Veteran TV journalist Ted Koppel analyzed the media’s role in the political divide in Trump-era America on “CBS Sunday Morning” — and had a pointed moment interviewing Fox News host Sean Hannity.
“We have to give some credit to the American people that they are somewhat intelligent and that they know the difference between an opinion show and a news show,” Hannity told Koppel on camera, registering the veteran newsman’s doubt. “You’re cynical. … You think we’re bad for America? You think I’m bad for America?”
“Yep,” Koppel replied. “In the long haul, I think that all these opinion shows…”
“Really?” Hannity asked. “That’s sad, Ted.”
Koppel explained: “You know why? Because you’re very good at what you did and because you have attracted … people who have determined that ideology is more important than facts.”
I’m not a fan of Koppel and I think the cause he went on to blame for this problem — the demise of the Fairness Doctrine — is horribly misguided. But I think he has a point on Hannity and talk radio/TV in general.
Last year, Conor Friedersdorf wrote a great article on how talk radio precipitated the rise of Donald Trump:
Here are some of the cues and signals that even anti-Trump members of “the party” have sent to voters, over many years, that made the rise of a populist demagogue possible if not likely, and that Trump voters absorbed into their world views:
- Career politicians cannot be trusted. This widespread conceit in “the party” has effectively made it impossible for candidates with governing records and public sector experience to be accepted by large swaths of GOP primary voters.
- When the base doesn’t get what it wants, it is because of betrayal by party elites, never because a majority of Americans disagree with what the base wants.
- Rhetorical stridency is a better heuristic for loyalty than core principles or governing record—and there is nothing disqualifying about extreme incivility (hence, for example, a buttoned up think tank giving a statesmanship award to Rush Limbaugh, a gleeful purveyor of bombastic insults).
- Complaints about racism and sexism are always cynical fabrications, intended be used as cudgels against conservatives.
Political correctness in governance is one of the biggest problems facing America.
- Illegal immigration poses an existential threat to America.
- President Obama has deliberately made bad deals with foreign countries to weaken America.
If any movement conservatives in the #NeverTrump crowd doubt that “the party” has sent all of those signals or cues, I’ll gladly expound on any of them. Taken together, it’s easy to see why a majority of an electorate that bought into those premises would be more attracted to Trump than to anyone else in the GOP field.
I would add to that list the claim that global warming is a hoax, unemployment numbers are faked, there’s a War on Cops, that opposing anti-terror policies is siding with the terrorists, that tax cuts pay for themselves, etc., etc. When people said “Trump says what no one else says” or “Trump tells it like it is” this is what they mean: that Trump reiterates the (often false) doomsday rhetoric of the conservative echoshere.
And now we’re reaping the results of this. Last week, we saw the utter immolation of Republican efforts to replace Obamacare. There are many authors of that disaster but a big one, as Josh Barro argues, was that Republicans spent years misleading the voters on Obamacare and pretending that healthcare reform was easy.
For years, Republicans promised lower premiums, lower deductibles, lower co-payments, lower taxes, lower government expenditure, more choice, the restoration of the $700 billion that President Barack Obama heartlessly cut out of Medicare because he hated old people, and (in the particular case of the Republican who recently became president) “insurance for everybody” that is “much less expensive and much better” than what they have today.
They were lying. Over and over and over and over, Republicans lied to the American public about healthcare.
To be fair, many Republican politicians understood there would be trade-offs and crafted policies around those. But those policies were never implemented because the Republican base believed that Obamacare had to be repealed instantly, replacement or no replacement. Friedersdorf lays the blame for that on the commentariat:
Still, even the insight that Republicans spent years willfully obscuring the tradeoffs involved in health-care policy doesn’t fully explain the last week. Focusing on GOP officials leaves out yet another important actor in this debacle: the right-wing media. By that, I do not mean every right-leaning writer or publication. Over the last eight years, lots of responsibly written critiques of Obamacare have been published in numerous publications, and folks reading the aforementioned wonks, or Peter Suderman at Reason, or Yuval Levin, or Megan McArdle at Bloomberg, stayed reasonably grounded in actual shortcomings of Obamacare.
In contrast, Fox News viewers who watched entertainers like Glenn Beck, talk-radio listeners who tuned into hosts like Rush Limbaugh, and consumers of web journalism who turned to sites like Breitbart weren’t merely misled about health-care tradeoffs.
They were told a bunch of crazy nonsense.
He lists hysterical claim after hysterical claim. Death panels, forced fat camps, depression, slavery, the end of individual liberty. There were and are plenty of problems with Obamacare. But claiming it was the end of America was ridiculous.
The problem is not conservatives nor conservatism. The problem is faux conservatives like Hannity and Limbaugh and every other joker out there who has no solutions, no answers, no philosophy, no ideas … just acres of doom and gloom and anger. Conor talks about his grandmother, who spent her last years terrified by what she was hearing from right wing hacks like Hannity. I see it in my Trump-supporting relatives, who hear a constant deluge from Fox News about how doomed America is and how awful the Democrats are. It’s incredible disheartening. And it angers me to think of these jokers making millions by convincing millions of Americans that the end is nigh.
I don’t mean to downplay real concerns, which are legion. We are in a lot of debt. Obamacare is staggering around, avoiding a death spiral only because of subsidies. Crime appears to have spiked, especially in certain cities. Rural areas are hurting badly (see my earlier post on the opioid epidemic).
But lately the conservative commentariat has no ideas for how to deal with these problems. Only a steady diet of doom and gloom, blame-storming and uncompromising rhetoric. And yes, this is bad for country. It makes people fearful who have no need to be and it instills an us-vs-them mentality, turning people we disagree with into hideous villains who hate America.
It was not always so. Friedersdorf is a bit too young to remember but in the 90’s, there’s no question in my mind that talk radio hosts like Hannity and Limbaugh were a good thing. They served as a critical counter-weight to a very liberal media. Their broadcasts played a big role in the Republican revolution of 1994, the subsequent balancing of the budget, the passing of NAFTA and the destruction of numerous corrupt politicians.
However, something changed in the aughts. I’m not sure why exactly — I suspect it was 9/11. But the tone of conservative commentary began to be less positive and more negative. Liberals stopped being mocked and started being demonized. I stopped listening to Limbaugh because his show, which has always left me feeling upbeat and inspired, became a huge downer. Everything was awful. America was going to hell. Compromise was a bad word. And now we’re at the apotheosis of this: a Republican party that can’t get anything done because they can’t approach issues in any kind of a realistic way.
That’s not to let liberals off the hook here. It wasn’t conservatives who called half the country “deplorables”. It’s not conservatives who are writing off half the electorate as evil racist sexist monsters for having voted Trump. But liberal idiocy does not make conservative idiocy OK. No matter how bad the commentary on the Left gets, that does not excuse Hannity for being a demagogue who has worsened the debate.
I don’t know that there’s a fix for this. My gut feeling is that we are in the grip of a national fever of partisanship that has yet to exhaust itself. But I do want address one supposed “cure”, which I referenced above, because it’s becoming a bigger liberal talking point these days.
Koppel blamed talk radio on the end of the Fairness Doctrine, the FCC policy that Reagan killed in 1987 that had previously forced television and radio stations to present “both sides” of an issue.
Put bluntly, the Fairness Doctrine was an awful policy and it should stay dead. The only reason we should ever dig it up is to put a stake through its heart and make sure it stays dead. Consider:
- The Fairness Doctrine was blatantly unconstitutional piece of garbage, no matter what the Supreme Court said. Having the government dictate what constitutes “fairness” in commentary is an invitation to abuse. And indeed, Limbaugh, in one of his books, noted several times where politicians — including Nixon — used the Fairness Doctrine to bludgeon commentators into shutting up about issues the politicians didn’t want discussed.
- This is why Fairness Doctrines have long been rejected for newspapers and print media, despite the long history of partisan commentary therein (Thomas Paine was not known for his “Fairness”). The justification for the Fairness Doctrine the last time it was upheld was that radio and TV media are limited to only so many channels. So the government has to ensure that all views are represented. This view is nonsense, of course. Most cities have one, maybe two newspapers, both of which are liberal. By contrast, TV has innumerable stations, some of which — MSNBC, for example — are decisively liberal. In that light, the Fairness Doctrine is one of the most liberal of things: a solution running around in search of a problem.
- People who want government to do things never seem to consider that the powers they give government could be turned against them. Let me ask you something, Fairness Doctrine-supporting liberals: do you really want to give that kind of censorship power to Donald Fucking Trump?! Does it never occur to you that he might decide that “Fairness” dictates that Samantha Bee needs to make more jokes about Democrats or SNL needs to mock Nancy Pelosi more? Can you, for once, consider what government power will look like in the hands of people you don’t like?
- The Fairness Doctrine is not going to magically create a more skeptical and reasonable populace. This is an appeal to government policy as magic.
Ultimately, the Fairness Doctrine plugs into the Ultimate Progressive Conceit: progressives’ firm belief that they are the only reasonable people in the room; and that if people disagree with them it’s only because they’ve been brainwashed by nefarious forces. This is an outgrowth of the Marxism that underpins much of liberal thought. The Marxists maintained that Marxism was as scientifically proven as the Law of Gravity and, if anyone disagreed, it was because they were mentally ill or had been brainwashed by bourgeoisie interests.
But that is never the case. People disagree with Progressive ideas because they disagree with them. Sometimes it’s because the progressives have the facts wrong. Sometimes it’s because progressives’ logic is poor. Sometimes it’s because progressives are being irrational and stupid. And sometimes — most often — it’s because people disagree with progressives on values (e.g., progressives think it’s “fair” to take money from rich people and give it to power people; many conservatives think that’s the definition of unfair).
I am very concerned about the nihilist direction conservatism has taken. And I think that Sean Hannity and his ilk have played a large role in that and, yes, I think he’s been bad for the country in some ways. One can not behold the election of Trump and not be concerned with the direction we’re going.
But getting government more involved is not the answer. If you really think Trump is fascist, why on Earth would you give him the tools to implement fascism?