Media Ethics | Media Matters for America

Media Ethics

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  • What happens when the No. 1 cable news channel is steeped in white nationalist rhetoric?

    Tucker Carlson's advertisers are sponsoring fascism

    Blog ››› ››› MADELINE PELTZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Tucker Carlson is attempting to stay the course amid an advertiser exodus from his Fox News program because of his racist commentary. Carlson had been a mouthpiece for white supremacy, and since being promoted to a prime-time slot on Fox, he has elevated fringe “alt-right” grievances into mainstream media.

    But what are the consequences of airing unfettered, explicit white supremacy five nights a week on the top rated cable news channel in the U.S.? They’re that Fox News viewers, including the president, are exposed to extremist ideology that, thanks to the veneer of respectability a top-rated show carries, has become part of the acceptable spectrum of political discourse -- but that actually puts marginalized communities under direct threat of material harm.

    Unchecked white nationalism on Fox News facilitates radicalization

    In the absence of any identifiable editorial standards at Fox News, naked white nationalist rhetoric has metastasized. Carlson has interpreted this state of affairs as a blanket mandate to host a program centered around the idea that there is a crisis of discrimination against white men in America. Since his show launched on Fox News in November 2016, it has filtered story after story through the lens of white grievance,including claiming that reports of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh exposed “race hatred”, warning about the imaginary threat of white “genocide,” and spending a bewildering amount of time attacking the value of diversity. These segments track with both the rhetoric and smear campaigns cooked up online by white nationalists, neo-Nazis, men’s rights activists. Every night, he speaks on behalf of a fringe online community that endorses white nationalism and amplifies this message to an audience that would likely not have been exposed to it elsewhere. This sets off the invisible process of radicalization: avowed racists and neo-Nazis spew hatred online, Carlson picks it up, sanitizes it, and uses it to bolster the Trump agenda. This process projects explicit white supremacy (as opposed to Fox’s long-term peddling of implicit white supremacy) into the homes of Fox’s audience, blending seamlessly into the network’s long-established brand of conservative media.

    Arie Kruglanski, a research psychologist at the University of Maryland, broke the radicalization process down into three parts in The Washington Post. The first step capitalizes on the drive to life a meaningful life, which white supremacy fulfills by imbuing people’s identity (“gender, religion or race”) with superiority. Carlson trafficks in these toxic white identity politics and validates the fantasy that dominate groups are actually the ones being persecuted. The second element of radicalization is what Kruglanski calls “the narrative.” He says this narrative -- “usually that there is an enemy attacking your group, and the radical must fight to gain or maintain respect, honor or glory” -- gives its believers “permission to use violence.” The constant barrage of coverage about a migrant caravaninvasion” is just one recent example of how Fox’s narrative creates an enemy to fuel racial resentment. Carlson’s show was no exception in that regard. The third piece, Kruglanski says, is forming a “community, or the network of people who validate the narrative and the violence.” Fox helps in this goal broadly across the network by sowing distrust of other outlets by raving about “fake news” and a subversive liberal agenda in mainstream media. In other words, Fox News foments an “us against the world” mentality in its viewers. Carlson specifically builds community among racists by centering “alt-right” issues and talking points in his commentary. They know they’re in this together with him because many of the stories he covers come directly from their online community. Stories about “white genocide” in South Africa and attacks against Georgetown University associate professor Christine Fair bubbled up in white supremacists’ circles online, and their adherents recognize that Carlson is playing their game.

    Imagine a man, not unlike Charlottesville murderer James Fields, who is angry and captivated by the white supremacist ideology that he finds on YouTube, Twitter, and Gab. He sees Carlson take up those same issues and feels validated by seeing them presented with the glossy veneer that cable television provides. He hears his “alt-right” peers reciprocate this praise on their podcast networks. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a man like this experiences a destabilizing event, whether personal or political, and is moved to take violent action targeting those he perceives to be the enemy of white men.

    Carlson’s show shifts the Overton window toward fascism

    The Overton window is a concept in political science that describes the range of ideas considered acceptable within the mainstream body politic. The consequences of white nationalist viewpoints airing on national television extend beyond the individuals who are radicalized as a result -- the entire spectrum of political discourse is shifted toward normalized fascism. With the rise of authoritarian leaders like Donald Trump, extreme right-wing ideas pull the Overton window to the right, such that what was previously considered to be far-right suddenly looks like the middle ground. The white supremacist rhetoric of Carlson’s show suddenly seems tempered, opening up space in mainstream conservative media for dog whistles about demographic change, white “genocide,” and the end of Western civilization. Fascists turn the oppressors into the oppressed as justification for reactionary attacks on women, immigrants, people of color, and anti-racist activists.

    At the same time, Carlson has appropriated leftist ideas about challenging corporate power and American imperialism and used them to persuade people of his worldview. He claimed he agreed with Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) criticism of Amazon’s use of tax breaks to build additional headquarters in New York and Virginia. He’s encouraged an end to the United States’ never-ending presence in the Middle East, warned against instigating conflict with Iran, and mocked national security adviser John Bolton’s bloodthirstiness to his face. He has said that the Democratic Party panders to corporate interests (it does) and has criticized tax cuts for corporations. And of course, he claims he’s a champion of free speech. It’s not hard to see why taking these positions is popular. But Carlson is playing a shell game. An excellent review of Carlson’s book “Ship of Fools” in Current Affairs explores how this combination of criticizing unfettered state and corporate power combined with ethno-nationalism is “destructive and inhumane” because “it has a kernel of accuracy, it will easily tempt readers toward accepting an alarmingly xenophobic, white nationalist worldview.”

    Carlson won’t cover poverty and other issues important to the left unless he’s using them as a bludgeon to demonize immigrants. In a white supremacist framework, the distinction between poor immigrants and poor citizens is of paramount importance. Tucker wants to convince his audience that immigrants cause poverty, violence, declining wages, and disappearing jobs. Carlson agonizes in his book about the loss of a “European, Christian and English-speaking” majority in America. He lays the blame for capitalism’s harm at the feet of women, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, and people of color. It’s effective because it identifies legitimate systemic problems that are robbing people of their liberty and weaponizes those issues against the marginalized population. This is populism predicated upon racism, better known as national socialism.

    White nationalist rhetoric poses a threat to the well-being of vulnerable populations

    The normalization of white nationalism on Fox News, spearheaded by Carlson, encourages violence against members of marginalized communities who are deemed persona non grata. The goal is to dehumanize those who oppose racism and authoritarianism or whose very existence is in conflict with white America. In a world where all human beings are not considered full human beings, there are no restraints on how poorly they can be treated. In the words of The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, “The cruelty is the point.” Migrant children have repeatedly faced down the full force of American imperialism; they’ve been tear-gassed and forcibly separated from their parents. Transgender people are the targets of the Department of Justice, which seeks to legally erase them from existence. Who benefits from erasing transgender identities except for those who seek to perform cruelty? What is the point of ending temporary protected status for Haitian migrants and exposing Vietnam war refugees to deportation except to follow through on the white nationalist project of ethnic cleansing, sending those deemed undesirable back to their “shithole” countries? Carlson is the mouthpiece for this agenda.

    Incidents of right-wing violence are increasing and it’s killing people. According to the FBI, hate crime incidents rose 17 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year, and almost three-fifths were driven by race or ethnicity. There’s a clear through line from the escalated rhetoric on immigration to the massacre of 11 Jewish people in a Pittsburgh, PA, synagogue and the tear-gassing of children on the border. White male terrorism is validated by a toxic online ecosystem of racism and extremism that migrates from the dark corners of the internet into mainstream conservative media, and the main conduit of this filth is Tucker Carlson. The lives of women of color, immigrants, disabled people, and refugees are threatened when white nationalism infects the most popular cable news channel on the planet; the consequences of this programming extend beyond the internal politics of media into a direct threat to the lives of vulnerable people.

    Without advertisers, Carlson would have a harder time spewing his hatred. The segment where he said immigration makes the U.S. “dirtier” caught the attention of advertisers this time -- but it happens on a nightly basis, almost always without consequence. It is a moral imperative that Carlson be held responsible for spreading white supremacist ideology that radicalizes a mainstream audience, moves the Overton window toward fascism, and puts marginalized groups in harm’s way. Advertisers and media buyers have the ability to make this change; it’s clear Fox News won’t hold him responsible. After all, the network has completely abdicated editorial control when it comes to other ethical crises. Without action from the companies that sponsor this hate, the undemocratic threat Tucker Carlson poses to political discourse in this country will continue unabated, and his targets will continue to suffer.

  • CNN keeps letting guests and paid commentators lie about climate scientists

    It's not true that scientists do climate research to get rich, and CNN knows it

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS & EVLONDO COOPER



    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    This post was updated on November 28.

    CNN has let at least three commentators argue this week that scientists are warning the public about climate change because they're getting rich by doing so -- a ridiculous and patently false claim. CNN knows it's ridiculous and false because the network ran a fact-checking segment debunking the claim and interviewed a climate scientist who explained why it's wrong. But even that didn't stop the network from continuing to spread the lie.

    To make matters worse, the three people who made this lie on CNN -- former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), and Trump-boosting economist Stephen Moore -- have themselves been the beneficiaries of fossil fuel money, but CNN failed to disclose that information.

    CNN lets liars lie

    Following the release of the National Climate Assessment, a major government report about the dangers that climate change poses to the U.S., CNN contributor Santorum came on State of the Union on Sunday morning to discuss it. Among other idiotic things, he said:

    I think the point that Donald Trump makes is true, which is -- look, if there was no climate change, we'd have a lot of scientists looking for work. The reality is that a lot of these scientists are driven by the money that they receive, and of course they don't receive money from corporations and Exxon and the like. Why? Because they're not allowed to because it's tainted. But they can receive it from people who support their agenda, and that, I believe, is what's really going on here.

    Santorum's comments about climate scientists doing it for the money were widely mocked on Twitter. But that didn't stop other conservative commentators from repeating the bogus claim during CNN appearances.

    DeLay, who resigned as House majority leader in 2005 after being convicted of money laundering and conspiracy, made similar comments on CNN Right Now on Monday: 

    The report is nothing more than a rehash of age-old 10- to 20-year assumptions made by scientists that get paid to further the politics of global warming.

    Moore, a right-wing economist with a record of being wrong, echoed those points later on Monday on Erin Burnett Outfront:

    We have created a climate change industrial complex in this country, with billions and billions and billions of dollars at stake. A lot of people are getting really, really, really rich off the climate change issue.

    CNN does fact-checking, confirms that the lie is a lie

    On Tuesday morning, CNN's John Avlon played clips of what Santorum and DeLay said and then proceeded to debunk their claims in a "Reality Check" segment:

    JOHN AVLON (POLITICAL ANALYST): Now that talking point you're hearing is a classic bit of distraction and deflection designed to muddy the waters just enough to confuse the clear consensus. In fact, one of the scientists who worked on the climate change report, Katharine Hayhoe, confirms that she and her colleagues were paid, quote, “zero dollars” for their work and could easily make ten times their salaries by working for something like Big Oil. So it turns out that this idea that climate change scientists are rolling in the dough Scrooge McDuck-style is so pervasive that it had to have its own Yale study debunking it.

    The Yale study that he referred to is a guide by the Yale Climate Communications group that lists arguments refuting the "persistent myth" that scientists are in it for the money.

    CNN then hosted the climate scientist Avlon cited, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, who laughed at the claim that she and her colleagues are paid to advance an agenda and explained why it's incorrect:

    KATHARINE HAYHOE (ATMOSPHERIC SCIENTIST): I got paid zero dollars to write this report. My salary would have been exactly the same if I had or hadn't. And if I were studying astrophysics like I used to, I'd probably get exactly the same salary as well. The reality is that I’ve found people often accuse us of doing what they would often do themselves in our position. If we just cast our eye down the richest corporations in the world on Wikipedia's list, the vast majority of those owe their wealth to fossil fuels, so therefore they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo as long as possible.

    CNN invites liar back on to repeat lie

    But even after CNN debunked the lie with its own programming, the network invited Moore back on to double down and repeat the discredited claim. During At This Hour With Kate Bolduan on Tuesday, host Bolduan played Moore a clip of Hayhoe's comments and let him respond:

    MOORE: She runs the climate change center at the school in Texas. What keeps those centers alive is the climate change industry. My only point is that the government in the United States and around the world has spent billions and billions of dollars on climate change. It has become an industry. That does call into question some of the partiality of this research. But the bigger point is --

    BOLDUAN: You still don't think she is just motivated by science?

    MOORE: She may be. I'm not calling out any single person. I'm just saying that the industry is very, very well funded. It’s in the billions of dollars. People have a vested financial interest in talking about armageddon and these kinds of things.

    CNN invited Moore back on for yet another appearance on Tuesday, again on Erin Burnett OutFront, in which he continued to repeat specious right-wing talking points about the National Climate Assessment.

    And Santorum also got another chance to repeat the lie about climate scientists being motivated by money. During an appearance on Anderson Cooper 360° on Tuesday night, Santorum said:

    I said this the other day and I've gotten a -- I've become a very popular man on Twitter in the last couple of days for the comment I made about scientists making money. There would be no chair of the head of climate studies at every university in America if we didn’t have a crisis. These people make money because there's a crisis.

    Santorum's appearance on Anderson Cooper 360° was all the more egregious because Cooper interviewed climate scientist Hayhoe for the episode, and even teased the interview during the show, but ultimately didn't air it. Hayhoe revealed this fact in a tweet, part of a longer thread about the experience:

    CNN did end up posting the interview with Hayhoe on its website. In it, Hayhoe said:

    HAYHOE: What I do take personally is when we are accused of being in it for the money. I got paid zero dollars to write this report, and honestly, I could have spent those hundreds of hours elsewhere. We don't do this for the money. We do it because we're physicians of the planet. We understand that our planet is running a fever. The impacts are serious and will become dangerous, and we have to act now, not for the good of the planet but for the good of every single human who lives on it.

    COOPER: I mean, that is something the president has said in the past, that this is a hoax, and that there are people who've said on our air that this is a money-making scheme essentially, this is a money-making venture.

    HAYHOE: I would ask them where are they getting their money from.

    Great points from Hayhoe. Too bad they didn't make it on the air.

    CNN fails to disclose that liars have received fossil fuel money

    While CNN lets its commentators falsely accuse scientists of being motivated by graft, the network has failed to disclose that those very commentators have financial motivations of their own: All three have gotten money from fossil fuel interests that oppose climate action.

    Santorum received $763,331 in contributions from the oil and gas industry during his time in the Senate from 1995 to 2007. His long career of shilling on behalf of fossil fuel interests paid off after he left Congress and started doing lucrative work as a consultant, including earning $142,500 in 2010 and the first half of 2011 from Consol Energy, a Pennsylvania coal and gas company. Santorum is also currently the co-chair of biofuels advocacy group Americans for Energy Security and Innovation. Anderson Cooper disclosed that Santorum is paid by the biofuels group before his discussion with Santorum, but did not note the fossil fuel money Santorum has raked in over the years.

    DeLay received $739,677 in contributions from the oil and gas industry from 1985 to 2008, and gave enormous handouts to the industry during his time in office.

    For his part, Moore has worked for many fossil fuel-backed advocacy groups, including the Koch-funded Cato Institute, Club for Growth, and Donors Capital Fund. He was also chief economist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has been funded by ExxonMobil and the Kochs. And just last last month, Moore gave a speech at the annual meeting of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association. 

    At the very least, CNN should disclose its commentators' conflicts of interest. Better, of course, would be not to give them a platform from which to spew their nonsense. But CNN is more dedicated to showy fireworks and conflict than to the truth.

  • How the Russian concept of "info-noise" can help American outlets cover Trump

    Substantive policy changes can -- and should -- be kept separate from statements that are merely inflammatory

    Blog ››› ››› TALIA LAVIN


    Melissa Joskow/Media Matters

    “Infoshum” -- or “information noise” -- is a term that has recently gained attention in Russian-language media analysis. Pioneered by TV channel RTVI, the concept applies to meaningless, inflammatory news items and attempts to differentiate them from those with substance. American outlets covering President Donald Trump would serve their audiences better if they learned the difference.

    As independent Russian media analyst Oleg Kashin put it last month in a column for Republic.ru, “Infoshum is not fake news or post-truth” -- rather, it is news that draws on provocative statements, conjectures, or social media controversies to build stories designed for maximum clickability and minimum informativeness. Kashin’s take translates as: “For every piece of news that’s made of clear, intense, high-quality reporting work, ... there’s one for which success is virality for the sake of virality, and what used to be sent out in boring press releases is now mined and sold as a valuable exclusive.” To further illustrate the principle, Kashin used examples of journalists calling up Russian senators in the Duma who are known for making inflammatory comments and extracting “one detail that turns it into real anti-journalism” -- some sensational statement which then becomes a news story in its own right. Writing up provocative tweets by political figures elides even this faint journalistic effort.

    In the Trump era, it’s hard not to see the problem of infoshum as familiar and, these days, fundamental to the way American news outlets operate. Idle, inflammatory musings from the president are quickly spun into headlines. On October 30, Axios’s Jonathan Swan engaged in what Kashin might call “anti-journalism” by inducing Trump to assert, with characteristic truculence, that he planned to end birthright citizenship and then publishing Trump’s resultant vague comments about ending it, packaged uncritically as an “Exclusive.”

    Trump is an infoshum-dispatching machine -- he has a singular ability to signal-jam mainstream news sources by offering a constant stream of bizarre, bellicose statements designed to whet the appetites of click-hungry editors. And even when he hasn’t had Fox News airtime to put forth half-baked provocations, reporters themselves often engender such cycles of controversy with their questions; the president has never met an incendiary query that he didn’t like. Could liberal philanthropist George Soros be funding the migrant caravan? Sure. Banning birthright citizenship? We’re looking into it. As Deadspin editor David Roth put it in a recent piece, “Reporters shout something at Trump about a thing he said or did or his response to someone’s else response to something, and then he shouts that he did it because he felt like it or actually didn’t do it at all,” a ritual that repeats itself over and over again amid press scrums on the White House lawn. “If there is a purpose here,” Roth wrote, “it is the theater of it—the theater of Trump’s strange fey boorishness and the towering and obvious lies he tells.” The headlines generated by fragmented, aggressive statements during Trump’s freewheeling and infrequent press conferences are information-noise too; there is little to add beyond the easily verified fact that the president said something and that it had little substance but much fury. 

    Perhaps the ultimate example of Trumpian infoshum is the issue of the caravan -- a group of migrants headed toward the U.S. border seeking asylum -- which became a singular focus of Trump’s screeds leading up to the midterm elections. Trump’s aggressive anti-immigrant tweets and statements were dutifully picked up and accelerated by his loyalists at Fox News, and subsequently bled over into mainstream outlets where caravan coverage surged, as Media Matters’ Matt Gertz has illustrated. In this way, a partisan talking point thrummed into the national consciousness via an ongoing stream of info-noise issuing from the White House.

    RTVI contends with infoshum by siloing it in a separate section tagged as “noise,” reserved for stories that are thinly sourced and make inflammatory claims -- such as “The US is on the brink of a new civil war” or “Improvements in cell phones provokes the development of cancer.” While it’s tempting to cover presidential statements with gravitas that would preclude this treatment, Trump’s well-established penchant for furthering baseless conspiracy theories, inciting shallow but debasing cultural conflicts, and generally inducing a click-driven news cycle to gravitate in his sullen orbit means that such treatment is well-warranted. Absent material policy changes -- whose substance, consequences, and impacts on different communities should be reported on with appropriate seriousness -- most of Trump’s eruptions should be treated as exactly what they are: Noise.

  • Fox Business keeps casting doubt on Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance

    Fox Business, the only media organization that hasn’t pulled out of a high-profile Saudi conference, is muddying the waters around possible Saudi involvement in a journalist’s disappearance

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    On October 3, The Associated Press reported that Saudi Arabian journalist (and U.S. permanent resident) Jamal Khashoggi, last seen entering a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, was missing. The disappearance drew significant media attention through October 11, when the Turkish government claimed to have audio and video proof that Khashoggi was assassinated and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate. 

    As evidence of Saudi involvement grew, many big media organizations have pulled out of the Saudi-planned Future Investment Initiative conference -- except Fox Business. Fox Business personalities have made suspect comments about Khashoggi’s disappearance, sowing confusion about possible Saudi culpability and downplaying the seriousness of the assassination if the Saudi government is guilty. 

    On the October 15 edition of Fox Business’ Cavuto: Coast to Coast, John Hannah, who served as an adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney, said that even if the Saudi government did murder Khashoggi, “diplomatically, we have got to maintain the strategic U.S.-Saudi relationship at the same time as we express real displeasure with what the Saudis have done here.” 

    Host Neil Cavuto later floated a bizarre conspiracy theory that Khashoggi’s disappearance may have been “hatched by the Turks to get at the Saudis, to embarrass them, to put them in a position.”

    On Fox News’ Outnumbered, after senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano commented that “there’s no way [Khashoggi] is going to be assassinated without the highest levels of the Saudi government authorizing it,” Fox Business host Melissa Francis chided Napolitano for “assuming that the Saudis did it," noting that "we don’t necessarily know that.” Francis suggested that the alleged murder might not be “what it appears to be” because “it was so obvious, and there are so many quieter ways to dispose of someone.”

  • “The Empire strikes back”: Right-wing media defend Alex Jones after Infowars is banned from several major platforms

    ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS & ZACHARY PLEAT

    After Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, and iTunes all removed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and Infowars pages from their platforms, several right-wing media figures leapt to the extremist’s defense. Jones’ defenders responded by criticizing and threatening “the entire rotten tech machine” and invoking a wide range of comparisons to support him, including Star Wars, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, reality TV star Kylie Jenner, and the Holocaust.