. By now, we’ve seen this story a bunch of times. But again, there’s an aspect of the story that’s new:
Since the Watchmen were taken into custody, neighbors have been afraid to talk to reporters, expressing fear that not everyone involved had been arrested. They might be right—according to federal and state documents, many of the people who were present at the field trainings and discussions of kidnapping have not been charged.
Among them is a Lansing real-estate agent, who, on one transcribed chat, suggested Snapchat was a good platform to elude surveillance. (“The feds hate it,” he wrote.)
Fox’s girlfriend, Amanda Keller, quoted on F.B.I. memos twice as saying, “I want to know what it feels like to shoot someone in the head,” was never charged, either. (Through an attorney, Keller declined to comment.)
John Colone is the owner of the Screams Ice Cream parlor and mini-golf course in the hamlet of Hell, Michigan—supposedly named after the German so schön hell, or “so beautifully bright”—not far from properties where the Watchmen blasted away at cutouts of the governor in the woods. Colone says many of his customers were sympathetic to the Watchmen.
“The only comments I ever heard were ‘Oh, they shoulda got her.’”
That’s the part that’s new. The random people at the ice cream shop saying, “Oh, they shoulda got her.” Not new historically speaking, but new in the American context.
These are not militia members, but members of the general public expressing the wish that the militia members had succeeded in executing their governor.
The danger to society doesn’t just come from the small number of men with guns. It also comes from the much larger number of “normal” people who alibi them, who cheer for them, who look the other way or construct elaborate justifications for their illiberalism.
3. J.P. Morgan’s Watch
A treasure hunt for a lost watch? By the end of this piece I needed a cigarette.
The double-sided pocket watch had a map of the heavens on one of its two dials, an intricate display whose complexity nodded to the mechanical masterpiece ticking within the solid-gold case.
It told time, of course, but it could also chart the sunrise and sunset, the phases of the moon, the path of constellations, the signs of the Zodiac, and track equinoxes, solstices and the declination of the sun.
The watch’s creation 112 years ago must have seemed like a bit of alchemy — and operating it a brush with magic.
Impressive as its features were, the 1.75-pound watch may be just as notable for whom it was believed to be made: John Pierpont Morgan.
Around 1905, the Gilded Age tycoon commissioned the English firm J. Player & Son to create the timepiece, people familiar with the watch have asserted over the decades. It cost 1,000 pounds — or about $5,000 at the time — and took four years to make.
Just a few years after the watch’s completion, Morgan died in 1913 at the age of 75. The banking magnate’s death is said to have touched off a long, peripatetic journey for the timepiece, which eventually found its way into the hands of an enigmatic antiquities dealer in New York.
Then, in the mid-1970s, the pocket watch disappeared, spawning an enduring mystery. I set out to solve it in spring 2020.
Is Wallace bound by any sort of NDA with regards to his time at Fox? Seems like he should have to stipulate to that one way or another just as a precondition.