The Cost of Right-wing Media Propaganda | Opinion

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A new study reports that a quarter of Americans believe the FBI, not Donald Trump, instigated the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. That one-fourth of the country is so grossly misinformed actuates Ben Franklin’s wry quip about Americans having “a republic, if you can keep it.”

We cannot keep it, and we won’t, if half the country continues to consume disinformation-for-profit as news.

As we begin the 2024 election season in earnest, media neutrality - or the lack thereof - may shape voters’ perceptions and candidate preferences more than reality.

Propaganda is dividing the country

Mainstream media’s “performative neutrality,” as the Guardian’s Margaret Sullivan put it, doesn’t result in the delivery of neutral news. Neutrality, nationwide, isn’t possible if only moderate and center-left media outlets such as CNN and upstarts Scripps News and NewsNation strive to eliminate bias, while media outlets on the right embrace it.

If it wasn’t already obvious, the Dominion voting case made clear that Fox News so profits from extremism that it buries or distorts mitigating facts along the way. This means the only counterweight to center and left attempts at media neutrality is a network on the right that peddles barely disguised propaganda.

The net national effect on the news is not balance but imbalance, an imbalance that hews hard right. Throw in some sensationalized reporting to generate outrage about crime, immigrants, gays and a stolen election, and pretty soon, a fascist who tried to overthrow the government and terminate the constitution gets invited back for another round.

Truth cannot prevail where it isn’t even presented

The quality of public discourse began to tank with the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, with a heavy assist from the rise of social media.

Today’s scorched earth political landscape is anchored by Fox News, the Epoch Times and the Washington Examiner on the right, where opinions predominate the “news,” inflicting immeasurable damage on the depth and breadth of public knowledge.

The rise in extremism makes clear that the absence of state interference in the cable news cycle does not deliver market balance. In addition to make-believe about the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, one third of the country still believes Trump won the 2020 election, despite consistent judicial rulings to the contrary. It is no coincidence that Trump’s base gets most of its news from Fox, despite Fox’s nearly $800 million admission that it repeatedly lied to them about the election.

The cost of extremism

The societal cost of allowing political propaganda to masquerade as news is rising extremism. The national cost, if we don’t address it, could either be another civil war, or the ascendance of a fascist or even neo-Nazi government with all its brutal implications.

Recognizing the importance of honesty in the news, the Supreme Court, in 1969, unanimously affirmed the Fairness Doctrine in the Red Lion Broadcasting case, which required all news broadcasters to give fair coverage and opposing views on matters of public importance. Given America’s escalating division, the government’s interest in an impartially informed electorate has never been higher.

Balancing publishers’ First Amendment rights against the right of the public to be well-informed, the Red Lion court determined that the public’s right to access full information took priority over the First Amendment concerns of broadcasters, writing, “It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited market-place of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market.”

Consider Britain’s due impartiality requirement, which requires both accuracy and impartiality in the news. Both Trump and his former UK counterpart, Boris Johnson, call efforts to subject them to the rule of law “witch hunts.” But Johnson was dramatically censured by his own party for lying, while Trump was not. As a former member of Parliament told the New York Times, the severity of Johnson’s censure demonstrates Parliament’s “commitment to the fundamental importance of truth” in British politics.

Observing the corrosive effects of disinformation is easy. Fixing it, not so much.

Networks will invoke the First Amendment as grounds for avoiding government intervention, but the First Amendment has never served as a blanket shield from regulatory oversight. It does not shield electoral fraud, threats, obstruction, incitement to riot, defamatory speech, or yelling “fire” in a crowded theater unless there’s an actual fire. Those profiting from them will not curb their ratings-boosting excesses voluntarily.

Democracy depends for its survival on an informed public. Addictive anger-tainment is the opposite of information, and it is ripping us apart. Returning truth to the networks won’t be easy, but the effort is essential if our union is going to hold.

Whether moneyed interests who profit from disinformation want our union to hold is another question altogether.

Sabrina Haake is a 25-year litigator specializing in 1st and 14th Amendment defense. Her columns appear in OutSFL, Chicago Tribune, Salon, State Affairs, Howey Politics, and RawStory. She and her wife split their time between South Florida and Chicago. Follow her on substack.


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