This is a difficult article for me to write, because I have no desire or intention of sifting through right-wing media in order to present specific examples of what I would like to talk about. This is not because I am afraid of leaving my “bubble” or being confronted with different opinions than my own. No, the reason I avoid Fox News and the like is because I already know what they’re going to say, because they’ve been saying the same things for years, and it’s tiresome. Also, it’s not like I can escape it anyway. I don’t have to seek out specific conservative news outlets in order to hear the messaging. I’m online, I follow the news and social media, and therefore like everyone else I have a front row seat to the talking-point circus. The message doesn’t change, it is always the same. From the President to his sycophants to local government to the old guy in the grocery store to your family to random Twitter-bots, the message is always the same. We’re right, and if you disagree with us you’re an un-American subhuman monster.
I wish I was overstating here. I wish I could claim hyperbole. Yet the way conservative media has been operating for the last, eh, 25 years or so, has rendered overstatement and hyperbole a daily way of operation. Look, I’m not speaking from a place of ignorance here. I’ve been subjected to this worldview my entire life, or at least since I was old enough to understand politics, which is right around when Rush Limbaugh became a thing. He laid the blueprint, of course, which went on in pretty much a straight line to the various heavyweight pundits on Fox like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck and whoever the hell is mad this week. The success of this blueprint is undeniable, and has become stronger each year to the point where a significant segment of the population refuses to consider other viewpoints outright. I think it’s worthwhile to examine how they operate, although we all know that once you’re in, it’s nearly impossible to get out.
It was shortly after Trump won the Republican primary last year where I first realized that he lies in exactly the same manner as a Soviet official. Perhaps that’s unfair to the Soviet Union, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that Trump lies like a totalitarian dictator. I’m not making a direct comparison, by the way, I still think he’s too incompetent to actually derail democracy in this country, but he still lies like one. The mindset is there, and it’s different than how most politicians usually lie. Generally, the politician is subtle in their falsehoods. They lie by omission or misdirection. Not so the Trump Administration. They make it up as they go along, and then speak as if that is not only the truth, but always has been the truth. Then, when they invariably contradict themselves – sometimes in the very next sentence – the new statement becomes the new truth, always has been always will be. Now, in a totalitarian situation, these “truths” are not questioned. If Stalin says that the Soviet Union invented water, then the Soviet Union invented water. The true believers figure out a way to enforce their cognitive dissonance so as to continue being a believer while everyone else keeps their mouths shut lest they get themselves shot. Obviously that’s not the case here. In the United States, the true believers behave accordingly while everyone else throws their hands up in the air and screams “what the actual fuck?”
Yet Trump is only behaving according to the model. He speaks and acts like a less eloquent version of his pundit models. This model, demonstrated by the aforementioned personalities, is pretty well entrenched at this point. Limbaugh, Coulter, Hannity, O’Reilly and the rest all operate according to the same template. They work from a particular worldview – one which mines a specific kind of nostalgia – and build from that. It’s an absolutist model, which means that there’s no room for subtlety or variation or context. Guns are good, guns have always been good, guns will always be good. Climate change is a lie, it has always been a lie, it will always be a lie. You can throw as many facts as you want at the mantra, any deviation from the hard line is cause for suspicion and possible expulsion. It almost doesn’t matter what the reason for the platform is, once it’s established it’s a decree. For most viewers, this is fine since it simplifies the world. That’s one of the great allures of this kind of media, after all. You only have to keep track of one news source and they’ll have all the answers you’ll ever need.
The success of Fox News is the result of a genius business plan, of course, and like the strident, angry tone of the content, the template was lifted from Rush Limbaugh. Their fundamental strategy is to create a conspiracy theory. Like any conspiracy theory, this one targets people who are disaffected and dissatisfied with the current explanation for the world. A seemingly reasonable solution is offered which validates this dissatisfaction. Keep in mind, this solution only needs to sound right, it doesn’t actually have to pass logical rigor. Once that solution is accepted, it’s easy to feel a bond with the person or outlet who offered that solution, since they obviously view the world in the same way. Trust becomes more important than truth. Believing the conspiracy theory becomes a source of comfort – of course this is how things really are, I’m smart, I can see the truth, anyone who disagrees simply cannot see because they’re dumb/brainwashed/evil. Evidence which contradicts the conspiracy theory is instantly dismissed as suspect. You can’t trust that which doesn’t support the proper worldview.
In the case of Fox News and the conservative media, the conspiracy theory in question is that of the “liberal news media.” Consider the brilliance of this method. You’ve got a significant portion of the population who are starting to feel left behind, either economically or culturally (or both). There are many, many complicated social reasons for this. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Instead, explain that everyone in the news media is telling you false information. Instead of telling you things that happen in the world, they’re trying to make you feel bad about yourself and your beliefs. That’s awful, isn’t it? Don’t worry though, come listen to us and we’ll present similar things but in the way you want to hear it. Every other news organization in the world is in cahoots, only we are brave enough to tell the truth. Every other news organization in the world is trying to push their agenda, only we are brave enough to present the unvarnished truth.
There’s two paradoxical reasons as to why this approach works so well. The first is, obviously, people like to be told what they want to hear. Therefore, it’s easy to accept something extremely unlikely and reject something obvious. Like any conspiracy theory, it becomes easy to believe that anyone telling you that your belief is mistaken is a liar and out to get you. If news organizations are all controlled by some nebulous cabal of liberals pushing their agenda, it makes sense to cling to the one life raft in an ocean of lies. The second reason this works seemingly contradicts this, though. Fox News and the rest of conservative media is unabashedly right-wing. By definition they push a specific worldview, and do so gladly. That’s kind of the whole point, right? Now, if that’s all you consume, you come to view all media as inherently biased. The notion of neutral reporting becomes an alien, impossible idea. Therefore, if a news organization attempting journalistic standards breaks a story that disagrees with the conservative worldview, that organization must be operating from a position of bias. Thus, facts become relative. You have to be able to hold both ideas in your head at once. My news is the only truth, but is also specifically biased toward my interests because everyone else is biased against them.
We’re at the point where some people don’t believe in journalism anymore. Punditry has taken over to the point where a reporter presenting actual things which happen in the world seems like a quaint notion. Major news organizations are dismissed out of hand because it is assumed that they operate in the same way as Fox News, even when they still make an attempt at neutral reporting. That’s how someone like Roy Moore nearly wins a Senate seat. “Did you hear about those women who said Moore tried to pick them up when they were minors?” “Gross, no, where did you hear that?” “Oh, The Washington Post ran….” “Say no more, it’s obviously more lies by the liberal news media trying to push their agenda again.” “Yeah, but the reporting looks legit and….” “No.” End of discussion, because any news agency outside of maybe three approved sources is just part of the conspiracy, out to spread lies.
I was hoping to touch on the use of rhetoric and other means of bad-faith argument implemented by conservative media that trickles down to the base, but this is getting long as it is. Suffice to say, everyone from Fox to Trump loves them some dismissive buzzwords and derogatory nicknames meant to trivialize fact-based arguments. If I label you a “loony leftist,” I don’t have to listen to what you’re saying. If I label the entirety of the world’s news media outside of two or three sources “fake news,” I don’t have consider your so-called “facts.” As for myself, I am more than willing to listen to conservative arguments. However, I have no discomfort in dismissing bad faith arguments. I don’t have time to listen to smug, dismissive name-calling. There’s no point in arguing with a set of bullet points seen on Hannity’s show, or some dude’s YouTube channel. I’m not interested in conspiracy theories, flawed logic, or a determined, willful ignorance. Unfortunately, it seems like those things are what defines modern American conservatism these days.