We have a problem — a problem so overwhelming that I have taken to referring to it as Problem #1. It’s not climate change, it’s not the economy, it’s not systemic racism. It’s not even Covid-19. Those are all very serious problems, but as I described in my initial installment of Rebooting Reality, they are not America’s biggest problem.
America’s biggest problem — aka Problem #1 — is that America does not have a shared reality. It is our most urgent problem because it prevents us from uniting, confronting and addressing all the other major problems that we face. Although conflicting realities are not the direct cause of climate change, the current recession, systemic racism or Covid-19, as long as we have such starkly diverging perceptions of the seriousness of each of these problems, we can never solve them. Ironically, it is in the interests of many of those in power — including certain influential content providers — to maintain and increase our national polarization. But the cost of doing so, in lives, money and global influence, has been devastating.
Wait, influential content providers? Yes, because at the center of influence is Fox News. Under the presidency of Donald Trump — and as described in detail in Brian Stelter’s recent investigative analysis, Hoax — Fox News has transformed from a provider of journalistically driven independent news to an entertainment content provider with the primary objective of delivering information that will make their audience feel good. By packaging their content in a way that masquerades as fact-based representative news, they have created a loyal audience who believes it is receiving facts, and in doing so, Fox is meeting a demand for fake journalistic content that will allow their niche audience to engage in, among other things, the irrational practice of “owning the libs” (at least in their mind).
By relinquishing their commitment to journalistic integrity, Fox has hit upon an extraordinarily prosperous business model that has overwhelmed any incentive to revert back to their role as a legitimate news organization. Their methodology relies on creating a continuous flow of right-wing narratives under the guise of them being representative points of view, while simultaneously denigrating other news sources in the mainstream to undermine the credibility of competing narratives. It works — Fox News is the single most watched news network in the country. This also accounts for Fox’s leadership in the creation of misinformed viewers and conspiracy theorists.
We have underestimated the destructive power of Fox News in part because we are accustomed to the claim that its power is a result of Donald Trump. In fact, the opposite is true: Trump is the product of the dominance that Fox established in the marketplace of alternative realities, and they have successfully enlisted the president as the most effective purveyor of their product.
Like millions of others, Trump is a fan of Fox News. With the exception of some recent polls, he believes what is reported on Fox News, and like every other fan, Fox News stirs his emotions, confirms is fear-addled biases and shields him from what he doesn’t want. In collaboration with its most influential fan, Fox provides Trump with a constant stream of flattering and sycophantic “news” that he will then disseminate far and wide, providing the illusion of credibility for its viewership. The circular dynamic between Fox and Trump is dangerously self-reinforcing, with each relying on the other to confirm and promote the manufactured pieces of their shared alternative reality.
Fox also provides a pipeline of staff for the Trump administration, with prominent Fox News personalities playing an advisory role behind the scenes, driving policy creation and weighing in on major decisions that affect the country and the world. It is a bizarre, distorted symbiotic relationship that feeds off itself and bolsters the walls of their alternative reality bubble.
Not long ago, the fabrication of fact was relatively harmless. Remember those carefree days? The highly speculative stories about Barack Obama being born in Kenya, the flacks and quacks who were given airtime to debunk climate change or fight the war on Christmas. Although these narratives laid the groundwork for propaganda susceptibility, it wasn’t like they were causing death and destruction.
But now that has changed, and the hard, single reality is tragic: Fox News, in partnership with the President of the United States, is literally responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, and counting.
From a shareholder perspective, Fox has done what its business model demands: they have made enormous amounts of money by telling people what they wanted to hear, which meant promoting a months-long fictional narrative of quackery and presidential competence that has played down the seriousness of Covid-19. In doing so, they have successfully influenced a crucial segment of their audience — government leaders charged with setting an example and making critical decisions to protect the country — in a way that has killed at least tens of thousands of people and put all remaining 328 million people in the United States at risk. In the process, they have deluded our president and those around him into behavior that led to his infection — a consequence that has metastasized into a national security risk.
Fox News is merely one of the media players specializing in the profitable peddling of false narratives, but they are at the center of the right-wing ecosystem and essentially embedded in our federal government. The course they have chosen is not sustainable; they will eventually lose both their influence over the White House and a critical mass of credibility, and at some point, there will be an accounting for the unprecedented human cost of promoting this deadly false narrative to America. (Consensus appears to be building around the understanding of Fox News’ high share of responsibility for our great American tragedy, which is well articulated in Eric Boehlert’s recent piece, here).
We are a long way from solving Problem #1, but it has placed all of us into a long-running, slow moving national disaster. No other single entity has more influence — either directly or via the president — over so many Americans than Fox News. Is it too much to ask for them to put morality over profitability and begin telling their audience the unvarnished truth? Imagine how many lives could be saved if Fox immediately began accurately reporting on the seriousness of Covid-19 and compelled their followers to accept and comply with the guidelines recommended by scientifically informed medical professionals.
In an age of conflicting realities, in which profitability take precedence over morality and mortality, this is wishful thinking, but we face a single irrefutable reality: “owning the libs” will only lead to killing the cons, along with an unacceptable number of people within six feet of them. Until we can find a way to reunite our realities, those of us who reside in a fact-based information ecosystem can only continue to put the best advice for preventing infection out there:
Maintain social distancing, wash your hands, wear a mask, and don’t watch Fox News.