This Is Not Normal

For Anyone Who’s Lost Loved Ones To Fox News

Helpless victims swept up in a vortex of propaganda and paranoia, or intentional, active participants? And what (if anything) can we do about it?

“Fox Orphans” is what freelance writer/journalist Luke O’Neil calls them — the people who’ve lost parents (or loved ones) to Fox News. Many of you know this feeling well: somewhere around the early Obama years, or maybe as recently as 2016, you suddenly found yourself treading on thin ice, at odds on seemingly everything with an otherwise intelligent, kind-hearted and generous, loving, decent family member.

You felt baffled, maybe even betrayed. You’d always gotten along fine until this point; you’d enjoyed many deep conversations on all manner of topics, and you even saw eye-to-eye on most everything.

But then suddenly, or maybe slowly and gradually, they changed. They became merely a shell of their former good self. Happiness and generosity gave way to anger, bitterness and paranoia. And now? Now, you’ve found yourself occupying this new, weird, uncomfortable place with them, where the only safe discussion topic is the weather.

You wondered what the hell happened to them; how, when, why did it happen?

At some point you realized they’d been consuming large amounts of Fox News, evidenced by the fact you could hear it on a 24/7 loop as background noise during every phone conversation or visit. Maybe instead of (or in addition to) Fox News, it was “conservative” talk radio programs like Rush Limbaugh —who was undoubtedly the gateway drug to Fox News. Or maybe they tuned in to Glenn Beck or Mark Levin’s shows. Or “alternative” news and opinion websites like Breitbart, The Daily Wire, Drudge Report, or maybe blogs like Hot Air or RedState.

Then you started hearing about and talking with others who shared your experience. More and more of them. You kept finding each other. And as you tried to make sense of it all, you couldn’t deny the pattern. What all these “lost” family members had in common was their “conservative” and “alternative” news sources — but primarily, Fox News.

In April 2019, Luke O’Neil published an essay in New York Magazine’s Intelligencer detailing what he learned collecting stories from people whose loved ones were transformed by Fox News. The essay was an excerpt from his book, Welcome to Hell World. By the end of his Fox News project, he’d accumulated stories from all over the U.S., as well as some from Australia and the U.K. (whose equivalent “alternative” media outlets were TV channel Sky, and the tabloid Daily Mail, respectively).

The results he found weren’t warm and fuzzy. He spoke of relationships damaged beyond repair. Long-term marriages broken up. Parents estranged from their adult children and even grandchildren.

He wrote that no matter where the stories originated, they all featured the same theme: a loved one who seemed to have changed into an entirely different person — more bigoted, harder (if not impossible) to talk to — and that they “found some kind of deep, addictive comfort in the anger and paranoia” of Fox News. He noted how it could’ve been anyone, whether they were already conservative to begin with, or even apolitical. This part, for me, was the most compelling account:

“For at least one person, it marks the final memory he’ll ever have of his father: ‘When I found my dad dead in his armchair, fucking Fox News was on the TV,’ this reader told me. ‘It’s likely the last thing he saw. I hate what that channel and conservative talk radio did to my funny, compassionate dad. He spent the last years of his life increasingly angry, bigoted, and paranoid.’”

O’Neil also pointed out how, for some, the “Fox-driven political affiliations of family members represent a deep betrayal.” He told a story that became all too familiar after the 2016 presidential election: A son wrote in, telling of how his widowed father chose Fox News over the well-being of him and his wife — both of whom are disabled. “He is aware that the GOP wants to take away health care and he still voted for Trump. He still likes Trump.

Of course, Luke O’Neil had his critics, who claimed it was stupid to scapegoat a cable-news network for family members’ interpersonal shortcomings, but he pushed back, saying, “I get that. I don’t have an empirical way to assign blame or figure out causality… In requesting stories about family members and Fox News, I wasn’t undertaking a scientific experiment — merely seeking to see if there are other people who had the same experiences I had, and felt the same way I did.”

O’Neil certainly wasn’t the first person to examine the effect of Fox News on Americans. In the summer of 2015, award-winning filmmaker, Jen Senko, released The Brainwashing of My Dad. Brainwashing is a film that Senko originally set out to document, in personal efforts to understand the dramatic transformation of her father from a life-long Democrat to an angry, right-wing fanatic. But as the filmmaking process unfolded, Senko discovered her father was part of a much broader demographic, and that this was a story that affected us all — or rather, was representative of our divided and polarized nation, which was never more evident than during and after the 2016 election.

Like Luke O'Neil, Jen Senko ended up researching a much bigger project than she’d anticipated. After putting out a call for stories from people who felt they’d lost family members to Fox News, she was overwhelmed with the number of responses she received. Like O’Neil, she found story after story echoing the same sentiments and revealing a shared mentality of individuals who felt as if their Fox News-loving family members had been overtaken, indoctrinated into a cult, or flat-out brainwashed.

Throughout the film she goes to great lengths — with the vigor of a good investigative journalist — to uncover the forces at work behind the media scenes, which she believes changed her father. She exposed the process used by Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, and the Fox News propaganda machine to skew or completely misalign truth and facts.

She reveals how Fox News intentionally sets out to manipulate viewers through distortion, fear mongering, gaslighting, psychological projection, and blatant lies — told with so much confidence that people simply believe. She also delves into a plan hatched by Roger Ailes under Nixon for a GOP media takeover; The Powell Memo urging business leaders to influence institutions of public opinion; the dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine under Reagan; and The Telecommunications ‘Reform’ Act signed by Bill Clinton.

Writer Devon Price has a different take in their article “Fox News Didn’t ‘Steal’ Your Parents.” They allude to an awfully convenient situation where we’re able to paint our loved ones as helpless, brainwashed victims — and in so doing, we negate the fact that these individuals intentionally sought out and/or chose how to receive their news. As Price says, “they are active parties in their own transformations. They chose to drink from the well of misinformation and hate on a regular basis. They decided to shut out critical discussion.

Price then shows how using this narrative alleviates our cognitive dissonance:

“If we believe our relatives are perfectly sweet people who were given ‘brain worms’ by Fox News, then we don’t have to confront the possibility of them having always harbored deep-seated hate… And if our relatives were transformed or ruined by conservative media, our parents are not to blame for any actions they take while under that influence. We don’t have to feel anger at them for their voting record, or for the racist things they do and say…”

Fox News slogans

Not so long ago, Fox News’ slogan was Fair and Balanced. But when founder Roger Ailes was fired in 2016, that slogan was soon gone as well (or rather, shelved, as a marketing tool). And in its place, a new slogan emerged:

Most Watched, Most Trusted.

Well, at least the newer slogan is true… halfway true, that is.

The first part is true in context. According to Nielsen Media Research, Fox News has topped the primetime charts for three quarters in 2019. And indeed, Fox may still be hanging on as the “most watched” TV news right now, but ever since the 2016 election, others like MSNBC are not too far behind.

However, the second part is not true; Fox is not the most trusted news source. In fact, as of April 2018, Fox News was less trusted than both CNN and MSNBC. If we slanted Fox’s new slogan so that it reads, Most Watched, Most Trusted (By Those Who Watch It), then it would reflect a more completely accurate statement.

As Luke O’Neil aptly observed:

“You have to find the hook that’s already there — fear, or desire — and exploit it. When it comes to exacerbating and honing the anxieties of aging Americans you can’t do much better (or worse) than race and immigration.”

And that, right there, is the key. That’s what makes Fox News and conservative talk radio click with so many.

People will inadvertently argue that Senko, O’Neil, and Price’s words and examples could just as easily have been said of any perceived “liberal” or “left-wing” media outlet. But not really. Because mainstream outlets like CNN and MSNBC do not have the uniquely sinister history that the Fox News empire does.

Fox News — the dream Nixon pined for

Until the day he died, Richard Nixon longed for a way to have his views go directly to the people rather than be filtered through news anchors or press writers. So much so, that a plan was drafted during the time he was in the White House for a partisan “GOP News” channel. It would be paid for and run out of the White House.

Actual state run television… in the good ol’ U.S.of A.

Nicole Hemmer, assistant professor of Presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and the author of “Messengers of the Right,” a history of the conservative media’s impact on American politics, says that Fox is “the closest we’ve come to having state TV.

Even former Fox News employees are speaking out, revealing secrets they were forced to keep for too long. Former Fox News president Joe Peyronnin says the network now is “not healthy,” as it has become Trump’s “own press organization.”

Hemmer also says, “Fox is not just taking the temperature of the base — it’s raising the temperature.” Further, she notes that “it’s a radicalization model,” and how for both Trump and Fox, “fear is a business strategy — it keeps people watching.

Senko touched on this in her documentary, but perhaps no one got the story back on airwaves or put into plainer words up until that time than the (now defunct) website, Gawker. Now in 2019, of course, we have firsthand accounts from ex-Fox News workers, and we have books and miniseries like “The Loudest Voice” shining a light on Roger Ailes, from the Nixon era to the Fox News era.

I first saw the story covered on the July 5, 2018 Rachel Maddow Show (with Joy Reid filling in) on MSNBC, but I also found an older segment from The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell (Chris Hayes filling in) from 2011 which covered the first part of the story.

A few decades after Nixon, in 2011, Gawker managed to discover and unearth a 15-page, unsigned 1970 memo titled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News.” The memo was hidden deep within the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, and it was just one part of a larger, 318-page cache of documents that detailed Ailes’ work for two presidential administrations. Gawker published the memo’s content in the article “Roger Ailes’ Secret Nixon-Era Blueprint for FOX News.”

Among my generation, Gen X, Roger Ailes was perhaps most well-known for his role as the permanent CEO of Fox News, a position to which founder Rupert Murdoch appointed him. But decades before molding Fox News to the partisan propaganda powerhouse it is today, Ailes was hired and employed as a political media consultant to President Nixon in the ’70s, and President Bush in the ’90s.

By the time he took over Fox News in 1996, he’d had ample experience and plenty of opportunities to hone his craft: creating a presidential narrative. As reported on The Rachel Maddow Show in July 2018, the Nixon-era blueprint for GOP TV News never materialized, but Ailes did end up working on the short-lived right wing news outlet, Television News Incorporated.

Notably, TVN was launched in the early 1970s — just after Ailes was fired from the White House — and it was here where Ailes first coined the phrase “fair and balanced.” This was an intentional attempt to hide its far-right bias and the fact that it wasn’t a legitimate news outlet.

When Gawker uncovered the blueprint for the “secret” GOP TV News, Ailes’ scribbled handwritten notes could be seen all over the margins of the memo, which was prefaced with a doctrine that Ailes seems to have carried with him over to Fox News. He wrote:

“Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit — watch — listen. The thinking is done for you.”

In 1996, the potential provided by cable TV was vast, and Ailes seemed to have found the final piece of the puzzle. He could at last implement the original 1970s plan. He got to work right away, clear vision in mind, as he hand-picked all of his hosts and anchors based on appearance. Like the two Presidents he’d advised so many years before, he dictated what the Fox News anchors and commentators would wear, how they’d move, sit, and stand, all the way down to exactly what they were to say (and not say) on air.

Sure, maybe most TV news stations engage in exactly this type of strategy. But typically, not quite to this extent:

One of Ailes’ more well-known instructions was the design of Fox News anchors to say Barack Obama’s full name, “Barack Hussein Obama,” every time they spoke his name at all. Because the name “Hussein” was already firmly associated with Saddam Hussein at the time, and because it played into the false narrative Fox News perpetuated that Obama was not American (but Kenyan), it was the perfect manipulation tactic. Saying his full name over and over again on air further sealed a “terrorist” image — if only by a fluke name coincidence — into the minds of Fox news viewers, who were already overtly skeptical of the nation’s first black President.

That’s just one of many disturbing practices reguarly committed at Fox News.

Before his 2017 death, Ailes stood accused of sexually harassing more than two dozen women at the network. Ailes was ultimately made to step down from the very network he created. But during his last year of life, amidst a plague of never-ending scandals, he saw the election of Donald Trump — a candidate his network had promoted, and whom Ailes had personally advised.

When a leader is able to harness fear, and then manages to weaponize it, as the Trump camp did, what results is an extremely powerful, but extremely dark force.

What we ultimately have to reckon with is the unfortunate fact that the 2016 election, for a large majority of us, revealed ugly truths about our loved ones, truths that we somehow managed to never see before. That’s where the real cognitive dissonance is — in knowing, without a doubt, that our loved ones are good to the core, but also, in knowing there are problematic beliefs that they’ll never acknowledge or see in themselves. And depending on one’s moral values, I suppose that can be said of all sides.

Fox News may not have been the cause of the division in this country, but along with Trump, it was definitely an accelerant.

So what do we do now?

In order to break free of the chokehold of state run propaganda and leaders who wish to be dictators, one must be an active participant — not a consuming spectator. Yes, of course, it’s time-consuming and it’s hard work to cross-check your news sources, and most people are just too busy, or don’t care enough to do that kind of work. This is one area where Roger Ailes hit the nail on the head — that most Americans are just too “lazy” and want their news “spoonfed” to them.

Fortunately, what Ailes didn’t account for was the ever-growing numbers of Americans who would get to the point where they did care enough to quit being lazy, wake up, pay attention, and do something to make a difference. And I’m afraid it’s going to be up to us — the few and the mighty — to tell the next chapter of America’s story, the part where we roll up our sleeves, jump in, and get busy rebuilding this democracy.

Dismantler of gender norms. Political news junkie. TikTok aficionado. Mom of 3. Work seen/heard @ HuffPost, Scary Mommy, NPR, SiriusXM, LTYM, TIFO podcast, etc.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store