A Four Part Series by C. David Pruett
Part IV: Truth and Reconciliation
On January 6, 2021, American democracy survived—barely—its most severe test since the Civil War. Yet rather than being vanquished, all the threats that put us to this extreme test remain in place: political polarization, economic inequality, systemic racism, and rampant disinformation. Of these threats, the last—the primary subject of this series—is the greatest. Without reliable, factual information, the ship of state is rudderless and will eventually founder.
Hannah Arendt, the German-born political theorist who fled the Nazi’s for America in 1933, was more aware than most of the ill effects on the body politic of an atmosphere choked by disinformation:
[I]f everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. . . . And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge.
Arendt’s warnings now echo in contemporary, fact-less America. What can be done?
Until now I have tried to remain as non-partisan as possible. But the time has come to take sides. Yes, both parties, Republicans and Democrats, bear responsibility for the imperiled state of American democracy. But they do not share that responsibility equally.
Both parties have abandoned the working class, prioritizing Wall Street over Main Street. Both have allowed corporations in the pursuit of ever greater profit margins to outsource production, hollowing out the nation’s manufacturing capability and sending good jobs overseas. For too many, the American Dream has become a nightmare of low-wage, unstable employment.
But one party bears the lion’s share of responsibility for the prevalence of the disinformation that has poisoned the noosphere (See Part I), the atmosphere of information.
Within much of the GOP, it’s still common to refer to the “liberal media.” Perhaps that was once a legitimate gripe, but it’s certainly not been the case since 1996 when GOP political strategist Roger Aisles launched the Fox News Channel (FNC) at the direction and with the financing of Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch. FNC soon shot to the top of the ratings chart and remained there for twenty years.
The broadcast model that FNC would later adopt was first perfected by Rush Limbaugh, who died on February 17 of lung cancer after nearly forty years of pushing the boundaries of talk-radio. Of Limbaugh, fellow former conservative talk-show host Charles Sykes (Washington Post, Feb. 17, 2021) said: “Limbaugh pioneered the rise of the outrage/entertainment wing to dominance in the GOP, a project that culminated in Trump’s presidency and a political culture that is driven less by facts and substance than by snark, sophistry, and alternative realities.”
Sykes pinpoints the origins of America’s disinformation dilemma, now so pervasive that certain mainstream “news” sources pose an existential threat to the nation. See for example, Margaret Sullivan’s January 24th essay in the Washington Post titled: “Fox News is a Hazard to Our Democracy.” Like Limbaugh, who originated incendiary talk-radio following the repeal of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine in 1987, Fox News profits by selling outrage and lies.
According to The Nation (Jan. 11/18, 2021), a 2018 study of the political “knowledge” of more than 3000 Fox News viewers by political scientists Sanford Schram and Richard Fording revealed that “…relying on Fox News as a major news source significantly decreased [emphasis added] a person’s score more than relying on any other news source.”
Perhaps the reader is skeptical of the Washington Post or political scientists. Then hear the soul-baring confession of Fox News’ former reporter Shepard Smith. In an interview on January 19 with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Smith related why he left Fox to join CNBC. “I believe that when people begin with a false premise and lead people astray, that’s injurious to society, … it’s the antithesis of what we should be doing.” Smith was a rare truth-teller at Fox, and it was no place for him. He continued:
I don’t know how some people sleep at night, because I know there are a lot of people who have propagated the lies and have pushed them forward over and over again, who are smart enough and educated enough to know better. And I hope that at some point, those who have done us harm as a nation—and I might even add as a world—will look around and realize what they’ve done. But I’m not holding my breath.
The pernicious influence of Fox penetrates deeper than its own propagation of disinformation. According to journalism professor and media critic Eric Alterman, who has been called “the most honest and incisive media critic writing today” by the National Catholic Reporter:
As Fox News became a veritable moneyprinting machine for the Murdoch family, if effected a gravitational pull on other news networks, which sought to attract viewers with similar [crap]. Fox News spawned an army of imitators peddling even more outlandish lies and conspiracy theories, multiplied by the millions thanks to the conscienceless algorithms that power Facebook, YouTube, and the like.
Fox’s “imitators” to which Alterman refers include Newsmax, One America News Network (OANN), Breitbart, InfoWars, and QAnon, among others. Of all the egregious conspiracies propagated by these media sites, none is more despicable than that of InfoWars’ Alex Jones, who alleges that the Sandy Hook school massacre of 2012—which took the lives of 26 people, 20 of them children—was “a giant hoax.” Not only have Sandy Hook parents had to deal with life’s greatest tragedy—the loss of a child—they’ve been harassed and intimidated by Jones’ followers. There is, to my knowledge, no analogous constellation of disinformation and conspiracy on the Left to what exists now on the Right.
Recently, Fox News has fallen into its own trap. On January 12, 2021, Newsweek ran an article with the banner: “Fox News Beaten in Ratings by Both CNN and MSNBC for First Time in 20 Years.” Why? Two reasons. First, Fox’s failure to accurately cover the siege on the Capitol on January 6 drove some viewers to CNN and MSNBC. Second and uncharacteristically, following the November election, some Fox News commentators, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson among them, began telling the truth: Joe Biden had legitimately won the 2020 presidential election. Truth-telling was a sufficient-enough crime to drive hard-core Fox viewers even further to the right, to Newsmax and OANN, where truth has no harbor.
The greatest threat to American democracy today comes from the prevalence of fake news, most of which emanates from the far right of the political spectrum. Regardless of where it emanates, the fuel the propels fake news is profitability. Outrage and lies sell, and they sell better than calm and truth.
The First Amendment protects the rights of lawful assembly and free speech. It does not protect hate speech, or the right to yell “Fire!” in a theater which is not on fire. Nor does it protect incitement to violence. How great a lie then can be tolerated under the mantle of free speech? When do social media magnates have the right—indeed the civic duty—to pull the plug on hate speech or fake news or conspiracies or lies? How much responsibility do individuals bear in determining the truth, and how much resides with government or society as a whole? What organizations, entities, or agencies should we entrust to arbitrate truth? How do we hold accountable those who willfully and intentionally propagate misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies?
These are difficult questions for which resolution may take years of honest grappling. But grapple we must, or shortly bid adieu to the great American experiment. One thing is clear: the corroding influence of money must be disassociated from the arbitration of truth. Truth cannot and must not be determined by who has the highest ratings, the greatest advertising revenues, the loudest outrage, or the most hits.
Dave Pruett is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at James Madison University (JMU). In addition to three decades of mathematics teaching at various levels, he has worked for a decade in NASA-related aerospace research. Dave is also the author of Reason and Wonder (Praeger, 2012), the outgrowth of an award-winning JMU Honors seminar that explores the nexus of science and spirituality and was the subject of a JMU TEDx talk in 2018.
An earlier version of this article ran in Like the Dew (https://likethedew.com).