United States President Donald Trump has waged a systematic war on the American press, which is a priceless pillar of our immiserated democracy. He has decried any media outlet other than Fox News and its allies dispensing right-wing cant as "fake news". The US president has dubbed the media (with the exception of Fox) the "enemy of the people". He has applauded murderous dictators for their draconian suppression of their press and those dictators, in turn, have justified their crimes with Trump's own words and deeds.
Trump has lavishly praised a US congressman who, when questioned about healthcare policy, brutally assaulted a reporter. He has vituperatively refused to answer questions from journalists he dislikes, often verbally abusing them. He has also publicly insulted dozens of journalists — particularly women and people of color — using crude and demeaning language. Footage of Trump grotesquely mocking a disabled reporter had gone viral in 2016.
Last week, Trump and his administration sunk to a new low when CNN's Jim Acosta persisted in having Trump answer a question he had sought to evade, despite the efforts of a White House intern to seize Acosta's microphone. The US administration used manipulated video footage of Acosta's exchange with the intern to assert that he had assaulted her and used this as a pretext to strip him of his White House press credentials. The manipulated footage omits the audio of Acosta apologising to the young woman for the inadvertent contact as she sought to wrest the microphone from him.
CNN filed a suit. Surprisingly, Fox News publicly supported the suit, as did other media outlets. By the end of last week, a judge issued an injunction and ordered Acosta's White House press pass to be reinstated while the case is heard. Although this is a victory, the war is far from over, and America's enfeebled democracy will be one of its casualties.
Trump's assailing of the American media corresponds to the dismal public trust in it. In the spring of 2018, Gallup and the Knight Foundation questioned 1,440 people about the US media. While many respondents opined that news sources were biased, Republicans and Democrats rated the accuracy and bias of organisations very differently. Disparities were starkest regarding Fox News, Breitbart News, CNN and MSNBC, and were greatly shaped by whether the respondent espoused the ideological leaning of the source in question.
Not all of this can be attributed to Trump's contumely attacks on the freedom of the press as Americans' confidence in their media has steadily retrenched. However, it is unlikely a coincidence that about half of Republicans (51 percent) polled in August said they believed that the news media is the "enemy of the people", in contrast to 24 percent of independents and a meagre 5 percent of Democrats who answered similarly.
Moreover, that same survey found that three quarters of Republicans trusted Trump to tell the truth, while about 15 percent of Republicans trusted the media to be truthful. Unsurprisingly, 86 percent of Democrats trusted the media compared to only 5 percent who trusted Trump. Such reliance on Trump's veracity among Republicans is discomfiting, given the well-documented evidence that he lies repeatedly on issues big and small: As of 2 November, fact-checkers at The Washington Post reported that the US president has made 6,420 false or misleading claims over 649 days. However, for Republicans, this will either not affect their trust in him, or they will simply dismiss these claims using the words of their cult leader: "Fake news".
Republican leaders in Congress, or elsewhere, have generally demurred from criticising Trump's antics even after liberal media and opinion leaders were targeted in a failed mass assassination attempt by a rabid Trump supporter. In part, other Republicans avoid criticising the president because they fear his base that loves him because of his boorish behavior, not in spite of it.
However, Trump's outrages are dangerous for democracy, and both the US president and the Republicans know it. By sowing doubt about all but right-wing media, Trump and the Republicans are confident that Fox and its allies will continue to garner viewership, who, in turn, will be exposed to outright lies and pro-Trump propaganda, with the net impact of improving Republican electoral outcomes. This price is high — it comes at the expense of producing highly ill-informed voters who are easily swayed by the False Prophets of Fox News.
This "Fox News Effect" has been well studied by scholars. In 2007, Stefano Della Vigna and Ethan Kaplan wrote a scholarly study — titled "The Fox News Effect: Media Bias and Voting" — in which they leveraged data about Fox News' entry into the cable market and presidential electoral data for 1996 and 2000. They found that the highly-partisan network increased the Republican vote share between 0.4 and 0.7 percentage points, which is enough to swing tight races. They also found that Fox News affected Republican voter turnout as well as the Republican vote share in the Senate.
The strongest impact on mobilising conservative voters was evident in Democratic-leaning districts. More recently, Gregory Martin and Ali Yurukoglu assessed that individuals who watch Fox News experience a substantial rightward shift in their attitudes and significantly greater willingness to vote for Republican candidates. Provocatively, these economists estimate that had Fox News not existed, the Republican presidential candidate's share of votes would have been 3.6 percentage points lower in 2004 and 6.3 points lower in 2008. Again, these margins are more than enough to swing an election.
Not only is there evidence that Fox News helps solidify and galvanise the Republican base, studies have shown that those who use Fox News as their primary source of information are much more likely to be grossly misinformed regarding basic truths about domestic and foreign policy issues. When Steven Kull and his colleagues posed three basic questions about the Iraq War with indisputable, correct responses to a representative survey of American respondents, they found that Fox News viewers were overwhelmingly more likely to get all three rudimentary questions wrong. Those who were most likely to answer the questions correctly were those who got their news from print sources or public radio and television. However, respondents who relied on other mainstream networks (CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS) were less likely than Fox viewers to be misinformed, but far more likely to be so than those who used print media or public television and radio.
It needs to be stated that while numerous studies have shown conservative Americans overwhelmingly rely on Fox News and are greatly influenced by the incorrect perceptions spread by the network, many of these studies predate the emergence of MSNBC, which is an explicitly Democratic-leaning partisan network. Patrick C Meirick and Elena Bessarabova, in their study of partisan misperceptions, found evidence that Democrats, too, are more likely to espouse Democratic-serving misperceptions the more they accessed liberal media. However, the market share of such media is minuscule compared to the market dominance of the falsehood-fabricating Fox News. In October, Fox News averaged more total viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined.
The enormous market share of Fox News, with its penchant for pro-Trump propaganda, dishonest reportage, race-baiting and fear mongering is worrisome for democracy for at least two reasons.
First, it is well known that partisans of all stripes use biased strategies when looking for information and tend to accept messages with which they agree while rejecting countervailing information. The result is that partisans build opinions for the purpose of defending their existing points of view rather than being objectively correct.
With the proliferation of media, it is increasingly easy for consumers to self-select into echo chambers with the disturbing reality that two distinct Americas have emerged, each equipped with what they believe to be their own "facts". However, some of these facts are clearly less factual than the other.
Second, studies have shown that is nearly impossible to dislodge a partisan fiction once it has taken hold. In fact, efforts to refute nonsense often have the adverse effect of encouraging the person to hold it more ferociously. Efforts to expose partisans to alternative news sources are virtually inefficacious in dislodging a misperception.
America is divided. One set of Americans, largely ill-informed by Fox News, is fearful of change, rues the diminution of white privilege and wants to "Make America Great Again" by trying to make it White again. The other America is more cosmopolitan, tends to embrace change and diversity, is less fearful about America's changing demographics and wants an America in which people are equal before the law, irrespective of their creed, gender, race or who they choose to love. Republicans and their newly-denervated white supremacist allies know that demography is not on their side: America is changing and there is little that they can do to stop it.
This is at the heart of Trump's war on media. It's not just about vilifying and suppressing every outlet that seeks to publish the truth about his corruption, incompetence, truculence and white supremacist pandering. It's about ensuring that his cult-ish followers view him as their most trusted source no matter what facts are revealed on a near-daily basis that demonstrates his unfitness for anything but impeachments. It's also about shoring up the bona fides of behemoth Fox News, whose slavish willingness to serve as Trump's "state television" makes that network his single-most important constituency. As Michael M Grynbaum observed, Fox once gave Trump a perch. Now it's his bullhorn.
The writer has authored the books Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (OUP, 2014) and In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (forthcoming 2018).
Updated Date: Nov 20, 2018 13:33 PM