May 24, 2020
by Steve Stofka
In the latest cable news media surveys, Fox News had 3.7 million prime time viewers, outdistancing cable news/talk outlets CNN and MSNBC (Watson, 2020). Traditional broadcast networks ABC and NBC have 12 million viewers, three times the number of Fox viewers and six times that of MSNBC and CNN (Koblin, 2020). For the 21 million households that have never had cable TV, broadcast news is their only choice.
The Fox News model courts conspiracy theorists, salacious news and rumor. In any country, there is a pool of people eager to believe speculation if it conforms to their sentiments. There are two kinds of conspiracy theorists: those who don’t know any better and those have seen it all and do know better. Conspiracies join the old and the young.
At first I dismissed speculation that President Johnson would send thousands of young men like myself to their deaths to bolster his political reputation. He secretly taped many phone conversations in the White House. His own words substantiate the claims (Sanger, 2001).
After President Nixon’s landslide victory over Democratic rival George McGovern in 1972, rumors circulated that Nixon had ordered a burglary and wiretapping of Democratic National Committee headquarters. That’s how Nixon won. Oh, come on. Sore losers. McGovern ran a bad campaign. Within months, those rumors became the subject of public hearings. After Nixon had resigned because he lost party support, some Republicans I spoke with still believed that Watergate was a hoax, Democratic payback for getting trounced in the election. Really? I asked. I was too young to understand, they said.
After yet another trouncing of the Democratic candidate in the 1984 Presidential election, rumors circulated that the Reagan White House was selling weapons to Iran to get money to support the right wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua (Wikipedia, n.d.). The Democrats in Congress had blocked funding for the Contras, but there were any number of ways that the administration could secretly route money to the rebels. Why would White House officials use Iran as a go-between? The country’s head of state had called us the devil. Sore losers, those Democrats. Vicious rumors against the President.
In response to the subsequent Iran-Contra investigation, White House officials destroyed many documents relating to the affair. After several years of denial, Reagan finally acknowledged that there had been such an arrangement but never admitted that he knew about it.
In 2004, rumors circulated that President George Bush concocted evidence so that he could go to war in Iraq and kill Saddam Hussein, the dictator who had tried to kill Bush’s dad in 1993. A ridiculous story meant to take down a President before the election. Democrats were still angry that a conservative Supreme Court had given the Presidency to George Bush in the 2000 election. The sacrifice of so many Iraqi and American lives because of the President’s spite? Come on, gimme a break.
Did Bush go to war with Iraq as payback? Probably not. Did the Bush team manipulate the evidence for going to war? Where are the Weapons of Mass Destruction that Saddam Hussein had hidden? Still hidden.
Why do conspiracy theories persist through the centuries? Many of us like puzzles. There are elements of truth in some conspiracy theories. Are conspiracy theories true most of the time? No. Is prayer effective most of the time? No. It only has to work a small amount of the time and people pray. Why not? Can’t hurt. If a prayer cost $100, would there be fewer prayers?
Martin Luther protested the selling of indulgences by the Catholic Church to those faithful who were concerned for the health of their everlasting souls. People who could afford such indulgences were guaranteed a place in heaven. Those who were poor might be condemned to an eternity in hell. He sparked a movement that rejected the intermediation of clergy between each person and God.
Why do people need the intermediation of scientists between each person and the truth? Scientists can be wrong. That’s the opinion of some Fox News hosts. If scientists are wrong 5% of the time, that is a reason to have doubt, isn’t it? Using the methods of conspiracy theorists, I only need a slim chance of error to disbelieve scientists, and a slim chance of truth to believe a conspiracy theory. Casinos depend on this kind of thinking to make their profits.
Rupert Murdoch is the billionaire head of News Corp, and the owner of Fox News. He is a smart man who understands that the presentation of the news is as important as the news itself. He is a pragmatic man. Anticipating a win by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, Mr. Murdoch was fashioning Fox News into a more moderate news outlet (Folkenflik, 2017).
In reaction to Mr. Trump’s unexpected win, he turned Fox News into a megaphone for the White House and the Conspiracy-Theorist-In-Chief, Donald J. Trump. Fox News is the only network to grow its audience each year. That’s smart. Give people what they want.
Is Fox News spinning fewer fairy tales that feature the President as the saving hero? Lately, he has attacked the network on Twitter because they are not doing enough to get him and other Republicans elected this year (Ward, 2020). Yes, he wrote that. Will the network give the hero of the fairy tale what he wants?
This post has been corrected. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Disney now owned Fox News. The network was not included in the deal when Disney bought 21st Century Fox earlier this year. Thanks to a reader for noting the error.
Folkenflik, D. (2017, March 14). Murdoch And Trump, An Alliance Of Mutual Interest. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/03/14/520080606/murdoch-and-trump-an-alliance-of-mutual-interest
Koblin, J. (2020, March 24). The Evening News Is Back. N.Y.Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/24/business/media/coronavirus-evening-news.html
Sanger, D. E. (2001, November 6). New Tapes Indicate Johnson Doubted Attack in Tonkin Gulf. N.Y. Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/06/us/new-tapes-indicate-johnson-doubted-attack-in-tonkin-gulf.html. (See U. Virginia entry for transcriptions.)
U.S. Senate. (2019, December 12). Watergate Leaks Lead to Open Hearings. Retrieved from https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Watergate_Investigation.htm
U. Virginia. (n.d.). The Presidential Recordings of Lyndon B. Johnson. Retrieved from https://prde.upress.virginia.edu/content/johnson. (Paywall – summaries free).
Ward, M. (2020, May 21). Trump attacks Fox News for ‘doing nothing to help Republicans, and me,’ get reelected. Politico. Retrieved from https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/21/trump-attacks-fox-news-doing-nothing-to-help-republicans-in-november-273612
Watson, A. (2020, May 18). U.S. cable news network viewership 2020. Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/373814/cable-news-network-viewership-usa/
Wikipedia. (2020, May 14). Iran–Contra affair. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran–Contra_affair