Imagine if Fox News had been on the air back on February 28, 1993, just months into the new Democratic president's first term, when agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempted to serve warrants on David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound, located on the outskirts of Waco, Texas. Agents arrived because federal authorities got a tip that Koresh and the followers of the misguided messiah were stockpiling weapons.
The authorities were right. Outgunned, ATF agents quickly met resistance from the Davidians, who had a .50-caliber rifle, machine guns, and more than a million rounds of ammunition at their disposal. The shootout lasted hours and became the longest in American law-enforcement history. In the end, four ATF agents were killed, and 16 were wounded. Inside the compound, five Davidians were killed and scores more injured, including Koresh, who was shot in the hip and the wrist. The gunbattle signaled the start of a 51-day standoff between Koresh and federal authorities.
Rupert Murdoch's all-news channel didn't debut in America until October 1996, but it's chilling to consider the what-ifs of how today's Fox News lineup of doomsday, anti-government prophets would have reacted to controversial and defining news events in the early 1990s -- like Waco.
As news of the failed Waco raid broke, would Fox News' notoriously weepy and apocalyptic host Glenn Beck have broken down on the air and wept for the tyranny that he saw unfolding in the government's raid? While FBI negotiators tried to win the release of Koresh's followers, would Beck have warned viewers that the president would "take your gun away one way or another"?
Amidst the 51-day siege, would Beck have warned against the creeping "totalitarian state" inside America? Would the host have gravely announced that we'd "come to a very dangerous point in our country's long, storied history"?
Would Beck have routinely vilified President Clinton as a fascist? Would he have told viewers that he wanted to debunk the militia-movement conspiracy theory that the federal government was building prison camps, but that he just couldn't knock the story down -- and that, at first glance, it appeared to be "half true"?
And can you even imagine Beck's on-air reaction when the FBI's final, failed assault on the Waco compound unfolded on live TV on April 19, 1993? As the horrific images of the compound going up in flames and the grim realization spread that Koresh's followers were not coming out -- that they had staged a mass suicide (and in some cases, executions), rather than surrendering to federal officers -- would Beck have claimed that the scene of destruction reminded him of the "early days of Adolf Hitler"?
Would he have invited self-styled militiamen onto his show to game out how the pending civil war against the Clinton-led tyranny was likely to play out and to ponder whether members of the U.S. military would fire on American citizens when the blood began to flow in the streets? And setting aside all decency, would Beck -- post-Waco -- have pretended to douse a Fox News colleague in gasoline and, lamenting how the government was disenfranchising its citizens, then urged Clinton to just "set us on fire," or pleaded that it would be better if Clinton had just shot Beck "in the head"? (That's how Koresh died inside the Waco compound: from a bullet to the head.)
Based on the paranoid, anti-government rhetoric that Fox News has embraced since President Obama's inauguration, it's no leap to suspect that if Murdoch's outlet were broadcasting in the early 1990s -- and if it were broadcasting the same fringe message it's echoing today -- that the militia movement would have found a friend in Fox News during the Waco era and throughout Clinton's first term, when the conspiratorial patriot movements flourished.
And that's the chilling significance of what's now unfolding. Last week, I wrote about the inherent dangers and irresponsibility of Fox News consciously shaping itself into a kind of militia news outlet and how it's impossible to ignore the anti-government message some viewers such as Richard Poplawski, the man accused of shooting and killing three Pittsburgh police officers, might be taking from Fox News.
But let's take a step back and see just how extraordinary Fox News' latest lurch to the revolutionary right really is. And let's clearly understand how Fox News is actively trying to mainstream fringe allegations, how Murdoch's outlet functions as a crucial bridge -- a transmitter -- between the radical and the everyday.
What Fox News, and specifically Beck, is doing in early 2009 is giving a voice -- a national platform -- to the same deranged, hard-core haters who hounded the new, young Democratic president in the early 1990s in the wake of Waco (i.e. the Clinton Chronicles crowd). What Fox News is doing today is embracing the same kind of hate rhetoric and doomsday conspiratorial talk that flourished during the '90s, and Fox News is now dumping all that rancid stuff into the mainstream. It's legitimizing accusatory hate speech in a way no other television outlet in America ever has before.
Today's unhinged, militia-flavored attacks from the right against Obama are clearly reminiscent of 1993 and 1994 and the kind of tribal reaction conservatives had to the Democratic White House. What's different this time around is that that it's being adopted and broadcast nationally by Fox News, as it proudly mainstreams and validates the fringe.
Back in the early 1990s, marginal critics, militiamen, and so-called "Patriots" had to rely on somewhat crude methods of communications to spread their conspiratorial distrust of government. They used grassroots fax networks, the very early days of online bulletin boards, and even passed around copies of The Turner Diaries. At the top of their media pyramid were right-wing talk-radio hosts as well as the writers on The Washington Times' and The Wall Street Journal's editorial pages, who eagerly disseminated the culture of partisan paranoia.
But in terms of television, the most influential mass medium in America, nowhere on the TV landscape in the early 1990s were rabid government haters able to hear their message of fear amplified on a nightly or weekly basis the way Obama haters are able to today via Fox News. Even Rush Limbaugh, who from 1992 to 1996 hosted a syndicated television show, didn't go there. Limbaugh's purely partisan television program avoided describing the new Democratic administration with the same doomsday language that's now casually thrown out about Obama: that he's a Marxist or a fascist, or that totalitarian rule remains a real and imminent threat. Even Limbaugh (or his producers) thought that kind of rhetoric was too much for American television.
Fast-forward two administrations, and that kind of talk has become Fox News' signature.
To be accurate, there was one person with a national television audience back then who did regularly promote outlandish conspiratorial claims about Clinton: the Rev. Jerry Falwell. He actively pushed the now-infamous Clinton Chronicles documentary on his Old Time Gospel Hour television show. The Clinton Chronicles, which was produced by Citizens for Honest Government, which in turn paid off key Clinton critics who cooperated with the house-of-mirrors film, claimed that the new president had accumulated a long criminal record while governor of Arkansas and continued his lawbreaking ways as president, that the Clintons were associated with drug-running, prostitution, murder, adultery, money laundering, and obstruction of justice, just to name a few.
Playing that hypothetical card again today, is there anyone who doubts that if Beck were broadcasting on Fox News back in 1994 that Citizens for Honest Government reps would have been ushered onto his program to discuss Clinton's alleged depravities? I don't doubt it, simply because Beck has, at times, become the voice of the militia this year -- and the militia devoured The Clinton Chronicles. As author David Neiwert, an expert on the right wing, reported, "The militia movement provided most of the early audience for The Clinton Chronicles; large stacks of the books and videos sold well at Patriot gatherings."
What's so startling today is that the unhinged, irrational attacks being leveled against Obama sound so similar to the unhinged, irrational attacks leveled against Clinton more than a decade ago. For instance, here's a line from the introduction to The Clinton Chronicles: "The hijacking of America was under way, and its impact on future generations would be incalculable."
That claim would sound familiar to any casual viewer who has tuned into Fox News since Obama's inauguration.
Here's what Neiwert highlighted in 2003:
Had you gone to any militia gathering -- held usually in small town halls or county fairgrounds, sometimes under the guise of "preparedness expos," "patriotic meetings" or even gun shows -- you could always find a wealth of material aimed at proving Clinton the worst kind of treasonous villain imaginable. Bill and Hillary Clinton, after all, occupy a central position in Patriots' "New World Order" paranoiac fantasy.
You'll note that Obama today occupies the same central position in the Patriots' Fox News-fed paranoiac fantasies.
And media critics Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon wrote this more than a decade ago:
"Patriots" rail against Bill Clinton and the plot toward global government known as the "New World Order"; they see gun control as a Big Brother conspiracy.
Again, that type of rhetoric has become synonymous with Beck, who recently claimed the Second Amendment is "under fire" and that the "Big Brother" government will soon dictate what its citizens can eat, what temperature their house can be, and what kind of cars they're allowed to drive.
Hearing the attacks on Obama, it's déjà vu all over again. The key difference this time around the right-wing hate track is that Fox News has signed on as a TV partner and has agreed to embrace -- and air to a national audience -- the militia-like allegations about Obama. Fox News has agreed to descend into the right-wing conspiracist subculture in order to portray the new president as the worst kind of villain imaginable: somebody who's plotting take away guns and who's not above employing fascism to obtain his goals.
On the two-year anniversary of the Waco inferno, militia admirer Timothy McVeigh, feeding off his hatred for the government, drove his rented 20-foot Ryder truck and parked it across the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, the truck's three-ton ammonium nitrate bomb detonated and sheared the north side off the Murrah Building, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more.
McVeigh later wrote, "I reached the decision to go on the offensive -- to put a check on government abuse of power." McVeigh wanted to "send a message to a government" by "bombing a government building and the government employees within that building who represent that government."
The Oklahoma City bombing story broke 18 months before Fox News made its cable-news debut. But if Murdoch's team maintains its current course -- if Beck and company insist on irresponsibly fanning the militia-type flames of distrust -- there's the danger Fox News might soon have to cover other episodic gestures of anti-government payback.