Facts First or Fake News? A Debate on Media in America

We often hear that Americans complain about bias in their news coverage. People around the country often want the facts, but our media outlets achieve higher ratings through partisan coverage. This week on our Political Pen Pals series,  Robert Wilkes and Taylor Fiscus discuss their issues with the media outlet that is considered representative of the other side. In doing so, they find common ground on how they believe the media should behave and their solutions to the issue of bias news coverage. At Divided We Fall, we do not fear difficult conversations. We embrace them. Read their differing viewpoints as part of our Political Pen Pals series below. 

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Dear Taylor:

On any given day, it seems like America is at war with itself. Media pundits and social media influencers are the front-line troops. The weapons are “news” spoken with raised eyebrows, feigned irony, imagined injustice, solipsistic condescension, and melodramatic ennui. Both CNN and Fox News are biased. But, I contend, Fox is not nearly as one-sided as CNN. While there is no doubt that Fox News leans to the right, Fox makes a reasonable effort to deliver news programming straight up. Up until 9:00 PM eastern, that is, when the children have gone to bed. Then Sean Hannity delivers red meat to a hungry audience seeking confirmation bias. But Hannity doesn’t pretend to be a news program. On the other hand, CNN, whose slogans include “Facts First” and “The Most Trusted Name in News,” makes little attempt to be fair.

President Trump is fighting back, and I’m thrilled. Anti-Trump CNN reporters at the COVID-19 press briefings make runs at Trump, only to be ferociously repelled. Believing their own slander that Trump is an incompetent boob, they are shocked facing a black-belt master in gotcha-question judo.

Here’s a simple test you can do at home. Take a random five-minute sample of Fox and another of CNN. Compare, using my guide below. Do that for a few days and decide for yourself.

Here’s my guide to understanding CNN:

  • Notice the continuous mocking, ad hominem attacks on the President that ignore the success of his policies. This strategy strains the credulity of fair observers who can smell a logical fallacy.
  • CNN will simply ignore stories that don’t support its worldview. CNN viewers, most of them, won’t watch Fox News for fear of poisoning the very air in their living rooms. These “true believers” remain in the dark about the nation they live in and, sadly, live with higher levels of fear and anxiety.
  • Watch for bias-loaded chyrons. While the President addressed the nation on the work of the COVID-19 task force, the graphic below stated, “President promotes unproven drug. ‘I am not a doctor.'” What’s the problem? Viewers are encouraged to believe that because Trump is terrible, Hydroxychloroquine must be bad. But CNN doesn’t know that. No one does, the trials are ongoing. Some in the audience will be reluctant to try the therapy based on CNN’s attack on Trump.
  • Try to detect the “meme of the day.” Watch for the distinctive trope, repeated over and over. A recent example was “existential threat.” Every Democratic congressman and senator on CNN used that exact expression, as did most CNN newscasters and reporters.
  • CNN will abet those who would destroy the lives and families of anyone that gets in the way of their plan, vis Brett Kavanaugh. To my mind, this the most egregious of all their bad behaviors.

In a 2018 survey on trustworthiness,  Fox News scores second—only the BBC scores higher. CNN scores ninth out of ten. The network’s “Facts First” credo and its pretensions of journalistic honor seem to ring hollow with American audiences.

We are fortunate in America to have virtually unlimited press freedoms. CNN, like all our media, has a duty to inform, not inculcate. Honest journalism is fundamental to a viable “government of the people.” I believe CNN is failing in that respect.

Our only remedy is to ignore them. CNN’s ratings decline shows many are doing just that.

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Dear Robert,

Thank you for sharing your perspective. I feel uniquely qualified to participate in this discussion with you as Fox was once my source of news, and conservativism was once my political identity. I’m quite familiar with your perspective, having grown up as a conservative in a Fox News watching household. My father still watches Fox News. I went to the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University, a private religious school, a bastion of conservative thought, if not from its professors, at least from its wealthy student body and benefactors. I’m aware that we’re not going to agree on much today because we identify with opposing political frameworks. While Republicans trust Fox more than any other outlet, Democrats distrust it more than any other outlet. Let me try to explain why.

The Problem With Fox News

As I see it, Fox News exploits human interest, conflict, and the celebrity of Donald Trump to exaggerate the impact and the urgency of any given news story. They breed fear directly into the hearts and minds of viewers. They exploit newsworthiness to push their conservative agenda. Fox has been successful because they’ve relied on sensationalism. That’s the reason people watch them: the spoon-fed fear keeps them coming back.

News networks that abuse these various tactics to gain and maintain viewership lose a certain amount of credibility. They are merely utilizing subliminal marketing techniques to trick viewers into coming back for more “deep, addictive comfort in the anger and paranoia. The problem, of course, for the rest of society is that through this repetitious fearmongering, they become a different person.

This might sound like hyperbole, so I don’t expect you to take my word for it. Listen to conservatives and Fox News contributors themselves. Bill Kristol, a well-known conservative pundit who I suspect you often agree with, has said: “Before, it was conservative, but it wasn’t crazy. Now it’s just propaganda.” Former Fox News host Megyn Kelly calls the environment a “snake pit.” An anonymous Fox News staffer has said, “There’s no room for news here anymore.”

Implications for Democracy

A free press is an American value. Yet, Fox News has served as an ally and a mouthpiece for Donald Trump. Remember when Roger Ailes killed the Stormy Daniels porn star affair and payoff story? Did you know that Hannity was closely communicating with Trump every night and appeared as a surrogate on Trump’s behalf at a rallying campaign? The Washington Post dubbed Hannity, “the deputy chief of staff.” Did you know that more than twenty people have traversed the revolving doors between Trump’s administration and Fox? You might recognize some of the names: White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, and National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin said, “It’s simply a mouthpiece for the President, repeating what the President says, no matter how false or contradictory.”

A professor of Presidential studies said that this was the closest America has come to having state TV.

Propaganda in Practice

The risks of Fox News are more than political. It is physical. Trump’s discussion of Hydroxychloroquine has endangered American lives. Are you aware that an Arizona woman’s husband died after ingesting chloroquine phosphate to guard against COVID-19? In clinical trials, Hydroxychloroquine fared worse, or no better than not taking it. That’s why a responsible leader doesn’t “think out loud” or ask “a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen,” about drugs in clinical trials.

The story doesn’t end there. Trump says, “I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute,” Trump said during Thursday’s coronavirus press briefing. “And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets inside the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.” We all know that he wasn’t being sarcastic. He was dangerously thinking aloud. Thus, makers of disinfectants had to rush to put out warnings against injecting their products.

How does Fox News fit into all of this? They systematically refuse to fact check the President. The result? People who watch Hannity are more likely to have COVID-19.

CNN Is Not the Problem

Everything you say about CNN happens at Fox News and then some. Regarding your “meme of the day” comment: I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen the very famous mashups of Fox News affiliates saying precisely the same thing?

The study you mention that attempts to claim that Fox is the second most trusted news source is based solely on viewers’ opinions. The sad truth is that at best, this opinion study only shows that Fox can establish the illusion of credibility. People might think Fox is credible. This does not translate into actual credibility.

Instead, we should compare the number of retractions from both CNN and Fox; this would give us a measure of credibility that consumer opinions will not provide. Along with the number of retractions, it would be necessary to take a close look at the delay in time between the false report and the retraction. How long did it take each network to correct the mistake? This is important because the credibility of a news organization rests on its ability to quickly correct any errors.

There are countless instances where Trump has gone on Fox spreading misinformation, and they do not correct him. CNN has been fact-checking him. You might think this is bias, but I am glad that they do. Otherwise, they’re reporting false information.

Theoretically, the news is supposed to be boring. It’s supposed to be a recitation of facts with historical and societal context. It’s not supposed to be sensationalism. Tragically, the Fox News business model has stolen our news from us, and it will steal our country if we let it.

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Dear Taylor,

Thank you for your response to my opening blast. You helped me understand how you formed your worldview and your transition from Right to Left.

It is indeed a pleasure to engage you on this crucial topic. I submit that our lives are arranged and ordained by the media to an extent neither of us should feel comfortable with. Much depends on the daily collision between CNN and Fox News as they battle to shape public opinion and win our trust and loyalty. We are a nation with a biennial house-cleaning in November. Our media companies know the path to political power goes directly through them. That is power, and power corrupts.

We could debate ad nauseum about CNN and Fox News as to which is more biased, but that would only regress into a classic tu quoque argument. That is how I would characterize your rebuttal to my complaint of bias at CNN in Part I. Tu quoque (you also) is a logical fallacy deployed to deflect an accusation. It lowers the tone of the debate and will not satisfy readers on either side. Having debated this far, I have concluded that bias is not the issue.

Instead, I propose we reframe the argument to examine the roles and responsibilities of our media institutions.

The critical role of institutions

As Francis Fukuyama and others have pointed out, the foundational pillars of political order are institutions.

Americans are blessed by great institutions. Institutions shape societal norms, develop intellectual capital, and give us behavioral guardrails and rules of conduct to coexist together. They make possible the intricate workings of a democratic nation with a free-market economy. Institutions include government, courts, education, banking, agriculture, health care, our military, houses of worship, and the media.

Institutions teach us our roles and duties as citizens. For America to function correctly, we must be able to trust our institutions. That requires them to be ethical and moral.

Media institutions must be ethical

CNN and Fox News are gatekeepers of our political system. They are pivotal institutions entrusted to guard our fragile democracy. With their tremendous power goes great responsibility—we expect them to serve their institutional purpose ethically and morally.

Some readers are uncomfortable with my use of the word moral. This is not the place to explain Kantian moral theory; however, one can plainly see that morality in journalism is not frivolous or immaterial. We all recognize that politics today is a blood sport in which innocent, honorable people are viciously destroyed to further a party’s political prospects. Cold-blooded ruthlessness might be an effective political strategy, but it is undoubtedly immoral.

Michael Flynn, Carter Page, K.T. McFarland were spied on, persecuted, disgraced, and bankrupted for working in the Trump administration. Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas suffered enormous indignities simply because they were conservative judges. The Kavanaugh hearing was a farce amplified by a chorus of talking heads at CNN. Many Americans though what happened to Kavanaugh was immoral and wrong.

The purpose of the media

Aristotle taught that the value of things is measured by how well they fulfill their telos, or purpose. To be of value, institutions must have an aspirational goal that slowly takes us toward loftier reaches of justice, fairness, knowledge, security, and prosperity.

That begs the question: What is the purpose of the media? A high school civics class answer (and my answer) would be this: the purpose of the media is to foster an informed citizenry so they can participate in self-government.

Every citizen is an elector with an equal vote. The media ought to help them understand how our system works and help them know the character of the people who serve them in government. I do not care if CNN or Fox News has a left or right bias, as long as they exercise their power to persuade in an ethical and moral manner.

CNN has failed in that responsibility. Grievously. To prove my point, I offer Plato.

Plato’s allegory of the cave

Plato saw us as sitting as prisoners in a cave lit by fire. The shadows on the wall were all we ever saw, and we accepted those shadows as truth. But the shadows were not the truth, they were an illusion. A few enlightened souls went out of the cave into the sunlight and saw the truth. Some went back into the cave to tell the others. The prisoners who stayed in the cave were angry and threatened to kill them.

CNN is projecting shadows on the wall. The Steele dossier was a shadow on the wall. It was obviously salacious rubbish emanating from the Clinton campaign, and CNN knew it.  CNN people are not stupid. They have real journalists in Atlanta, good ones. They have resources and can discover the truth if and when they want to.

I am well aware that Fox News is despised by many on the Left. I believe Fox News, like Plato’s prisoners who leave the cave to go into the sunlight, is hated for revealing the truth and destroying their illusions.

It wasn’t always so. CNN was once a respected news organization known for gritty, courageous on-scene international reporting. That has changed. For decades CNN and other news outlets have operated under the cynical calculation that truth is whatever you can get enough people to believe. As I write this, CNN’s complicity in the Russian collusion delusion is being unraveled and exposed by the Justice Department. Our country is far better for it.

If we want to preserve American democracy, we need ethical and moral media institutions. The only way we can hold them to account is to change the channel when they let us down. When ratings go down, they pay attention.

Let CNN and Fox News be biased. The give and take are how we Americans sort out competing ideologies in a civil manner.

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Hello Robert,

I want to first thank you for steering this debate toward a more rational and philosophical-based argument. I appreciate any discussion on rights and responsibilities as Hegel was one of my favorites from undergrad, so you’re speaking my language.

Rights, Duties, and American Institutions

If you’re unfamiliar, Hegel wrote extensively on the necessary, if not unavoidable, the relationship between rights and responsibilities. One of my favorite quotes, “…in the ethical order a man has rights in so far as he has duties, and duties in so far as he has rights,” from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right surmises his thoughts on this relationship. That is to say, rights and duties do not exist without one another. Any rights afforded to a person (or a media institution) will always come with a certain amount of duty expected in return. I think you, Hegel, and I are in agreement here.

As I read your reasoned response, I found myself agreeing with many of your statements:

  • The foundational pillars of political order are institutions.
  • Institutions shape societal norms, develop intellectual capital, and give us behavioral guardrails and rules of conduct for coexisting together.
  • Institutions include government, courts, education, banking, agriculture, health care, our military, places of worship, and the media.
  • Institutions teach us our roles and duties.
  • For America to function properly, we must be able to trust our institutions.
  • Being ethical and moral is a prerequisite for trust in institutions.
  • The purpose of the media is to foster an informed citizenry so they can participate in self-government.

Most Americans would agree with these premises. The only problem I found within your argument was the idea that Fox is somehow living up to these lofty ideals. They simply aren’t.

Viewers trust Fox News as a source of truth because it’s called “news” and because they claim to be “fair and balanced.” Viewers are stoked to fear each time they sit down to watch, and then they stay because humans crave that feeling. You might be better equipped than the average person to assess the veracity of their reporting. However, not everyone can “leave whenever you want” — but that does not mean that what media outlets do is okay.

However, CNN doesn’t always live up to these lofty ideals, either. In fact, a whole host of news outlets in our country fall short. I’m sure we could each spend hours digging up examples, and I won’t sit here today and pretend like CNN isn’t part of the problem. I’ve seen journalists on all sides of the political aisle write things that make me cringe. We could point fingers and accuse individual networks of faults, but I think it would be more fruitful to discuss solutions to this problem.

Beyond Plato’s Cave Story

Let’s get back to Hegel. In his Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel describes the evolution of consciousness of the individual. Yes, Plato gave us the often-quoted cave allegory, but Hegel takes this even further and details what might occur in the mind of the person being enlightened. So, imagine you’ve just come out of Plato’s cave, Hegel is asking you to do more than just step into the sun. He is asking you to continue to transform your conscious mind and evolve. Let’s keep going, Robert.

Part of the reason why American media fails to “foster an informed citizenry so they can participate in self-government” stems from the difficulty in wading through legal documents and researching case law. It’s heavy reading. It doesn’t get the attention that sensational stories get. Simply put, statutory language is boring and doesn’t make money. Legal writing is too dense for the average American to tackle, and it is difficult for journalists to translate legal language into layman’s terms so that the average viewer can comprehend it. Reporting on legal issues and case law is just not a money-making business model in a country driven by an insatiable appetite for stimulation. Bright lights and loud dramatic music surrounding a red-faced anchor yelling is the level of stimulation the American public is used to.

But what if we took a look at some legal mumbo jumbo? What if we look at some of the news stories that lack that salacious stimulation? The stories that get tossed aside for the sake of entertaining the masses with Hollywood gossip. Let’s look at some boring details that you might have missed if you’d been allowing Fox to shape your worldview, shall we?

Back in the USSR

You state rather affirmatively that Flynn, Page, and McFarland “…were spied on, persecuted, disgraced, and bankrupted for the crime of working in the Trump administration.” If I had been allowing Fox to shape my worldview, I might agree with that sentiment. I don’t, however, allow Fox to shape my worldview. Neither do I let CNN, or any other network to do so. Instead, I gather my news from court filings and boring legal documents that Fox doesn’t want to bother with.

In the 412-page FISA application for surveillance on Carter Page filed in October 2016, you see that Carter Page had been working as an unregistered agent for a foreign power—Russia. The 478-page Inspector General report from the Department of Justice published in December 2019 concluded that the initial investigations into Page, Papadopoulos, Flynn, and Manafort were based on reliable information. This information was deemed sufficient to predicate the investigation and subsequent surveillance of these individuals. In the Superseding Criminal Information from Paul Manafort’s trial, we see that he was also working as an unregistered agent of a foreign government and political party. The exhibits from Manafort’s trial paint a clear picture of a man with the capability to shape, distort, and manipulate media on a global scale, not just in Ukraine.

Michael Flynn pleaded guilty. A draft of an amicus brief was filed today, May 18, 2020, with the backing of almost 1,000 current and former federal prosecutors whose service dates back to the Eisenhower administration. They all agree that the dismissal of Flynn’s case would not be in the public interest since his false statements were material. They mattered. They had a real effect. Most importantly, he pleaded guilty. Former Judge John Gleeson has been appointed to argue in another amicus brief that will be filed after this letter has been submitted to you. I hope you will find his words and read them yourself. Fox and other news networks might be failing us right now, but you still have access to these court filings.

A Right to Truth

So, you see, this legal mumbo jumbo is boring, and few people have the attention span to take all of this in. It simply isn’t entertaining, so it receives little, if any, reporting. Make no mistake about it. The appointment of Barr as Attorney General after his memo regarding his opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted, officially signaled our nation’s fall to autocratic rule. Barr’s hiring immediately resulted in an end to the Mueller investigation, and it was made very clear that Barr meant what he said in his memo. He truly believes that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

We have seen a slow erosion of the ethical underpinnings of another one of our essential institutional pillars from the appointment of Barr to the many recent firings of Inspectors General attempting to investigate multiple areas of the Trump administration in this country: our criminal justice system. The rule of law, I’m sure you would agree, is as important an institutional pillar as those you’ve previously listed. In the world that Trump has helped foster, firing anyone who attempts to investigate him has become allowable. We have all but lost this critical pillar of a functioning society, the rule of law.

Barr’s memo regarding the legality of indicting a sitting president was a public defense of autocracy. Although the media reported on it here and there, the story simply didn’t have enough bells and whistles to get mainstream attention. The risk of personal attack from the President weighed against the number of clicks for running a story that just wasn’t entertaining enough, seems to have been far too great for some news outlets. We need to grapple with the very real fear that some reporters have when reporting on the nation’s fall into demagoguery at the hands of a persuasive reality television star turned autocratic ruler. Trump is the golden boy, the one holding a smoking gun and an innocent smile in Times Square. His incessant bullying and attacks on those who have attempted to criticize him have led others to fall silent or offer up unbalanced reporting to appease the President. We are losing our right to truth as the integrity of the media is diminished.

A Duty to Warn

In Madeleine Albright’s book, Fascism: A Warning, she shares stories from her childhood describing her father’s work to aid the war effort by sending legitimate, trustworthy information back home from abroad to combat the rampant Nazi propaganda widespread across Eastern Europe at the time. If you haven’t had the opportunity to read this book, I highly recommend it.

More than ever, it is imperative that we hold our media outlets to a higher standard. We should demand honest, informative reporting versus the sensational headlines that we have become accustomed to from outlets across the political spectrum. I would argue that our conversation about the partisanship and bias in mainstream media is the reason that non-profit organizations such as Divided We Fall are so crucial to our democracy. Divided We Fall is giving readers an avenue to listen to multiple sides of a debate, and the organization is genuinely putting people before politics or profit margins.

In closing, I just have to say I have thoroughly enjoyed this discussion and wish you all the best. I will leave you with a quote from Albright: “…the proposition that we are all created equal—is the single most effective antidote to the self-centered moral numbness that allows Fascism to thrive.”

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Robert Wilkes
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Robert Wilkes is a writer in Bellevue, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest. His eclectic career has included military and civilian aviation, engineering, marketing, and communications. He is a frequent contributor to Divided We Fall's Political Pen Pals discussions.

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