Malcolm Nance served for 20 years in U.S. Naval Intelligence, in research, encoding and deciphering and on the battlefield. He provides strategic advice on counter-terrorism and other security issues and is a contributor at MSNBC. Appearing on Bill Maher on HBO this week, Nance said that the onslaught against Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in particular, and U.S. law and intelligence agencies, in general, reads like a KGB manual on subversion: Destroy confidence in leaders and institutions, demoralize officers of law, order and national security and instill belief in a grand conspiracy, an all-powerful and hostile “Deep State,” which demands total war in response.
Any mention of a KGB manual, of course, immediately feeds in to the other conspiracy theory, popular in some parts of the left, that U.S. President Donald Trump is truly and actually a puppet of Vladimir Putin, his stooge. The difference is that Democrats are wary of going there and the so-called mainstream media are picking their words carefully. Many Republicans, on the other hand, though far from all, are all too happy to parrot the allegations against Mueller and the FBI and to allude to their sinister schemes and suspect motives. Fox News, the dynamo and generator of right-wing opinion, not only highlights conspiracy theories, they sometimes make them up themselves.
“Documents suggest possible coordination between CIA, FBI, Obama WH and Dem officials early in Trump-Russia probe: investigators” was the headline on Thursday. The story was a rehash of text messages between two employees who have since been removed from their jobs and a mishmash of innuendo and conjecture that create a sense of a wide-ranging plot. Fox News, in general, and the opinion-makers who dominate the network’s prime time, in particular, spend relatively little time fleshing out the possibility that Russia may have infiltrated and corrupted America’s democratic process. For them, the clear and present danger is a conspiracy by American law enforcement and intelligence services to trump up charges, fabricate evidence and misuse the law in order to defang, if not depose, Donald Trump.
At Fox, election campaigns are a never-ending story. In the real world, Hillary Clinton had to fracture her wrist in India to grab some attention, but on Fox she is a powerful phantom-president, where all things begin and all things must end. The network didn’t quash the possibly Russian-inspired Pizzagate pedophile ring fabrication involving campaign chairman John Podesta and its main star Sean Hannity pushed a ludicrous conspiracy theory about the murder of Jewish DNC worker Seth Rich, which insinuated that Clinton or her agents may have had something to do with it. Now Fox is creating a world in which the FBI is, or was, at Clinton’ beck and call, and Mueller is in on the game as well.
Fox was slow to warm to Trump during the election campaign. Owner Rupert Murdoch tweeted that Trump is “embarrassing the country” and his publications described Trump’s candidacy as a catastrophe. Tensions were further inflamed by Trump’s contemptible feud with Megyn Kelly, who since moved to NBC, during the presidential debates. Murdoch, on the other hand, despite being quoted as describing Trump as an idiot, began to mend fences with his old pal from New York’s seedy Seventies. When Murdoch was negotiating the deal to sell Fox 21st Century to Disney for $52 billion, Trump called Murdoch to make sure he wasn’t selling off Fox News as well. As someone who has cultivated presidents and Congresses to suit his business needs, Murdoch was quick to give his assurances.
Against the backdrop of #MeToo sexual harassment scandals that rocked Fox and the passing of its founder Roger Ailes, the enlistment on Trump’s side turned total. Kelly, who moved on, and Bill O’Reilly, who was forced out by allegations of sexual misconduct, were replaced on prime time by Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, who all espouse views that once, in the not-too-distant past, would have deemed extreme, if not downright loony. Generally speaking, they mix facts with fantasy, inflate events and take them out of context and make mountains out of molehills. They depict an America locked in mortal combat with a mysterious, liberal, defeatist and globalist cabal, which is undermining the country. In the eyes of Trump voters, this virtual reality is now the whole truth.
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Fox’s slogan “fair and balanced” was empty from the outset, and the comparison of the network’s commitment to objective news reporting to that of big network news organizations, as well as CNN and even MSNBC, was, in various periods, no more than a bad joke. But even by Fox’s own standards, the partisan support for Trump is unusually extreme, and is not passing without a reaction. Fox contributor Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters left the network with a bang recently, accusing it of having become a “Trump propaganda machine” that assaults the U.S. constitution on his behalf. Popular Fox anchor Shepard Smith tried to distance himself from Hannity, Carlson and Ingraham by labeling their shows “entertainment”, for which he could shortly be declared an enemy of the state.
Fox News, needless to say, deserves a lot of credit. In its first years it reenergized television news coverage with its hot pursuit of Bill and Hillary Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky affair. During the Iraq War it beat the competition on coverage and analysis and introduced breaking news interruptions, which are now the bane of our lives. Fox was the first to import the Internet to television, surrounding the screen image of anchors and reporters with a steady stream of graphics, information and a running ticker of other news. It perfected the form of allowing opinionated pundits with a strong screen presence to dominate prime time in order to disseminate their personal, and often radical, views.
Sept. 11 2001 also marked a turning point for Fox. It became the keeper of the anti-Muslim flames that fanned after the destruction of the Twin Towers as well as the front line in the war on terror, reminding people for years of the “terror alert” that threatened them at any given time. Half-black and suspiciously Muslim Barack Obama turned Fox into an industry of hostility, propaganda and fake news, directed at him as well as the network’s old nemesis, Clinton. Relatively speaking, Fox spent more time attacking and ridiculing Obama for the unfortunate tan suit he wore at a press conference in 2014 than it has on Trump’s ties to Russia, the allegations of corruption that surround his White House, his capricious and unstable presidency or the countless allegations of marital infidelities and sexual harassment that have been leveled against him.
It’s hard to exaggerate the enormous influence that Fox has on the right, especially among older Americans. Pew Research polls have repeatedly shown Fox’s domination of right wing news, compared to the relative variety of news sources among liberals. Large chunks of the American public are being told on a daily basis that liberals are at the gates, Muslims conspiring from within, immigrants come to take jobs away and global warming is simply a joke. This horror show is then magnified and inflated even more by those to the right of Fox, such as Breitbart News, Rush Limbaugh and Alec Jones, who take lunacy to the limit.
The Trump presidency isn’t simply another chapter in the Fox saga - it’s a quantum leap. If Murdoch’s empire hitherto had to make do with domination of the right and influence in the White House and on Capitol Hill, it now has a president who is a genuine groupie. Perhaps Fox News should be known as The First Network? The 3-4 hours that Trump apparently spends every day consuming Fox News, especially its infantile morning show, provide him with news and views that feed his twitters and statements, often in real time, as they appear on the screen. Trump’s enchantment with Fox is so great that he has turned it into his recruitment center, appointing, among others, host Larry Kudlow as his chief economic adviser and John Bolton, whom he knows mainly through this appearances on Fox, as National Security Adviser. Before he fired him, Trump hired Joe DiGenova, Jonathan Pollard’s prosecutor, because he heard him on Fox News asserting that the FBI and Justice Department were trying to frame the president.
We are familiar with regimes controlling media directly or indirectly, but this is a unique case of a news network seemingly and at least partially in control of a U.S. president. Maher said on his show that Putin also has networks that produce similar fake news and peddle identical conspiracy theories, but he doesn’t take them seriously, whereas “America is being run by [Fox and Friends host] Steve Doocy.” That’s scary enough, but even if all ends well, and even after Trump leaves the scene, and even if all the allegations against him that Fox now refutes turn out to be true - the damage cannot be undone. Fox, energized by a president with even less inhibitions than its own, is actively eroding public trust in democracy and the law. It is creating a world in which lies rule supreme while the truth drowns in swamps of fake news. Small wonder that Russians are gloating or that Israel’s fledgling right-wing news channel, which started broadcasting this week, has something to aspire to.