His effort to amass [evidence] has rather the quality of a defensive act which shuts off his receptive apparatus and protects him from having to attend to disturbing considerations that do not fortify his ideas. He has all the evidence he needs; he is not a receiver, he is a transmitter. – Richard Hofstadter
This is a criticism of Karl Rove, though it was written a decade before he was born, in Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style of American Politics. Rove’s famous cognitive dissonance-induced meltdown, after Ohio was called by everyone including FOX News for Obama, is a telling performance of the paranoid style. But Hofstadter’s quote could easily apply to much of FOX News itself. Rove is only the most extreme and visible example – a symbol of what FOX has become, and a warning to other partisan media outlets.
Paranoia is what happens when political media not only cynically spins its own narrative, but then begins to actually believe everything it says. Paranoia, not the clinical term but the political sense, is a suspicious and grandiose belief that one’s culture is being attacked by a hostile world. Paranoid theories are supported by a selective set of facts, or as Hofstadter appropriately said, “at least… what appear to be facts.” In the last two months, FOX’s style of political coverage became increasingly paranoid, as it mired itself in suspicion of mass anti-Romney bias and finally spiraled into a kind of counterprogramming of the news.
Long ago in September, the 47% video appeared, and FOX covered the story in its usual way. Some pundits criticized Romney, some spun it as a call for a broader tax base and some criticized FOX for covering the video. And FOX gave airtime to Romney’s attempt at a counterpunch – the short-lived “redistribution tape.” This was the norm.
But in late September, FOX began a turn inward. While covering the horse race, FOX began claiming the daily tracking polls, stubbornly pro-Obama despite a bad first debate, were skewed. But FOX claimed more: the polls were deliberately distorted by “the left based, mainstream media,” as Steve Doocy put it. According to Andrea Tantaros, who immediately took this as fact, it was a positive sign for Romney: “What does it tell you when the media actually has to skew the polls to help the President out? That they’re very, very scared.”
FOX’s “skewed polls” theory, like all paranoid politics (Hofstadter would agree), had a basis in reality. For example, Public Policy Polling was founded by a Democratic pollster and weighs (FOX would say, manipulates) its results. But the FOX of yesteryear might have spun a bad week in the polls by simply demonizing Public Policy Polling or by making the quantitative claim that all polls have a margin of error and that the candidates often were within those margins.
Something about the “skewed polls” claim was entirely new. FOX made a qualitative claim about the vast majority of pollsters, amounting to – in so many words – they’re all out to get us (and triumphantly concluded that therefore, Romney must be winning). Throughout October, FOX mainly followed conservative-friendly Rasmussen polling and ignored the others.
The close of the election season presented an October surprise – Hurricane Sandy. But while both campaigns took a break and the media focused on that historic and ongoing event, much of FOX News presented their own counter-October surprise: continuing coverage, criticism, and rumors about Obama’s handling of September’s Benghazi incident.
On the night Sandy hit New Jersey, while FOX News’s studios were on generator power and their news crawl announced breaking stories like, “MTA: Water is Flooding into Lower Manhattan,” Sean Hannity interviewed a Navy Seal’s father about how the White House supposedly halted a rescue mission and “watched [his] son die,” from a live feed in the situation room. Coverage of a rumored government email scandal coverup continued that week, as developing stories in Sandy’s aftermath dominated the news elsewhere.
Again, these paranoid stories are based on a fact: the administration’s bungled miscommunications after the incident. But FOX’s rampant speculation hasn’t revealed anything real, substantial, or surprising, other than the extent to which Geraldo Rivera and Juan Williams are frustrated by their conspiracy-mongering colleagues.
FOX would present this counter-reality where Benghazi was the headline until right before the election, when their pundits turned again to the horse race and predicted Mitt Romney’s victory (in some cases, a landslide).
And then election night intervened.
Chris Wallace and Karl Rove’s feeble attempt at putting their thumbs in FOX’s epistemic dam to hold back the floodwaters of reality has become a totem of liberal schadenfreude. But it’s a significant moment for understanding the consequences of a paranoid style of political reportage. This wasn’t cynical rhetorical tactics; Rove’s disbelief was genuine. He was certain his math still ensured a Romney victory in Ohio. (Anchor Megyn Kelly’s embarrassed reaction to Rove was like that of an accomplice realizing her leader drank his own kool-aid.)
Romney, too, said he felt sucker-punched by the news of his defeat. For conservative media consumers, why wouldn’t you? For weeks FOX presented a President hobbled by a foreign policy disaster and embattled in an unraveling coverup of Watergate-like proportions. Obama was losing in swing states, despite the skewed polls fabricated by liberals.
In the parallel world presented by FOX News – which was unprecedented in its deviation from the conventional news cycle and its closed, self-coherent narrative – Romney’s win was inevitable.
The important lesson for partisan media on both sides is this: Of course you’ll comment, emphasize some facts over others, and spin the news for your team. But beware when your national headlines stop corresponding, at all, to stories being reported throughout the nation – especially if you feel that everyone else is not only misguided, but conspiring together against you. MSNBC, with its increasingly partisan coverage, should be especially wary of following FOX to their logical, paranoid conclusion. Pew’s research found that MSNBC’s coverage of Romney was even more negative than FOX’s Obama reportage. And from seeing hidden racist “dog whistles” everywhere in Republican rhetoric to ignoring polls and forecasts (like Nate Silver’s spot-on prediction) and instead anxiously insisting that the election could go either way, MSNBC is not without its own proto-paranoia.
But the only true exemplar is FOX News. Instead of just employing tactical spin, FOX went further down the rabbit hole, fabricating its own self-satisfied political universe. Their programing was antithetical to the goal of news, which is to present viewers information that is important and useful. FOX’s coverage was, as always, a disservice to bipartisan understanding but moreover it was a disservice to their own strategic goals. Conservatives went from possessing a powerful avenue for publicity and persuasion to being bamboozled by their own paranoid propaganda.
You can’t win a battle by fighting a hallucination.
FOX’s ultimate failure is organizational self-immolation by recklessly playing with fire. In his postmortem, George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum perhaps put it best, saying, “Republicans have been fleeced and exploited and lied to by a conservative entertainment complex.”
Or maybe Richard Hofstadter again:
We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.