The Bad Faith Machine Cannot Be Unplugged

The Bad Faith Machine Cannot Be Unplugged

The agitation, the sense of persecution, the standoffishness, the directionless anger: I always know when my dad has been binging conservative media.

It’s not unlike dealing with a relative who struggles with alcohol or drugs. My dad, when he’s pumping far-right propaganda into his boomer, low-information brain 16 hours a day, becomes alienated from me, from my mom, from some of his friends – anyone who he perceives as the Liberal Enemy, part of a vast plot to take over the country and forbid him from applying his values – whatever they are – to his everyday life.

Like millions of well-adjusted (mostly white) millennials who have watched their parents and grandparents devolve into fascist monsters with a little help from right-wing media outlets, I have seen my dad absorb conservative misinformation and allow it to shape not only his view of the terrifying outside world, but of himself. Conservative cable news and online outlets have convinced a generation of Americans that they are being attacked from every angle, and that their kids and grandkids are in on the grand plot.

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It’s heart wrenching. I know my dad is on a right-wing media binge when I call him on a random Tuesday to shoot the shit about sports or my job or something funny or insightful my kids said, and instead of engagement, I get the phone call equivalent of a nod and a forced smile. There is no back and forth, the way our conversations go when he’s not ingesting Republican bullshit by the bucket full. Our phone calls are quick and to the point when he’s in the throes of a right-wing bender.

And it makes sense: Why would he want to engage with someone like me – an America hating, Jesus despising, baby killing, immigrant loving, socialist Marxist fascist pig, someone voting for Satanist pedophile Democrats doing the bidding of an international cabal of communist swine?

I get it.

The other day my dad came to my house and asked me for my take on why anyone was going to prison for participating in the attempted overthrow of the U.S. government on January 6, 2021. That, of course, was not his phrasing. He had recently seen the doctored, heavily-edited January 6 tapes released to Fox News by bad-faith House Republicans who have worked closely with the insurrectionists since before they broke into the Capitol looking to murder members of Congress and stop the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory. These tapes were meant to blunt the January 6 commission's framing of that fateful day.

“Did you see the footage?” my dad asked. I knew which footage he was referring to because I knew Fox and other conservative outlets had never shown their audiences the real footage of Trump supporters breaking down the doors of Congress, killing cops, and calling for lawmakers’ heads. “They’re just walking around like a tour group. There was no violence. A few of them were laughing and smiling. Not even the Capitol police seemed alarmed. What’s the big deal?”

I told him people had died that day. My dad shrugged. “Well, that’s what your news says.”

I told him a handful of congressional lawmakers – including prominent Republicans like Mitch McConnell – had escaped execution by mere seconds. “There’s no evidence of that.”

The trick had worked. House Republicans, now in control of the chamber in what could be a permanent red-pilled majority, have begun their work to obscure what happened on January 6, among the most consequential days in U.S. history. These bad-faith operators will continue muddying the waters of the 2021 insurrection until the insurrectionists are not only seen as innocent, but as national heroes for millions of Americans. It worked beautifully on my dad. Maybe it worked on your parents too.

None of this would be remotely possible if not for Fox News, the nation’s most watched news network and the public relations arm of the Republican Party. It would be easy to argue that the rise of Fox News – birthed by the dearly departed Nixon hatchet man Roger Ailes – is the most consequential political development in modern American history. With a steady stream of misinformation and bad-faith arguments about the most critical issues facing the United States over the past quarter century, Fox has done more to shape political life than anything before or since.

No entity has done more to poison the American body politick than Fox News. We are unable to function as a democratic republic largely because Fox News and its many imitators are allowed to exist.

Without Fox News, there is no George W. Bush presidency. Fox, launched five years prior to the 2000 election, did its part in stealing the election by calling Florida for Bush, joining the well-oiled right-wing apparatus that included Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who then appointed Bush president. Without Fox News, there is no Iraq War, no megaphone to drown out all the valid and important questions about why the Bush administration wanted to launch a ground war in the Middle East. Without Fox News, there is no President Trump.

That Fox was late to get on the Trump bandwagon – to bend to the will of its brain-worm-infested, Trump-worshiping viewers – doesn’t mean the network wasn’t vital in legitimizing him as a presidential candidate and fending off the myriad questions about his business ties and bone-rattling corruption. Without Fox, George H.W. Bush may have been the last Republican president.

Recent court filings in the network’s legal battle with Dominion Voting Systems detail the extent to which Fox works hand in hand with Republican officials to control what is and is not discussed in U.S. politics. These illuminated legal documents show Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch and his network’s most popular primetime personalities – fascists like Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson – admitting they knew the 2020 presidential election was not stolen, but that they would continue spreading conspiracy theories about a deep state cabal robbing Big Daddy Trump of a second term.

Over and over in court filings, these far-right propagandists admit to dealing purely in bad faith.

Nevertheless, We Persist In Doing Nothing

Now for the bleakest part: Nothing can be done to combat these lies. The Bad Faith Machine cannot be unplugged.

Despite Murdoch and his gang of ghouls and cretins admitting that the Stop the Steal movement was, in fact, a load of horse shit, the federal government – specifically the Federal Communications Commission – can do nothing to punish Fox.

There is no FCC license to take from Fox News because it’s a cable TV station, and does not use public airwaves to operate. If the FCC hadn’t been neutered by conservative presidents and activists over the past three decades, the agency could conceivably remove Fox’s license to operate local stations that use public airwaves to broadcast. This would be nothing more than a slap on Murdoch’s wrist and would do nothing to turn off the firehose of right-wing misinformation that has proven so toxic, and so effective.

TV stations can lose their FCC license if they fail to serve the public interest, an increasingly foreign concept in an era where there seems to be no such thing as the public interest. Spreading dangerous lies about a “stolen” presidential election does not, in my estimation, serve the public interest. We now have reams of documents showing that those at the highest levels of Fox News were in on the bad-faith effort to subvert the 2020 election and keep Trump in office.

The FCC, however, is all but powerless to enforce good-faith usage of the public airwaves and punish those who violate the most basic rules of how those airwaves are to be used. Republicans since the 1980s have ensured the agency can do nothing to interrupt the conservative media machine and its deathgrip on the discourse. Democrats, you won’t be shocked to learn, have time and again caved to Republican efforts to neutralize the FCC, with Biden’s recent pick for the agency withdrawing her name from consideration after a vicious right-wing smear campaign against her. There remain two Democratic FCC commissioners and two Republican commissioners. Deadlock, as always, is the Republican goal.

Andrew Schwartzman, a senior counselor at the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, said in a recent interview that “it is almost impossible to lose a license for non broadcast-related misconduct and, even if there were a strong case, it likely couldn’t be brought for five years and the litigation would last for years more. In essence, just about the only thing that is actionable is a felony conviction of a principal who is involved in the day to day management of a station (‘broadcast-related misconduct’). The only other capital offense at the FCC is lying to a federal agency in a material way.”

Without a way to boot Fox News from the airwaves, Democrats should do everything in their power to limit the network’s influence and access. There have been calls over the past month for Fox to be kicked out of the White House Correspondents Association and for the Associated Press stylebook to refer to Fox not as a news organization, but as entertainment. These are small steps, but ones that could chip away at Fox’s credibility, and critically, its access to power.

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I don’t care that there are a handful of legitimate journalists who work for Fox News. It doesn’t matter that some folks working for the network do honest, good-faith reporting on national issues. This cannot be an argument for maintaining the status quo for Fox as an upstanding news organization in line with other major media outlets that abide by journalistic principles and, importantly, do not work alongside a political party to shape and alter discourse. Fox can't be allowed to use actual journalists as human shields against criticism of its mind-blowing violations of basic journalistic norms.

The United States is poisoned by Fox News and its calculated attempts to confuse and lie to the news-consuming public. This phenomenon has become terribly personal for me and millions like me, who have watched – sickened, hopeless – as their loved ones become fearful, misinformed zombies unable or unwilling to engage with reality.

That there is no way to unplug Fox News and its nonstop bad faith is devastating for anyone foolishly optimistic enough to hope for a healthier national discourse. There is, it turns out, no way to cleanse the body politick. My dad and I will never engage with the same reality because Fox has its cables tethered directly to his brainstem, filling him with hate and fear and confusion. For that I am endlessly resentful.

Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.