The Disinformation Dynasty: The Elephant in the Newsroom

By In the National Interest Archives
Cover image for  article: The Disinformation Dynasty: The Elephant in the Newsroom

The market for disinformation is growing big time, threatening the democratic process. Right wing news media and its backers are building the infrastructure to crank it out on an industrial scale.

Ken Shimura, arguably the funniest man in Japan, died in March from the coronavirus. Living in Tokyo in the 1970s, I tried to catch him every week on the TV comedy hit Hachi-Ji Da Yo! —translation, "It's Eight O'clock!"  Even struggling with colloquial Japanese, it was impossible not to get his hilarious shtick, a stupid feudal lord who insulted everyone in sight and a lecherous old uncle somehow always surrounded by nubile beauties. Shimura's iconic characters will be missed. Their American version about to leave the White House? Not so much.

Comic material or not, President Trump's defeat has raised hope that his departure will change what passes for news these days. Even if it eventually does, of course, his fabulists on air, cable, the web and in print won't be out of a job anytime soon. With Trump fulminating about election fraud and threatening to run in 2024, their meal ticket clearly is good for another few years. But what about the longer run? What happens to the propagandists and panderers who have taken his lies, conspiracy theories, and Il Duce-style pronouncements to the bank?

For anyone who expects a new day at Trump's go-to news outlets, don't hold your breath. Long his media lodestar, Fox News and Trump may have their ups-and-downs, but the network shows no sign of falling out of love with its favorite President or altering his adoring Kim Chong Un-like treatment on air. Trump's first post-election interview last week made that point loud and clear. Fox's Maria Bartiromo outdid the network's usual obsequiousness, lobbing softball questions, while  fawning over Trump's groundless election conspiracy theories.

That Fox continues to see black ink flowing from pushing propaganda disguised as journalism sets an example that other media executives won't ignore. Despite Trump's occasional ire and a post-election ratings slip, Fox's viewership still leads the pack. And short-timer or not, Trump remains a cash cow. In fact, with 70 percent of Republicans believing the election was stolen, his lies are metastasizing along with his appeal. The message to Fox's C-suite couldn't be clearer: like the Marlboro Man, pundits peddling Trump's political carcinogens will remain revenue machines, whether he tweets from the first tee or the West Wing.

CNN's Brian Stelter and others have reported well on how Fox and Trump capitalize on each other. What's important for journalism about their symbiosis, however, has only been touched on if that. Take Bartiromo's interview. A cynic would argue her cringe worthy toadying simply reflects a business model. But proselytizing for a president who has authored an estimated 25,000 lies hasn't just fattened the Fox bottom line. It is creating a market for disinformation that is redefining journalism. The implications are profound for democracy as well as the news.

Consider Newsmax and One America Network, two cable competitors that are seeking to claim the real estate on Fox's ideological right. Three weeks ago, Trump renewed earlier rants telling supporters to tune in the two outlets. The slap at his Fox friends came after ostentatiously jilting the network for its factual accounting of election results. Reporters covering the media have followed the tiff, including investor interest in Trump's new favorites, albeit giving the upstarts slim chances of challenging the cable news leader. Their analysis of the media market couldn't be better. But the rise of Newsmax and OAN, whatever the statisticians' buzz or Bronx cheers over their viewership, reflects more important issues than ratings and cable turf.

Newsmax and OAN are only the latest examples of an emerging industry that is building out infrastructure to fabricate as well as disseminate the "news." Winning ratings today isn't the issue. Both so-called news outlets are unashamedly marrying themselves to their news subjects, not just courting their audiences. Think old-fashioned industrial cartels. They lashed up mines, railroads, steel mills and salesmen to own the raw material, move and manufacture it, and market the product. It's the long game and the harbingers have been obvious for years.

From Sinclair Broadcasting's Trump-friendly, "must-run" news feeds that once filled airtime at its nearly 200 stations across the country to the half dozen companies that own and ensure conservative talk radio dominates in major cities as well as Mayberry RFD; the relationship between ideology, national reach and audience couldn't be clearer. Nor could the political views of the deep pockets who are bankrolling such news to ensure it turns out right. That real news media aren't digging into the story is troubling. The evidence is hidden in plain sight.

Koch Industries hasn't been shy about putting its money where conservative mouths are. Content creators have been notable on the list. According to Sludge, which investigates money and politics, tax records for 2017 show over $2 million donated to mostly conservative media operations, including the Daily Caller Foundation, the American Spectator, and a production company owned by former Fox star Glenn Beck. PRWatch reported Koch added Real Clear Politics in 2018, raising its total giving to conservative journalism to $3.5 million.

The Koch apparatus also donates elsewhere on the ideological spectrum, but its political agenda isn't a secret. Nor is Koch's generosity in backing right wing news outlets stand-alone. As reported by Sludge in 2018, Republican megadonors own or underwrite the Washington Examiner, the Washington Free Beacon, the Daily Wire, and Breitbart News, to name a few. While none may systematically produce as certifiably wacky content as OAN, expect synergy among them as well as Newsmax, especially when their stories put conspiracies in the air.

The destruction Trump is currently wrecking on 230 years of Americans' faith in their democracy with the help of Fox, Newsmax, OAN and their ilk is a case study. It's also a warning to professional journalists about the challenge to come. Are they news competitors or as CNN's Stelter put it, the out-sourced American version of state media? The last century's revolutionaries would have gotten the answer right away.

"Newspapers run by our party," one of their notables wrote, "should be vivid, clear-cut and sharp and should never mutter and mumble. That is the militant style proper to us… Since we want to teach the people to know the truth and arouse them…we need this militant style. A blunt knife draws no blood."

Like Lenin, Stalin and the rest, Mao Zedong knew the importance of controlling the media and its message. Actually, he wrote the business plan.

Photo courtesy of Kent Harrington.

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