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When News Is Propaganda

The video age has sped up our cognitive powers. We get to the point faster. … People who watch the evening news see entire South American cities collapse under earthquakes in sixty seconds or less. So if you’re just talking for sixty seconds, you’d better be good and interesting.
—Roger Ailes, 1989

“I hope you enjoyed that fancy burger, Mr. President.”

Less than four months after President Obama was sworn in, Sean Hannity was knocking his choice of mustard.

The story hit Fox News Channel’s prime-time lineup in the spring of 2009 after ricocheting around local news blogs and MSNBC earlier that day, and it became a partisan Rorschach test: liberals saw common-man appeal in Obama’s visit to the faddish environs of Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Virginia—where one can order a patty topped with foie gras—while conservatives thought the opposite: elitist snob!

Trying to place exactly when cable news lost its mind is futile, but this is as good a place to start as any: “Burgergate” has become typical of 21st-century cable news. The story was trivial, but it compactly illustrated how Fox and MSNBC have calibrated their partisanship over the last several years.

Since 2008, even though each major party is now represented by a cable news channel—MSNBC for Democrats, Fox News for Republicans—the range of opinion allowed on air has become narrower than Sean Hannity’s taste in burger toppings.

On Fox, this has meant more hosts and contributors from the GOP establishment who can be relied on for talking points and well-spun analysis; people like Karl Rove, or former Bush press secretary Dana Perino, now a host for “The Five.” Divergent views are out: Hannity’s liberal co-host Alan Colmes left their show in 2008, while the idiosyncratic Glenn Beck was booted from the network last year.

MSNBC maintains a token conservative presence, but the network’s leftward drift has made it all the more responsive to activist groups’ demands for political correctness. Most recently, emboldened by their success in removing Beck from Fox—he became “a bit of a branding issue,” said Roger Ailes, which reveals less about Beck’s unpopularity than the network’s ideological purity—the gendarmerie of acceptable opinion, led by Media Matters and Color of Change, claimed the scalp of Pat Buchanan over alleged racism in his book The Suicide of a Superpower.


To many on the right, the downfall of Beck and Buchanan seems proof positive of the multicultural left’s power to crush dissent. But as Ailes’s remark suggests, network interests in streamlined branding played as big a role.

Buchanan was a holdover from the old days of MSNBC, before president Phil Griffin proclaimed the network, “the place to go for progressives,” and he seemed as out of place among lightweight Republican contributors like Meghan McCain and Michael Steele as he did next to liberals like Rachel Maddow.

During an interview with the Hoover Institution’s Peter Robinson weeks after his break with the network, Buchanan revealed, “I knew the book would be controversial. The fact it caused my departure from MSNBC, I’ll let people decide whether that says something about my book, or something about MSNBC.”

“Breaking it down into the MSNBC versus Fox thing [actually] reflects what’s in that book, which is the division, polarization, divorce, and separation of Americans from Americans,” Buchanan continued. “A racist back when I was growing up was Bull Connor shooting fire hoses at folks. Now you can hear that comment on cable TV all the time, people just throw it out there.”

“I find many of Pat’s views to be abhorrent, but the best answer is to counter Pat and prove him wrong, not to silence him,” Buchanan’s former co-host Bill Press told TAC. Liberal MSNBC host Chris Matthews also spoke up for him after the incident.

But Buchanan was a poor fit for MSNBC’s progressive brand, and L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Media Research Center, wonders if his voice had been lost on the network’s left-wing viewership.

“I just don’t know what he was doing for the cause; I don’t say that as a criticism, I say that as someone who is in awe of that man’s mind, and I want to see greater exposure for him. … I think it’s a tragedy, he didn’t deserve it, and I’m glad he’s not there.”

But should commentators only address an audience on their own side—and should they side so closely with parties and movements in the first place?

“Aside from the emergence and dominance of social media, the biggest change I’ve seen in my media career, both on television and radio, is the tribalization of political debate,” says Press, former host of MSNBC’s “Buchanan and Press” and CNN’s “Crossfire,” the first point-counterpoint cable news show. “It used to be, you seldom saw a liberal without a conservative by his side, and vice versa. But no longer. Today, it’s either all right or all left. In prime time, neither MSNBC nor Current TV makes any attempt to include a conservative point of view. And Fox, with rare exceptions, slams its doors on liberals.”

Journalists who fall outside the two-party schematic are pushed to the margins. Libertarians like John Stossel, who with 19 Emmys has won more awards than the entire Fox News network, are relegated to ratings oblivion on the Fox Business Channel. In February when FBC cancelled its entire prime-time lineup, the only other libertarian with a regular slot on cable, Judge Andrew Napolitano, was edged out and consigned to a contributor’s role.

The network cited business constraints and poor ratings as the reasons for the shake-up, but the effect has been to silence controversial opinions on civil liberties, foreign intervention, and the drug war.

It was not always thus. Before “Crossfire,” and before cable, there was “Firing Line,” the venerable discussion program hosted by William F. Buckley Jr. The show’s extended debate format probably had a lot to do with why the show moved to public television in the early 1970s. “Firing Line” didn’t just permit guests to defend their personal views, it required them to do so. Everyone got a fair exposition and an unreserved rebuttal, and if Allen Ginsberg wanted to make his point by singing “Hare Krishna” while accompanying himself on harmonium, so be it.

Today unpredictability is out; demographic targeting is in. Competition drives this process, but to what degree are cable news companies competing—and to what degree are they cultivating new, narrower monopolies? Rupert Murdoch correctly saw that conservatives were an underserved market in the media environment of 20 years ago. MSNBC now strives to match Fox’s partisan intensity.

Cable news is more or less a lost cause, argues Clay Johnson is in his book The Information Diet. “Instead of having to do your own research and your own homework, television does that for you, which is a huge convenience,” says Johnson, an open-government activist and co-founder of the firm that managed Barack Obama’s online campaign in 2008. “The grocery store does a lot of meat preparation; nobody wants to butcher their own cows. I think that’s what makes television extremely convenient.”

So why has the left sometimes seemed better—if not by much—at getting independent, non-establishment voices on television? How could Buchanan last as long as he did?

“Basically, I look at Fox News as a disruptive technology—that Roger Ailes invented a new manufacturing process for news. It’s something that MSNBC has only recently begun to catch up on. While the left can bring in interesting people, it’s really that the left is still figuring out which products sell better than others.”


There’s more at stake in the ideological branding of today’s cable news than ratings or pundits’ careers. The more complex or controversial an issue, the more it suffers from the networks’ stereotyping. Nowhere is this more obvious than in international affairs.

Since CNN broadcast some of the opening volleys in the first Gulf War, the history of cable news has been inextricably tied to foreign conflict. War is a godsend for the networks. The public sits at home in rapt patriotism while the network brings on experts who speculate about minute details and strategies in language with just enough jargon to sound convincing.

The elephant in the room—the advertising and viewership benefits of war—has never been acknowledged by any of the three networks. But they regularly censor antiwar voices.

“There is little room for an antiwar point of view, either from the left or right, on television today,” says Press, whose show on MSNBC was cancelled because he and co-host Buchanan were both against the Iraq War. He criticizes the media’s failure to question government assertions about military operations.

“It did not do so in Vietnam, the first Gulf War, nor the war in Iraq. For the most part, reporters just recycled propaganda coming out of the White House and helped the White House sell war after war to the American people. Also networks mainly book cheerleaders for the war—because they’re afraid of being dubbed ‘anti-American.’”

“That was clearly a show where there was debate,” says Jeff Cohen, founder of the liberal media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and a producer at MSNBC when “Buchanan & Press” was on the air. “It was often Buchanan and Press against two interventionists. That show didn’t last. One by one the voices of reason, the ones that turned out to be right on Iraq, were silenced.”

Uncritical coverage of the Iraq War was a product of either fear and cowardice or opportunism. At least in the case of MSNBC’s “Donahue,” where Cohen was senior producer, that’s perfectly clear. An internal NBC memo warned that antiwar host Phil Donahue might be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.”

“We were still the top-rated show” at the time, says Cohen, and “if we could have been the one show that allowed moderate voices and noninterventionist voices, we would have been huge.” But network executives “were less interested in ratings than in tamping down controversy.”

[1]“As it got closer to the invasion day, they clamped down on our program more and more with edicts that came down from management that we had to have more pro-war views than anti-invasion views. What that resulted in—and I think management was happy about this—was that the hawks seemed to outshout the voices of reason that were arguing we should wait.”

Cable news today perpetuates a vicious circle: critical views of American foreign policy are unrepresented in the leadership of either party, and producers are reluctant to air opinions perceived as out of the mainstream. Nobody was eager to book Ron Paul before 2007. But as the Texas congressman showed in the GOP debates that year, once views such as his get a hearing, they can be galvanizing. Without being included in forums like the presidential debates—glorified cable news shows—antiwar and realist dissidents have little chance to influence their parties. The Internet is changing that, but not fast enough.

What’s true for foreign affairs is true for other difficult subjects as well, such as the nation’s economic crisis. Instead of challenging viewers, ideologically segregated networks reinforce what their audiences think they already know. Eventually consumers of the news may really believe that they’re more interested in things like President Obama’s choice of mustard than in the real problems that cable is so good at distracting us from. Perhaps this is the way the cable news world ends. Not with a bang, but with a burger. 

Jordan Bloom is associate editor of The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter [2].

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "When News Is Propaganda"

#1 Comment By libertarian jerry On June 6, 2012 @ 5:52 am

The real elephant in the room is the Internet. When the Mainstream Media is owned and controlled by 5 or 6 men and the news reporting paradigm is confined to a narrow Left/Right configuration, more and more people who think for themselves are turning to the Internet for their information. This is why the elitist Establishment wants to use the State to quash,or if not quash control the Internet Information Revolution. This situation is very similar to the Church,during the 16th Century,trying to destroy the Protestant Reformation by confiscating or destroying Printing Presses.

#2 Comment By Jackorlando On June 6, 2012 @ 11:23 am

1. Want to know what’s happening or will happen? Look to the past. The printed press of 19th Century America was nothing if not highly partisan. Most newspapers were simple party organs. So for TV news, we’re just going back to the way things used to be.

2. Cable entered this world in 1980, the year of a communication revolution that brought the VCR, the compact disc, the personal computer, and cable. Prior to that revolutionary year there were only three networks — ABC, CBS, NBC — and all clones of each other. The promise of cable at the start of that revolution was that there would be a cable channel for every aesthetic, athletic, ideological, ethnic, and avocational taste. It didn’t happen. Libertarian Jerry has provided us the clue as to why:

3. No intelligent, educated, literate person watches TV, and hasn’t done so for decades. Even people who are five miles wide and with the depth of pizza pie pan — and one meets lots of such in Europe — don’t watch TV, except for sports. All these people read books and use the Internet. They even watch royalist jubilees on Youtube. Two centuries ago there was a vast gab between the literate and the illiterate. 50 years ago there was a vast gap between people who read books a people who read nothing but the newspaper. Now the vast gap is between the computer literate and the computer illiterate. The cable news networks — heck, all of cable TV — is only for those “on the remotest fringes of the intellectually underprivileged”. (to quote Mencken)

#3 Comment By Chris On June 6, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

I can’t say much except to agree with Jerry’s comment above. Fox innovated in 1989. The new innovations are taking place on the internet and with youtube. Russia Today is an example of a small media innovation taking aim at corporate owned media.

Once people start to see the Emperor has no clothes, the eyeballs will shift. Might take time to find the proper distribution channels, but it’ll get there.

#4 Comment By reflectionephemeral On June 6, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

I think this article is very perceptive about how foreign policy is covered, but that it’s bogged down in false equivalence between MSNBC and Fox.

Fox is run by a longtime Republican operative, and has memos go out each day on how its news readers should spin the day’s events. That’s not the case at MSNBC. The firing of Pat Buchanan isn’t the same thing as Fox’s constant barrage of RNC talking points, that actually make its viewers less informed that people who watch no news.

What’s more, there’s a deeper divide between “the left” and Democrats than between “the right” and Republicans. “Liberal boilerplate” right now is that Pres. Obama should have gone for a bigger stimulus and a public option, and that we should be drawing down our foreign occupations more rapidly. Not getting much fighting from the Dems on those issues. “Conservative boiilerplate” is that the stimulus and the Heritage Foundation’s health insurance reform plan are socialist fascism. (During the Bush administration, it was that Pres. Bush was a triumphant glorious war chieftain). And we hear that every day from prominent GOP congressmen. At the moment, a network that caters to liberals will be less Democratic-friendly than a network that caters to Republicans will be GOP-friendly.

#5 Comment By Rossbach On June 7, 2012 @ 11:07 pm

I’m afraid that I must agree with both Jackorlando and Libertarian Jerry. They make some excellent points. Personally, I quit watching TV circa 1969. I get most of my public affairs information from radio and the internet, and I am very concerned about the Obama regime’s desire to censor the internet as they do in China and other nations with authoritarian governments.

#6 Comment By C F On June 10, 2012 @ 5:06 pm

Thanks to The American Conservative for presenting this issue clearly. There is certainly room to disagree around the edges. Fox and MSNBC aren’t quite parallel, and one could debate the degree and significance of their differences. The analysis presented here is good, though, and it helps restore my faith in debate as a worthwhile pursuit.

For the last fifteen years, it’s seemed to me that conservatism in America has lost its way, if not its mind. The turns of phase sounded nice, but the actions being justified clearly strengthened neither security nor markets. It was my mistake, though, for having accepted the talking heads as the new conservatism.

Actually, I turned off cable “news” partway through JonBenet Ramsey, which came not long after OJ Simpson. Friends and relatives, however, have been kind enough to keep me immersed in the branding vitriol offered up by cable.

I appreciate your work. Please continue to think clearly, to write well, and to be honest. It’s food for hope.

#7 Comment By Benjamin P. Glaser On June 11, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

The biggest difference I see between FoxNews and MSNBC is at least FoxNews has a “News” division.

While you can argue regarding Bret Baier’s supposed leanings at least FoxNews pretends to have a legitimate “News” show. You cannot say the same thing for “The Place for Politics”.

#8 Comment By James On June 12, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

Exactly right–TV is indeed for those “on the remotest fringes of the intellectually underprivileged”. Of course, so is much of the internet. It is vastly overpopulated by an ocean of sheer trash, in which, however, many good things manage to exist; but they must be sought out.

On the whole, I think the continual juxtaposition of liberal and conservative viewpoints on every kind of question is a tremendous waste of energy and a tragic distraction in the face of the real, concrete problem that literally faces us with potential dissolution: the hijacking and utter debasement of America–its culture and mentality, its very soul–and of its government in particular, by commerce, specifically, corporate commerce–whether it be big pharma, agribusiness, the armaments business, oil and energy, mass media, and the like. Absolutely everything has been reduced and subjected to money and the power of money. Questions of values are tolerated in proportion to entertainment value, to the extent interest or attention can be monetized. The internet is interesting and valuable because it is still not merely a pure depository or expression of commercial interest; people and their concerns, the communication of ideas and values, still count there.

#9 Comment By Cheri Roberts On June 13, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

This is most excellent! Thank you.

#10 Comment By Chick Dante On June 15, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

Two recent University studies have shown that viewers of Fox News(sic) are less informed (or misinformed) than those who watch no news at all. What is different about Fox is that it lies about being about “news” when it fact, it is propaganda – theatre really – masquerading as News. The “liberal” shows on MSNBC are not billed as News and Information but as Opinion shows.

Further, I have seen conservatives regularly aappear on Chris Matthews’ show, on Dylan Ratigan’s show, on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show aand on Rachel Maddow’s show (Meghan McCain appears frequently along with others). Maddow makes constant appeals for conservatives to appear on her opinion show.

So, aside from the fact that MSNBC “liberal” shows are nothing like Fox News(sic), the article above is very insightful.

The question is whether there is ANY real news on TV or Cable. In my view, there isn’t. Instead, what we get is a simply reporting of what “he said, she said” without context, push back, hard questions, or anything that would help the viewer figure out who is lying. And this is why politicians of both camps can do so – because there are no ill consequences.

Today, news can hardly be considered propaganda when there isn’t any news on TV or cable except for one channel that falsely calls itself a News channel when it clearly is not.

#11 Comment By Dan Clore On June 17, 2012 @ 4:35 am

This is quite correct regarding advertiser-funded, corporate-owned “news” media, and in fact matches the work of media critics like Noam Chomsky rather well.

There are some notable exceptions, however, foremost among them Link TV, especially the progressive news and commentary show Democracy Now!:


#12 Comment By Gerhart Niedernhofer On June 18, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

Excellent article on why cable news—of either the left (MSNBC) or the right (FOX)—is increasingly (totally?) irrelevant. I have to say I agree. I haven’t missed FOX since I cancelled the digital portion of my cable last fall. Outside of headlines on the hour on radio and my guilty affection for Scott Pelley on CBS at 5:30 some nights (plus an occasional glance at the Strib—my local paper—or Time magazine), I get my news exclusively from the internet at this point. I have the top 25 conservative websites on my favorites bar across the top of Internet Explorer 9 (from The American Conservative to The Washington Times; with The Daily Caller, Human Events, Newsmax, and Townhall in between). On my favorites drop down menu I have literally hundreds of liberal (The NYT), conservative (Red State), and libertarian (Reason magazine) sites saved in folders organized by ideology and whether they are TV, radio, print, or on-line only. I then arrange individual articles by topic, such as, “Obama Foreign Policy,” or “Eurozone Crisis.” I have literally dozens upon dozens of folders like this, but it keeps me up on virtually everything I need to know to counter the propaganda coming from both the corporate MSM and the superficially partisan cable outfits. I also still subscribe to some of the above’s print publications (for their portability). The bottom line is you increasingly have to do your own research if you want the full story and straight dope on anything these days. It takes more effort, but it’s the only way to avoid the emotional, sound bite-oriented button pushing that passes for political dialogue today. Hopefully more and more people will wake up and start using their TVs for the only things they’re really good for: movies and sports (and even then in limited doses).

#13 Comment By SortingHat On April 9, 2015 @ 6:38 pm

One of the ways that could help is to get rid of cable all together *Except for maybe specialized channels like sports and movies due to the length* and go back to *free* airwaves which the reason why commercials started was to keep the airwaves free and commercials were minimized originally.

In the 1960s and part of the 1970s all you had to do to enjoy TV was buy a basic TV antenna which was NOT specially encoded and you had quite a list of *free* stations often with interesting programs better then today’s filth because ads were controlled by the government and were family friendly viewing.

Cable TV the funny thing that is so ironic is that you don’t need ads becacuse the bill is suppose to cover for it so there would be better QC. (Quality Control)

The original purpose of TV commercials was to sponsor for Analogue TV to keep it free which did require a license from the government FFC I think but that also helped keep out immoral crap.

I REALLY enjoyed PBS shows such as Family Ties,Magic School Bus,Arthur and I can’t remember if there was anything else.

Even when Cable TV first started commercials were only 5 mins long every half hour just long enough to go potty and grab a snack without leaving in the middle of the show.

Now there is 2 ten minute slots of commercials where some of the show has to be edited out as a result so you get more commercials then show.

Now you have enough time to pop something in the microwave,go potty then wait for the microwaved dish to cool THEN you’re hear the infamous words “We now take you back to you’re daily program!”

#14 Comment By SortingHat On April 9, 2015 @ 6:43 pm

Even when cable TV was first started commercials were still short only 5 mins once every 1/2 hour on the dot.

Now it’s 2 ten min slots of commercials which is annoying if the show is an hour sitcom or a Sci Fi like Star Trek.

We don’t have Cable TV anymore because of it.

Cable TV the original purpose of charging was for better quality and to pay for no ads as there is already a first time instillation fee though now they offer for free to watch it in multiple rooms.

Dish Network used to have something called Dish Pick where you could make customized packages instead of the main packages.

We used to use Dish Pick all the time and Mom drove them nuts every few months changing the list.

#15 Comment By Mark in Indiana On June 30, 2017 @ 2:46 pm

Propaganda has been used since the beginning of time; Charlamagne had Einhard. There is very little difference between then and now. Want to know how it resolves itself, look back through history and observe. It should inspire us to find a solution as it would be in all of our best interests to find someway to come together however, that never really happens throughout history and where this country is currently at, backs this up. Instead, take care of your families and instill in them the values you find most important. The basics of humanity would be a good place to start if this statement confuses you. Simple things like respect for others, humility and tolerance goes a long way in life. This is a good country however, we are often mislead by those in positions of authority. They often tell us how to think and act however, your parents already did that. There is always going to be that “bad apple” and we have already figured out how to handle that problem in society. This generation is going to need our help and support more than any other. Think about what it is like to be raised in a current mid-west rural setting today. Ours is currently obsessed with two things, guns and what their neighbor is doing. The instructions of “if you see something, say something” was immediately perverted into if they aren’t inter-related in the community, every paranoia, jealousy or fear is projected onto these people. Slander and defamation reserved for politics in the past are now brought to bare in local communities often with the assistance of local churches and law enforcement. Now these institutions actively stalk some of the people that are in need of their protection. How do these people ever recover or fit in? Furthermore, the news institutions used to be a fairly unbiased source that made people take a stern look at how their actions play out in society. Now, it is a propaganda machine that gives you their opinions as fact. It inspires paranoia, fear and mistrust; where do you think this will lead us? Where has it lead other nations that relied on this powerful weapon in the past? When propaganda becomes the mechanism that informs any civilization what happened to that government? Good things? Individuals should absolutely be allowed to have opinions however, when institution or individuals like Rush Limbaugh are allowed platforms that reach masses of people and instruct them how to think and act, and it is in direct opposition to how your parents raised you….it is propaganda.

#16 Comment By Richard Wicks On March 29, 2018 @ 1:45 am

You know how you recognize when something is propaganda?

When you’re not allowed to comment on it, or correct it, or point out omissions.

Write all the letters to the editor you want, it’s pointless. Tell a journalist of any US newspaper what they omitted, it’s a waste of your time. Correct factual errors, it will simply be ignored – in almost all corporate US news. It’s all propaganda.

The lesson here is that if you cannot provide feedback, and more important, read the feedback of others – don’t even bother to read it.