Fox News Needs To Accept Some Of The Blame For The Insurrection; But That Doesn't Mean We Toss Out The 1st Amendment
from the come-on-now dept
While lots of people have been blaming social media for the insurrection at the Capitol a few weeks back, fewer have recognized that Fox News is at least as much to blame, if not more. As we’ve covered in the past, Yochai Benkler’s book, Network Propaganda, went into great detail with tons of data and evidence, to highlight how, contrary to popular belief, the crazy conspiracy theories don’t really spread that quickly on social media… until after Fox News picks them up. That book also highlights how, while “left-wing” media has its own fair share of wacky conspiracy theories, they don’t spread to nearly the same degree, and competition among different news venues includes attempts to debunk the wackier conspiracy theories. The same is just not there in the Fox News media-sphere.
We’ve actually seen this play out in interesting ways over the last few weeks. Fox News actually did, finally, break with President Trump and his pathetic attempts to deny the election results, and it simply made Trump and his cultist fanboys switch channels to even more insane merchants of garbage: OAN and Newsmax.
Somewhat infamous neocon Max Boot, who spent years championing the kinds of policies that Fox News used to support, before becoming a vocal “Never Trumper,” has penned a piece in the Washington Post that rightly calls out Fox News’ role in the current mess that we’re in. However, he then goes much further, in suggesting legal consequences for Fox News and other Republican/Trumpist voices that played a role via things like Fox News.
Anyone who cherishes our democracy should be grateful to the management of Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites for their newfound sense of social responsibility. We should expect at least the same level of responsibility from broadcast media ? and in particular from Fox News, which has the largest reach on the right.
To its credit, Fox News acknowledged that Joe Biden won. But, reports Media Matters for America, ?in the two weeks after Fox News called the election for Biden, Fox News cast doubt on the results of the election at least 774 times.? According to NPR, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs said Trump?s opponents in the government were guilty of ?treason? and that it would be ?criminal? for Republicans to recognize Biden?s victory. Fox News host Mark Levin told viewers: ?If we don?t fight on Jan. 6 on the floor of the Senate and the House ? and that is the joint meeting of Congress on these electors ? then we are done.?
The pro-Trump insurrectionists were listening. To take but one example, The Post reports that Ashli Babbitt, who was killed in the attack, ?was an avid viewer of Fox News, praising Tucker Carlson and other far-right media personalities on the network as she derided their liberal targets.? This is dismaying but hardly surprising. As the New York Times notes, ?Fox has long been the favorite channel of pro-Trump militants. The man who mailed pipe bombs to CNN in 2018 watched Fox News ?religiously.??
And, yes, it makes sense to call out Fox News for spreading outright falsehoods over and over again in a somewhat slavish devotion to a rabid Trumpist audience, but Boot’s suggestion to have the FCC go after Fox News is hugely problematic.
But while we should expect better behavior from media executives, we shouldn?t count on it. CNN (where I?m a global affairs analyst) notes that the United Kingdom doesn?t have its own version of Fox News, because it has a government regulator that metes out hefty fines to broadcasters that violate minimal standards of impartiality and accuracy. The United States hasn?t had that since the Federal Communications Commission stopped enforcing the ?fairness? doctrine in the 1980s. As president, Biden needs to reinvigorate the FCC. Or else the terrorism we saw on Jan. 6 may be only the beginning, rather than the end, of the plot against America.
This is… nonsense. And also unconstitutional. The “fairness doctrine” which Republicans have been against for ages, and which they falsely claimed net neutrality was an attempt to bring back (it was not), only covered broadcast media. And that was because broadcast media used public spectrum, and since the broadcasters received that spectrum in exchange for broadcasting content for the public good, it was ruled that the FCC could require what was, basically, a right of response.
However, such a thing has never applied to areas that the FCC has no authority over, including cable TV (and now internet TV). Nor does it apply to the internet and social media. Even if the FCC brought back the fairness doctrine, it couldn’t apply it to Fox News. Any attempt to do so would almost certainly lose (and lose badly) in court as an attack on the 1st Amendment itself.
It is easy to understand why Fox News has some responsibility for what has happened in the last few years (and especially in the last few weeks). But it is a much trickier question to figure out what should be done about it. One thing that should not be done is tossing out our principles, and trampling basic rights like the 1st Amendment. I agree that Fox News is an embarrassment and harmful to American democracy in many, many ways. But forcing it to be “impartial” and compelling it to share speech with which it disagrees is no way to support democracy. Any such rule would lead to trouble down the road.
Imagine how the next version of a Trump FCC would treat the NY Times, the Washington Post, CNN and CNBC — all of which the President referred to as “fake news” and “enemies of the people.” It’s not hard to see that any precedent to go after Fox News via the FCC or other legal means would not only be repeated against those other news organizations under the next Trumpist President, but it would likely be worse and even more extreme — all while pointing back to the “precedent” set by a Biden administration doing something similar to Fox News.
We don’t support democracy by throwing away our own rights.