We are not (yet) in a “1984” era, to cite the famous George Orwell novel about a totalitarian society whose members are taught that “freedom is slavery” and “ignorance is strength.” The press is still free to report the facts, but an important segment of the media, especially on TV, radio and the internet, have chosen to use that freedom to promote an endless stream of falsehoods about public health and political issues.
I needn’t repeat here the history of how Roger Ailes and Fox News built a network that looked like a news network. It soon devolved into a source of radical right fantasies, from the birther lie about President Barack Obama’s birthplace to COVID-19 denial to the continued promotion of the biggest lie of all — that the 2020 election was stolen.
In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Fox backed off slightly, but small, propaganda-style networks such as Newsmax and One America News rushed to capture their defecting viewers. In a race to the bottom, Fox junked some news shows and has gone full bore with its opinion blast of untruths.
We are not talking of serious debate about controversial questions or critiques of President Joe Biden’s policies. We are talking of lies that mislead much of the public.
We have Tucker Carlson telling viewers that Biden wants war with Russia. Or John Roberts falsely claiming that Biden wants Americans to cut 90 percent of red meat from their diet. Or constant lies about massive 2020 election fraud that feed the GOP public’s pressure for laws to suppress voting.
This litany of lies has serious consequences.
A September 2020 Gallup poll reported that only 4 in 10 U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” (9 percent) or “a fair amount” (31 percent) of trust and confidence in the media (newspapers, TV, and radio) to report the news “accurately, and fairly.”
But the gap between the political parties is stunning. Seventy-three percent of Democrats reported a great or fair amount of trust, while only 10 percent of Republicans did. We can surely attribute much of that to the misinformation promoted by Fox, its imitators and talk radio.
As Hannah Arendt, an expert on totalitarian rule, said in 1974: “What makes it possible for a dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed. If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. With such a people you can then do what you please.”
Open debate should be welcomed by all sides (including progressives), but constant, overt lies undermine the republic. Those talking heads from Congress who promote the Big Election Lie should be reprimanded on talk shows when they do so.
To let those lies spread not only undermines press freedom but also promotes civil war.