Fox News Didn’t “Steal” Your Parents
We must hold our conservative relatives responsible for their actions.
Two days ago, journalist Luke O’Neil published an article titled “What I’ve Learned From Collecting Stories of People Whose Loved Ones Were Transformed by Fox News” in The New Yorker’s Intelligencer. The piece summarizes over a hundred individual messages that were sent to O’Neil by the concerned liberal and left-wing relatives of conservative people. Nearly every person who sent Luke a message told a similar story, of a beloved relative who had transformed from a loving and gentle person, into a fearful, hyper-conservative bigot, due to repeated exposure to right-wing TV, radio, and digital media.
O’Neil received this outpouring of messages and heartfelt stories in response to his own, very personal account of how Fox News warped the mind of his mother and his other relatives, which was published last week to his Substack newsletter. That piece was titled “I hate what they’ve done to almost everyone in my family”, and it contained rich, poignant excerpts from a handful other people’s stories and experiences, too.
I’ve read through O’Neil’s original Substack post, his Intelligencer piece, and a lot of the feedback he’s received in comments and on Twitter. And there is a general tone of mournful, uncontrollable loss that characterizes nearly all of it. Conservative relatives are not described, in these writings, as agents of bigotry or hate; they are generally not taken to task for their actions or for seeking out biased information via Infowars, Rush Limbaugh, or Fox News.
Rather, these right-wing family members are largely portrayed as passive victims of a larger social force; they are people who have been “stolen”, “taken”, or “ruined”. Conservative media is a harm that has been “done to” these people, as one contributor puts it, rather than a biased source they personally sought out. Passively consuming media from these outlets is variously described by O’Neil and others as an “addiction”, a “brain poisoning”, or a “mind warping”.
In the majority of stories related to O’Neil, these right-wing relatives either started out as perfectly kind, fair-minded people, or they still are very warm, egalitarian, and loving, in their day-to-day lives. But rather than living in a manner consistent with that lovingness and warmth, these individuals shut themselves away friends, family, and society, and bathe in a near-constant din of conservative messaging. They elect politicians who are hateful, ill-prepared, and proudly uninformed. When challenged on their views by their liberal or leftie children, they shut down, get defensive, or recite empty, Fox-News-approved platitudes that don’t invite further discussion.
That’s if they are challenged on their views at all. O’Neil himself states that he avoids talking about politics with his right-wing mother; the very opening of his Substack piece gently and lovingly instructs his mother not to read the rest of what he’s written. And the majority of people who shared stories with O’Neil are similarly conflict-averse. For the most part, these dismayed, liberal-minded folks state that they choose not to fight with their relatives about politics at all. They may be concerned by the impact Fox News has had on their loved ones; they may genuinely mourn the “loss” of these once-caring people to the side of small-mindedness and hate. But, by and large, they are not prepared to fight to win these relatives back.
In July of 2015, filmmaker Jen Senko released the documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad. The film describes how repeated exposure to the Fox New Network, with all its factual distortions and fear-mongering, warped the mind of Senko’s father. If we take the film at face value, we are to believe that Senko’s dad converted through repeated exposure to Fox News and right-wing talk radio, from a gentle, compassionate man with critical faculties, into a buzzword-echoing, terrified partisan.
The documentary touches on many common critiques of Fox News that have been articulated for decades at this point (but which deserve repeated highlighting, because they keep happening): Facts are distorted, obscured, or falsified; massive, systemic injustices are entirely ignored; the issues of the day are recontexualized in a manner that plays up outrage with the Democrats and downplays conservative involvement. Fear of crime, immigrants, and social change is stoked; concern about economic inequality, climate change, and racial injustice is stifled.
We all know these criticisms very well at this point. Basically everyone who isn’t a devoted Fox News viewer has been acutely aware of them for a long time. But what made Senko’s documentary distinctive, back in 2015, was not how it highlighted the problems with Fox News. That was not the focus of the film at all. Instead, the documentary focused on the ways in which Senko’s father was not to blame for his changing political beliefs. Here’s the trailer for the film:
In this trailer, Senko briefly outlines how conservative talk radio and Fox News fundamentally changed her father from an egalitarian man who didn’t harbor any visible prejudices, to someone who loathed Black people, LGBTQ people, feminists, and poor people. All agency for this shift is placed solely on the shoulders of the conservative media itself. Senko’s dad simply stumbled across right-wing propaganda while looking for a radio station to occupy his mind during a long drive.
If we buy into the language utilized throughout this doc, Senko’s dad is not a man who chose to become radicalized as a bigot. We might not even want to hold him responsible for any actions he has taken under Fox News’ influence. Senko describes him as brainwashed.
And that use of passive, mind-control-themed language was prescient. In the years to follow Senko’s documentary, dozens of articles, essays, and videos would go on to describe Fox News viewers as “stolen”, “lost”,“destroyed”, and in need of “saving”.
This language is prevalent, particularly among white liberals, because it is as comforting as it is sad. If we believe our relatives are perfectly sweet people who were given “brain worms” by Fox News, then we don’t have to confront the possibility of them having always harbored deep-seated hate. We can tell ourselves that our fond childhood memories are no more complex than we’d like them to be; our grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles truly were fair, intelligent and kind. We were raised by worthy people, who were safe — but those people have been stolen away. Most of us would deeply prefer believing that to confronting the possibility that we were reared by prejudiced or ignorant people.
And if our relatives were transformed or ruined by conservative media, our parents are not to blame for any actions they take while under that influence. We don’t have to feel anger at them for their voting record, or for the racist things they do and say. We don’t have to reckon with how their whiteness, their straightness, and their economic privilege pushed them to harm other people. That’s Fox News talking, not them! That’s Rush Limbaugh in the ballot box, not them!
Never mind the fact that many of the people described in both pieces had always been conservative. Never mind that many of us grew up exposed to conservative talking points and media on a daily basis and somehow did not become reactionary zombies in response. We’d all prefer to believe that our relatives were never racist, homophobic, sexist, or transphobic before the mean men on the TV got to them. It’s too sad and scary to consider that the call was always coming from inside the house.
To his credit, O’Neil acknowledges both of these facts in his Intelligencer piece. He points out that many of the relatives described in his pieces started out as conservatives— so it may be the case that right-wing media just emboldened them to express existing biases more loudly than they had in the past. He also notes how the ‘radicalization’ of many people’s family members ran parallel to Barack Obama’s Presidency. “There was something about Obama that seemed to make a lot of previously apolitical or moderate family members lose their minds,” he writes. “Gosh — what could it have possibly been?”
But what O’Neil doesn’t quite touch on, and which really needs highlighting, I think, is how the language of “taken”, “stolen”, or “transformed” relatives eschews us — their white, left-leaning family members — of all responsibility. As the white, relatively privileged relatives of these right-wing voters, we have a unique potential to reach out and be taken seriously. And as the people who watched these family members undergo a radicalized “transformation”, we were the ones who had the opportunity to step in and fight it.
Many of us (myself included) abdicated that responsibility, and are suffering the consequences of it today. We can mourn the consequences as a “loss”, thereby telling ourselves that there is no hope of future change — or, we can see our family members’ views as the product of a long series of choices and interactions, which will require years of genuine effort to overcome.
I understand why O’Neil chooses to avoid talking about politics with his mother. I deeply relate the sense that any attempt at fighting on these issues will lead nowhere. Hell, last year I wrote a piece on Medium about giving up hope of my conservative relatives ever changing their views. I know how hard it is to try and make someone see the light; how painful, draining, and traumatic those fights can become.
But when we throw our hands up and say that our conservative family members have a “brain parasite” that has “ruined them” forever, we are giving into to an appealing fiction. We are being just as self-servingly biased in our thinking as Fox New commentators are. We are choosing to believe a narrative that lets our loved ones, and ourselves, off the hook, that allows us to sit at the Thanksgiving table without uttering a challenging word.
The truth is, our Republican and right-leaning relatives are active parties in their own transformations. They chose to drink from the well of misinformation and hate on a regular basis. They decided to shut out critical discussion. They carried their viewpoints to the polls. They made our world a worse place. And we have a responsibility to take them to task for it.
We might not change their minds. We might not be able to “save” them, because they may demonstrate, time and time again, that they have no interest in being saved. But we cannot simply pity them and let them continue along their destructive paths without consequences. They are grown adults with worm-free brains, and the capacity to do hard work interrogating their own biases. They can change. If they want to. And if we make it clear to them that their actions and their willful ignorance are not acceptable to us.