Fox News is overrated

In a democracy, one of the fundamental tasks of the public is to control the elected representatives and government activities and to reflect critically on them. The media play a central role in this. They should educate people at all stages of the political process, hold decision-makers accountable and uncover scandals, failures and lies by those in power. A balance of closeness and distance to the political office holders must be maintained. The media must be close enough to them to get information, but keep enough distance to expose the contradictions between rhetoric and reality. In a democracy, the media spectrum should reflect the range of opinions and interests of society as a whole. As long as the critical function of journalism is fulfilled, the public can judge the actions and decisions of officials and politicians and hold them accountable accordingly. The media enables what Jürgen Habermas sees as the essential characteristic of the public: public reasoning.

Until recently, most Americans got their information from the traditional media. Today the media landscape is much more diverse and extensive. The entire political spectrum is represented in the current democratic public through numerous web portals, blogs, news channels and Twitter comments. The politically active audience can therefore only choose the opinions that are appropriate in each case. In a democracy that doesn't have to be a problem as long as journalists maintain their independence and critical distance. Obviously, this no longer applies to the right-wing US media, because they let Donald Trump get away with his lies without exposing them as such (The Washington Post has already registered more than 16,000 "false or misleading statements" in the first three years of his presidency).

In the US today, the right-wing media function within a "media ecosystem" (according to columnist Ezra Klein) with internal links and close ties to the Trump administration. In a sense, they are rivals because they vie for the same readers or viewers and at the same time for the favor of the president. But they also serve each other as sources, with the lesser-known, often far-right media trying to grab attention. At the top of the food chain is Fox News, the US news channel with the most viewers (over 3.6 million), well ahead of its rivals, the moderate CNN and the more left-wing MSNBC. Today, 34% of adults who watch the news on cable TV vote Fox. Marginal right-wing media outlets specializing in conspiracy theories and defamation of the Democrats are hoping that Fox News or Donald Trump himself will quote their articles or comments, which would widen their readership / audience.

One can hardly exaggerate Fox's influence on this government and right-wing public opinion in general. In his first 15 months in office, Trump appeared 44 times on Fox News. It is said that Sean Hannity, the most famous Fox commentator, speaks to him almost every day and has accompanied him at campaign events. In addition, nearly 30 Fox employees held positions in the Trump administration at various times. Even the right-wing intellectual Bill Kristol describes Fox News as "pure propaganda" for Trump and his politics. But even Fox has no guarantee that Trump will remain sympathetic to him in the long term. Angry about a poll carried out by Fox during his impeachment proceedings, Trump withdrew part of his sympathy for the station and now prefers the new, further right-wing One American News Network (OANN).

If he is looking for alternatives to Fox, Trump can also count on the support of the right-wing nationalist web portal Breitbart News Network, a media company that presents itself as objective, but often comments from Trump supporters from the ranks of the evangelical right like Ryan Helfenbein of Liberty University sends. He claimed, for example, that the Covid-19 pandemic was caused by the Chinese Communist Party and the WHO (a widespread right-wing topos), that the preventive measures should not be so strict as they are the "free" US economy destroyed, and that Trump deserves our "unconditional support". His readership interpreted these words to mean that "filthy, polluted, Democratic-ruled" cities like New York should be walled in to seal them off from "healthy America."

Today the main task of the right-wing media is - besides the traditional demonization of the Democrats - to idolize Trump and to ward off critical judgments about him. Right-wing extremist sources like InfoWars (run by radio host Alex Jones) propose increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories that they hope will be picked up by either Fox or Trump. The following headlines could recently be read at InfoWars: »Deep State (basically the civil servants) exploits the fear (...) of the coronavirus to open the door to the New World Order and destroy our country«, or: »Pandemics Crisis creates a unique opportunity for advocates of globalization to seize power «. Such "reports" are intended to reinforce the notion that - as Trump suggested earlier - we should simply "go back to work" and ignore the coronavirus death toll. Fortunately, Trump has withdrawn that recommendation and enacted serious preventive measures. Still, the right-wing ecosystem insists that the epidemic must somehow be a conspiracy against Trump, and therefore urges him to reject the experts' recommendations.

The latest attack by right-wing media is against one such expert, Anthony Fauci, a renowned immunologist and member of the coronavirus working group at the White House. Almost every day he appears on TV alongside Trump to cover the pandemic. A right-wing blogger, Peter Chowka, has branded Fauci as a Hillary Clinton-loving stooge of the deep state, an accusation that was immediately adopted by other parts of the far-right ecosystem. Since 1984, Fauci, who has never been perceived as a partisan, has been director of the prestigious state institute NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases). But now, as he sometimes contradicts Trump and advocates tougher measures against the pandemic, he has become the target of defamation not only from the far-right fringe but also from up-and-coming Fox rival OANN. As a result of the smear campaign against him, Fauci has received death threats for some time.

In short: the right-wing media have a symbiotic relationship with the Trump administration. The President favors them in interviews, deliberations and the allocation of posts as long as they show unreserved loyalty to him. But they also know that if they distance themselves too much from him, they can be ousted by rivals. That is why they lack the motivation to take on the critically distant role that media should characterize in a democracy.

There is also another commonality between the slander against Fauci, the earlier right-wing doubts about Barack Obama's American citizenship, and Trump's denial of climate change. The right-wing US media have tacitly or explicitly decided that expertise, facts and objective evidence are (no longer) important. Every statement by a politician or journalist is evaluated according to its potential impact on the legal agenda, Trump's approval rating and his chances of re-election. The public relies on journalism to distinguish between fact and misinformation, truth and lies. But if a person's credibility depends on their political allegiance, then knowledge and truth have lost their meaning. What matters is only personal loyalty. The right-wing media landscape in the USA is becoming more and more similar to that in authoritarian systems, but without their coercive apparatus. The Americans are of course still allowed to do that New York Times read, but millions would consider these sources "too liberal" to be credible. So it's a tautological trap: one shouldn't trust the "mainstream media" because they criticize Trump; and the fact that they criticize him proves that they are too liberal and untrustworthy. In the end, the critical function of the media and the public control of the state that is entrusted to them is increasingly undermined by the right.

Theoretically, citizens enlightened by the media judge the programs and actions of their government based on whether they correspond to their interests and values. In the Trump era, conversely, the right-wing media and citizens wait for the president's statements on how to think and act and then adopt his opinions as their own. If he changes his mind, they'll follow him. Objective criteria for information gathering and policy-making are less important than Trump's supposedly infallible "instincts". This state of affairs no longer corresponds to the image of democracy that we have known for about a century, because beyond the obvious need to justify every whim of Trump, there is no longer any independent, public reasoning.