Fake news has dominated the real news lately, identified as one of the potential causes for the November surprise of Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory. As numerous stories have discussed, a wave of fake news sites cropped up over the past year to spread sensationalized false information via social media, most of which seem driven by the promise of quick profits in exchange for generating Trump-supporting clickbait more than ideological subterfuge.
And due to our tendencies to maintain insular social networks of like-minded communities, and Facebook’s algorithms for both displaying posts and suggesting related links, our social network feeds likely display more “news” that confirms our political beliefs and assumptions, rather than serving up fact-based stories that help inform democratic decision-making. Even Stephen Colbert and John Oliver are blaming Facebook for allowing fake news stories to take root and deceive voters.
As Facebook — one of the most common ways that Americans consume news stories — attempts to reconcile its revealed role in cultivating misinformation and divisiveness, we might be tempted to regard this story as one needing a technological fix: After all, Facebook’s algorithms caused the problem, so they should be able to fix it too. Yet such techno-solutionism obscures the broader context of media and politics that fertilized the ground for many fake news sites to thrive, especially on the right. Fake stories about Hillary Clinton being a murderer emerged from a long legacy of right-wing media that has long pushed against established norms of journalism to spread fear and distrust.
Before conservative clickbait took hold, right-wing ideas circulated widely through talk radio and cable news
Contemporary conservative talk radio emerged as a political force in the 1980s, when commentators such as Rush Limbaugh began to dominate AM radio. This was due in part to the 1987 decision by the Federal Communications Commission to stop enforcing the Fairness Doctrine, the policy that required broadcasters to present contrasting viewpoints on controversial topics of public importance. Limbaugh, along with a squad of other conservative hosts, including Neal Boortz, Sean Hannity, and Laura Schlessinger, provided a potent mix of political commentary and entertaining emotional bluster, channeling and escalating anger among conservative listeners who were mostly white, less educated, and outside the coastal cities where most national media originated.
However, as Heather Hendershot argues in her fascinating book What’s Fair on the Air, the history of conservative niche broadcasting actually stretches back much earlier. As early as 1951, wealthy businessmen such as H.L. Hunt, a Texas oil baron, were attempting to forge alternative media structures — through books, newsletters, radio shows, and even public access TV — that would disseminate conservative views on a variety of issues, ranging from anti-communist screeds and diatribes against the United Nations to conspiratorial misgivings about water fluoridation.
Arguably, conservative media pioneers like Hunt even paved the way for Sen. Barry Goldwater’s doomed 1964 presidential run. Hunt took advantage of FCC regulations that mandated all radio and TV broadcasters to devote blocks of their schedules to “public interest” programming. Unlike more recent hosts, Hunt did temper his conservatism by presenting both sides; however, this merely provided cover for him to promote his anti-communist views and his opposition to Social Security.
Later, during the 1970s, the fundamentalist Christian radio broadcaster Carl McIntire used conservative media, including his Philadelphia-based radio station, WXUR, and his weekly newspaper, The Christian Beacon, to attack his political opponents, including the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, and other political groups. By 1973, McIntire had his FCC license revoked in response to his one-sided diatribes; however, he continued to distribute his views via pamphlets, books, and other written materials, providing a model for future generations of religious conservatives, including Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, as well as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.
In fact, Falwell helped to promote the 1994 conspiracy documentary The Clinton Chronicles, which alleged that the Clintons were responsible for the deaths of multiple political enemies. More than 300,000 copies of the film were made, and if your newsfeed skews conservative, many of the film’s allegations — including the “Clinton body count” and Bill Clinton’s rape allegations — found their way back into right-wing smear campaigns during the 2016 election.
The 1990s also saw the introduction of an online conservative media machine, pioneered by the news aggregator the Drudge Report, which became a go-to source for many on the right when it was the first source to break the Monica Lewinsky scandal; the site continues to offer gossip-tinted coverage of political scandals that paint Democrats in the worst possible light.
For television, the epochal event was the launch of Fox News in the mid-1990s with the stated goal of offering a corrective to what many people, already conditioned by these legacies of right-wing radio, saw as a biased liberal news media. Like most of the talk radio shows, Fox News relied on personality-driven commentary led by its primetime lineup of pundits, including Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck. Many of these commentators also had daily radio shows, allowing audiences to ensconce themselves inside a media bubble within which they were presented almost exclusively with conservative perspectives. And the rise of Fox News dramatically changed the course of American journalism in a way that directly led to today’s proliferation of fake clickbait news sites.
Fox News changed the rules of traditional broadcast journalism
From its beginning, Fox News broke with many standards typically followed by broadcast journalism. Founded by the accused sexual predator (and recent Trump adviser) Roger Ailes, a longtime Republican media consultant with close ties to elected officials and party leaders, Fox News always had intimate connections with the Republican Party. As its influence rose in the 2000s, it was often said that Fox News functioned as the propaganda arm for the GOP.
According to repentant Republican speechwriter David Frum, this relationship inverted by 2010: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we're discovering we work for Fox.” Regardless of who held the power, such overt strategic connections between a major political party and a major national broadcaster were unprecedented in America and have helped lead to our current circumstances.
Fox took many lessons from the history of conservative talk radio, most notably the need to simultaneously entertain an audience while telling them what they most wanted to hear. Combining a bombastic graphic style, an emphasis on emotionally charged debates and pundit monologues, and a penchant for attractive women anchors (which now seems to be of particular interest for Ailes), Fox always sought to entertain its audience — as much as, if not more than, informing them on current events.
Today, fans of Fox News flock to its coverage because it confirms their political beliefs in an entertaining package, providing a compelling narrative for conservative viewpoints that often seems missing from mainstream news coverage. One key effect is to create an insular audience where viewers consider themselves to be part of a select community rather than just an audience for a cable channel. The lack of corroboration by outside news sources seems to actually increase trust, as conservative viewers assume that Fox News must be telling the truths that other journalists are too scared or biased to reveal.
The crucial innovation for Fox News that separated it from conservative radio was its framing of right-wing positions and coverage as “news” and not “opinion.” The channel reiterated its tagline “We Report, You Decide,” offering a way to deflect claims of conservative bias — but that slogan also ignores the fact that Fox News actually does very little reporting. The vast majority of its airtime has always been devoted to political commentary, debates between pundits, chatty conversations about news items on shows like Fox & Friends, and anchors reading headlines over footage of staged political events and press conferences.
By foregrounding pundits and commentary instead of journalists and reporters actually uncovering new stories, Fox News costs far less to run than its broadcast journalism competitors, an advantage that its competitors have emulated via the growth of pundit-based programming and decline in firsthand reporting across all television news. And by relying far less on journalism and original reporting, it evades many of the ethical and journalistic norms that other news outlets follow.
As highlighted by the essential 2004 documentary Outfoxed, Fox newscasters regularly preface their reports with vague citations of “Some people say…,” effectively dodging the typical ethical requirement to present factual information by framing claims as potential rumors. Even when presenting information clearly framed as fact, Fox News is prone to misrepresentation and misinformation, as with its long history of misleading and inaccurate graphics.
Indeed, in a direct satire of Fox News, Stephen Colbert identified these tendencies in his very first episode of The Colbert Report in 2005, as he coined the term “truthiness” to refer to information that feels like it should be true rather than actually being truthful. In all of these ways, Fox News continues the long tradition of conservative media affirming the beliefs of its partisan consumers, but takes it a crucial step further by framing its opinions, inaccurate claims, and sensationalist tone as “news,” not commentary.
A good example of how Fox News actively participates in the perpetuation and circulation of fake news is the controversy over the Park51 project, which gripped the media and figured in political debates in 2010. However, most people wouldn’t remember much about Park51, because Fox News and other conservative media insisted on calling it by another name: the Ground Zero mosque.
Despite the fact that the proposed Islamic cultural center was not a mosque, nor was it actually at the site of the World Trade Center, Fox News insisted on calling it the Ground Zero mosque as a way of politically slanting its coverage through the tools of fake news: presenting exaggerations and misnomers as truth, offering endless repetition and self-citation, and refusing to issue corrections based on fact. Like much of the inaccurate information circulating on Facebook this year, Fox’s approach to presenting information regularly enters this realm of “fake news.”
Facebook is just one element of a conservative media infrastructure that circulates false information framed as fact
The legacies of this right-wing broadcasting bubble have profoundly shaped our current political moment, and Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm is only one small piece of the puzzle. Even before Facebook became a primary source for political news, liberals and conservatives were getting their news from vastly different sources. A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that 78 percent of people who identified as either consistently or mostly conservative got their news from Fox News and mistrusted most other outlets, while liberals were relatively evenly divided in consuming and trusting a range of outlets, such as CNN, NPR, and MSNBC.
The Breitbart News Network, founded in 2007 by Andrew Breitbart and led since 2012 by Donald Trump’s newly named chief strategist Stephen Bannon, has built upon the strategies pioneered by right-wing media’s embrace of sensationalized and fake news. The site is regarded as a journalistic enterprise, despite its lack of ethical or factual standards and overt ties to white nationalist groups.
Breitbart notably developed a symbiotic relationship with Trump well before Bannon joined the campaign, helping to recirculate many of the false conspiracy theories that have dogged the Clintons since the 1990s. Breitbart.com, in fact, was a crucial financial supporter of the film adaptation of Clinton Cash, which presented multiple verifiably false claims about the Clinton family’s history of public service. Even more extreme is Infowars, the fearmongering media empire of Trump ally Alex Jones, where right-wing conspiracies flourish and leak into public consciousness via affirmations by other right-wing media and, now, the president-elect.
Breitbart, Infowars, and other comparably questionable distributors of right-wing media have built their brand on presenting sensationalized fake news to their die-hard audience much like the trail blazed by Fox News; unlike Fox, these sites operate successfully without even pretending to be ideologically neutral or journalistically ethical.
What these examples suggest is that there is a large infrastructure in place that allows conservative media to circulate and disseminate false information framed as fact. While Facebook can serve as an easy target because of its hypervisibility and its faltering response to the controversies over its newsfeed, it is too simplistic to blame our partisan media culture on a faulty algorithm alone.
As Daniel Kreiss argues at Culture Digitally, decades of fake news emerging from right-wing sources have actively and strategically built toward this moment, each helping to make such circulation of misinformation more and more acceptable. And as Jeet Heer contends at the New Republic, the rise of fake news is meeting a demand from right-wing voters looking for reasons to support their team, rather than information to guide their actions — a demand that has been cultivated by decades of conservative news striving to confirm the beliefs of its consumers.
Which brings us to today, where, as opponents of Trump’s candidacy and eventual presidency rally to avoid “normalizing” his ideas and approach, the mainstreaming of conservative fake news is a clear case of the dangers of such normalization. As we increasingly accept inaccurate peddlers of politicized misinformation as “news,” we allow our citizenry to be horrifically misinformed as part of this new normal.
Jason Mittell is a professor of film and media culture and American studies at Middlebury College. His books include Television & American Culture and How to Watch Television.
Chuck Tryon is an associate professor of English at Fayetteville State University and the author of the 2016 book Political TV.