How the Rise of Right-Wing Fake News is Ruining Democracy
By Arlen Grossman/ October 20, 2021
Headlined at OpEd News, October 21, 2021
As our democracy unravels, as it surely is doing, Donald Trump and his reactionary co-conspirators should be assigned much of the blame, along with our outdated and flawed electoral system. Yet we can’t ignore nor downplay the steady and alarming growth of right-wing fake news and disinformation. Because of this disturbing phenomenon we have become a nation of intense political and cultural division incapable of governing the country nor improving the lives of its citizens.
“It’s the economy, stupid!” insisted Democratic political strategist James Carville in 1992, when the economy was the biggest issue of the day. The Bill Clinton campaign drove that talking point all the way into the White House. In today’s polarized political landscape, that slogan needs to changed to “It’s the media, stupid!”
The change in focus is significant. The political culture of this country has devolved into two angry, polar opposite sources of news, information, and opinion. The onslaught and popularity of the right-wing (ultra-conservative) news media has fueled this division and seriously damaged our political and cultural discourse.
Nearly half of America lives in what they perceive as a scary world in which conventional media is no longer trusted. Truth and honesty have been devalued and discarded among Republicans and their allies, for the sole purpose of winning elections and regaining power. Whether it’s the Big Lie about election results, or dismissing the January 6 insurrection as not much more than a pep rally, right-wing media– television, radio, internet, etc.–will report and promote anything that furthers their agenda.
Republicans, importantly one of our two major political parties, currently exist in a world partial to conspiracy theories and whatever Donald Trump has said that day. Their only apparent agenda is to win power back, even at the cost of lives (the Covid virus) and the future of our planet (climate change).
How bad is it? Consider that just last year 74 million-plus Americans, egged on by right-wing fake news and propaganda, cast their vote for a clearly incompetent, mentally unstable, serial liar to lead their country. And if circumstances were only slightly different, that deranged man might still be our commander-in-chief. These conspiracy-minded and morally bankrupt sources of news and information have transformed nearly half the country into a poorly informed, cult-like mob of angry voters.
The beginnings of this phenomenon can be traced to 1987, when the Fairness Doctrine, which required radio and television stations to give fair and balanced coverage to all sides of controversial issues, was repealed by President Ronald Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission. The following year Rush Limbaugh burst onto the scene with a nationally syndicated radio program. His meteoric rise in influence and popularity helped propel right-wing AM talk radio and movement conservatism to new heights. Limbaugh’s influence on conservative politics, hate speech and conspiracy theories was enormous. Imitators followed, and it became evident that conservative commentary was popular and profitable.
Television also learned how powerful their platform could be. Rupert Murdoch, an Australian-born American media mogul, perceived a need for a conservative-oriented television network in the United States to counter the perceived liberal bias of network broadcasting. His Fox News network was launched in October 1996, and soon became the dominant cable news network in the U.S. Later, two new television networks, One America News and Newsmax, both even more extreme than Fox, joined the fray.
When the internet took off in the 1990s, the right-wing took to it like a cat to catnip. They have forged it into a powerful tool, far more effective than anything the Left had to offer. Websites, blogs and social media spread their toxic message. They had money and a political party behind them and took advantage of it.
What attracts millions of people to these news sources that stray so far from truth and reality? I believe it is because this brand of news and information confirms and reinforces many people’s feelings and opinions, often the kind likely to go unsaid in “polite company.” Prejudice and intolerance (racism), gun worship, hatred of liberals, science denial, religious fundamentalism, Trump worship, etc. are usually not considered politically correct, but now, thanks to right-wing fake media, their beliefs are confirmed and encouraged. Yes indeed, “It’s the media, stupid.”
How much trouble are we in? A great deal, because these views threaten our long-standing democracy and our ability to work together as Americans to effectively fix our problems as a nation, as we historically have done. But the right-wing fake media is not going to quit their profitable, influential onslaught, no matter what damage they cause. The solution is unclear. Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine would make a difference, but would be strongly resisted.
Darker days of hate, gaslighting, and propaganda are likely ahead. We need to recognize and figure a way to fight this fast-growing cancer before it destroys us. Our democratic safeguards and ideals are on the line. But the “stupid” media threatens our institutions and our fragile democracy. That’s unacceptable and we need to do everything we can to prevent this hostile takeover before the country we used to be proud of is little more than a distant memory.