I Watch Fox News More Than Any Other Station
… and yet I’m still liberal despite being immersed in right-wing propaganda.
My hometown, Hazleton, Pennsylvania, is a smallish, economically depressed mining town that makes international headlines for its racism and xenophobia. I’m certainly not bragging about this, nor out to shame the city, but see for yourself: NYT (here and here), BBC, and — especially — this memorable profile in National Geographic’s “Race Issue.”
It’s a place where a department store clerk once gave me the stink-eye over the fact that I dared to complain about graffiti in the ladies’ room that used slurs like “sp*cs” and “anchor babies.” It’s a place that fascinated my immigration-scholar professors and colleagues when I was in grad school, for the infamy of its unconstitutional, anti-immigrant ordinance from 2006. And while not everyone here is racist or xenophobic… it’s a place where, naturally, people love Fox.
When covid-19 broke out, I got unofficially stuck here, despite the fact that I normally live in Berlin. I’m not upset about this; quarantining with people (and a cat) who love you has beautiful perks. However, quarantining in a small, single-story home with staunch conservatives also has a major anti-perk: an endless onslaught of conservative propaganda.
First, there’s the fact that Fox is on TV more than anything else. All day. All evening. All days of the week. Unless I’m home alone. And I can’t exactly get away from the sound of it either, because the house is so small. (Yes, I’ve tried earplugs — but I needed to wear them SO much in order to silence all the MOTHER-FOXING FOX that I actually got a double ear infection. Damn.)
Fox broadcasts aren’t the only source of conservative, rage-baiting infotainment I’m exposed to, either. (Notice: I can’t call it “news.”) My Facebook newsfeed is regularly awash in red, thanks to the fact that I have so many conservative friends and relatives. And on top of this, I frequently find myself sitting in a room or a car with someone or other who likes to read conservative memes (or, yes, random Fox updates) from their phone or their iPad — out loud.
Yet, even with this total-immersion program in conservative thinking (and even though growing up here did shape my worldview in other ways)… I still don’t buy it.
While the vast majority of my exposure to conservative propaganda is not by choice, I do, admittedly, sometimes buckle in for Fox on purpose. Maybe I’m just sentimental; I don’t want to look back on this rare gift of extra family time and only be able to recall being holed up with earbuds in a guest bedroom while my loved ones bonded over the living room TV. So I settle into a recliner in the corner next to them and just flex my dissociation muscle extra hard to tune out all the veiled hate that emanates from the screen. (Try that for a mindfulness meditation!)
Other times, I deliberately pay attention to what the talking heads are saying, because I believe in the value of understanding how the other side looks at an issue — especially if I think the other side is wrong. Doing this is crucial for constructive dialogue across the aisle. This isn’t to say that I watch Fox for the sake of picking fights; I’m more of a “speak when spoken to” character in family discussions of politics, because I know that my blue-tinted ideas aren’t welcome. Hence, I mostly just limit myself to replying whenever I’m asked a pointed question, and I otherwise restrict my views to my own social media spaces (unless, of course, I happen to notice someone who needs an ally on a friend’s comment thread: say, a food-stamp recipient who feels wounded by a tirade against food stamps, or a Black relative who feels wounded by a tone-deaf post about policing). Basically, I express my views within my own domain and don’t make waves for the simple sake of making waves.
Yet whenever my conservative friends or relatives notice anew (with particular frustration) that I haven’t switched over to the red side yet, the accusation inevitably comes that — wait for it — I’ve been “brainwashed” by “the media.”
…or that I watch the “wrong” news.
Well, hey, joke’s on them: I watch Fox more than any other “news” source. By miles. In fact, I watch Fox more than any other anything. Because I read news rather than watch it (when I have the choice…), and I rarely bother with TV at all.
So if I’m watching news? It’s usually Fox.
And if the TV’s on at all? It’s usually Fox.
I mean, my conservative friends and relatives aren’t mistaken when they accuse me of watching the “wrong” news; so much of what I see on Fox is non-factual, if not outright toxic. I wholeheartedly concur that it’s a piss-poor source… but I don’t think that’s the point they’re trying to make. Rather, they’ve formulated the (very erroneous) notion that Fox is the ONLY truth, and that anyone who isn’t conservative MUST be being led astray by other news media.
Because the idea that someone would swallow ANY given news broadcast, uncritically, is apparently their first assumption.
And the idea that anyone could form political viewpoints based on something other than the “news” is their second.
How can I be swimming in such a sea of red and still not soak up all the alternative facts? Here are my five core reasons.
1. I’m a sociologist by training.
The first and biggest point on this list:
Some people fancy themselves experts on people and society simply because they’ve experienced people and society, and they presume their opinions on those topics might as well be facts. The problem is, unless they’ve been trained to arrive at unbiased conclusions through rigorous statistical examination — which most laypeople are not — then their conclusions are particularly prone to error. Because everyone’s frame of reference is limited almost exclusively to their own life, whereas the real world is hella diverse.
When I joined a social sciences Ph.D. program, a relative accused me of becoming “radicalized.” It’s a common gripe among conservatives: that universities are cesspools of “indoctrination.” In reality, the whole point of a liberal arts education (at least in the US) is to learn — and practice — big-picture, critical thinking. To consider multiple pieces of evidence at once, analyze their merits to see which ones are worth discarding vs. which ones hold up, and then figure out how those pieces connect — all before arriving at ANY conclusion. No brainwashing needed.
In my Ph.D. program, I was further trained in how research is actually conducted and evaluated: You check for (and ideally eliminate) bias in a statistical sample. You set up an equation (or twenty) to test a hypothesis. You keep trying to prove yourself wrong before you draw conclusions. Finally, you subject your conclusions to rigorous expert vetting — by people whose very purpose is to try to tear your conclusions apart.
Researchers deal far less in opinions than they do in cold, hard numbers. Hence, a lot of my views on social issues come not from the news, but straight from the social sciences. Because professional researchers are the true experts on these kinds of things; news anchors, politicians without research training, and meme factories are not.
Which leads to another key factor in my skepticism toward propaganda; if I’m not personally versed in something, I have the humility (and the wisdom) to defer to expert opinion on it, rather than to take a newscaster’s or a meme’s message as gospel.
I’ll close this point by clarifying that “sociologist” was the job I was trained to do — not the career I ultimately pursued. Still, I remain familiar with much of the research language because I never entirely left academia; my day job is academic copyediting. (Which, actually, offers me another bonus: since I’m able to spot typos that my conservative friends don’t even catch, I recognize quickly when certain memes reek of a troll scam!)
This is all stuff I’d gladly teach to friends and family, because I’m egalitarian and not arrogant about my education… but no one I know seems keen to learn yet.
Maybe someday. Here’s to hoping.
2. Words are my job.
In college, I was a consummate nerd with two majors and two minors, but my primary major was a B.A. in Spanish. At my university, this meant a heavy focus on literature. After graduation, I spent stints as a language teacher. And I’ve ultimately become a copyeditor for academics… and a writer on the side.
All this focus on, training in, and practice with the art of words really sharpens a person’s ability to pick up on subtext and evaluate the strength of an argument. Hence, I’m very inclined to notice when you make baseless comparisons, hide behind straw men, or traffic in other logical fallacies.
This is not to say anyone’s an idiot if they aren’t alert to these things; we all develop our brains differently according to the unique forms of intelligence we most need for our respective endeavors. Moreover, all forms of intelligence are equally valuable and valid — they just happen to be valuable for different aims. For instance, while my police-officer relatives are great at scanning a venue for security concerns, and my musician friends are phenomenal at turning disparate sounds into actual songs, I tend to be very attuned to the flaws, the holes, and the unspoken insinuations in what a person says (or writes).
This is another reason why I find Fox and other conservative propaganda hard to see as truth.
3. I’ve had an international life.
I like reading non-US news sources, not just to keep abreast of other countries’ hot takes, but also to avoid up-close partisan bias as much as possible. I’ve heard it argued by friends and family that this is a bad strategy because so many countries supposedly “hate” the US. All I can really say to that is: if you believe that ALL international sources are “against the United States,” I’m sorry, but you’re extremely paranoid. See a psychologist.
Apart from reading non-US news sources, I’ve also lived abroad long enough, and on enough continents (four and counting), to know that many of the “truths” that people in the US take for granted aren’t true at all.
Why, YES, many countries do make practically everything accessible in English for foreigners. No, affordable healthcare does not spell death for an economy. Yes, decriminalizing drugs can accomplish fantastic things for public health. No, the vast majority of Chinese people, Latin American people — people everywhere — are not unkind, untrustworthy, lazy, or whatever racist stereotype someone just tried to sell you today.
I recognize that being able to travel — hell, even being able to live as an impoverished economic migrant with a US passport — is a tremendous privilege that not everyone is lucky enough to get. I’m thankful for my experiences in that vein. But even before I ever took a single step abroad, I’d already filled my grade-school years with foreign radio broadcasts, picture atlases, and other books about the history and culture of faraway places. All it really takes is a genuine interest in hearing diverse perspectives — and suspending whatever your whitebread and/or US-born news anchors have told you about How Things Are In Other Places — to see through some of the smoke and mirrors.
4. I have personal experience with abusive people AND a research background in abuse.
Ah, the bittersweetness of this boon… I don’t feel like elaborating much on this item, but basically, if you’ve spent enough time with people along the course of your life who could’ve made a career out of gaslighting, building straw men, pivoting whenever you caught them in a lie, shouting over you whenever you articulated a fair point, or purposely obscuring the issue at hand any time they realized their argument was about to crumble… and especially if you’ve also received an ivory-tower education on what abuse looks like… then you eventually learned to see through these kinds of things pre.tty.f*ck.ing.clearly.
Even if the people who are engaging in abusive tactics happen to be on your TV or authoring your online content.
I’m similarly unimpressed when I see ad hominem attacks, since these are the stuff of bullying — no matter which side launches them. Bullying is a sign of a dangerously unwell person; why would I trust such a person to deliver the news? Yes, bullies deserve compassion for their emotional health problems, but they don’t deserve positions of intellectual (or political…) authority until they’ve done the work of healing.
Verbal abuse and hate speech are not news anyway.
On the flip side, when healthy behavior is rebuked by conservative media as rude (when, oh, for instance, someone calmly says “I’m speaking” after being interrupted, and then conservative pundits blow up with indignation in response…), you still won’t convince me that polite communication is toxic. “Up is down” thinking might work for your target demographic… but not for me.
Sorry. No patience for abuse. Bye.
5. … I’m liberal.
Even though most of the industrialized world doesn’t operate on blind tribal loyalties anymore, tribalistic, us-vs.-them thinking still seems to be the bread and butter of conservative propaganda. As a liberal, though, I can say with certainty that it tends to be wrong about what “all,” or even most, liberals (ostensibly) think and do.
Example: “all liberals” do not, in fact, think that all cops are evil. And “defund the police” does not mean “abolish the police.” If you’re conservative, you’ve probably heard otherwise, but what can I say? Just because you heard it doesn’t mean it’s true — and I know it’s not true because I’m one of those liberals that your favored media keep trying to turn you against.
Relatedly, I’ve seen conservatives assert that “liberals aren’t even talking about [X],” when liberals most definitely are talking about X. Or that “liberals are saying [some hateful thing]” when my social media networks contain literally HUNDREDS of liberal friends and acquaintances, and I haven’t seen a single one of them saying whatever hateful thing we’ve been accused of saying (…which is really revelatory, considering how the algorithms-that-be seem increasingly inclined to skew towards the political and the incendiary).
Point blank, as a liberal, I can tell you that you’re being lied to about liberals.
And yet when I try to say as much — when I try to offer this very cut-and-dried, insider assessment — I’m told that I’m wrong and that I’m being “brainwashed” by “the media.”
No. I’m telling you who I actually am and what I actually think.
[*throws up hands, shakes head, walks away*]
I fucking give up.
So that’s the filter through which I process Fox and other conservative propaganda: if a position falls apart when I apply critical thinking — or basic facts — I discard it. And if an opinion or an alternative (anti-)fact is presented by way of abusive communication, I automatically have less trust in it.
Yet, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one final thing. The great irony in all of this. Here it is:
Most of the people who shaped my formative years — the ones who were most directly responsible for seeding and encouraging my guiding values of tolerance, generosity, sincerity, equality, open-mindedness, etc. — are the same people who adore Trump and guzzle the red Kool-Aid. And the emotional closeness that we continue to enjoy with each other is largely only possible because I’m capable of holding this paradox so delicately in my hands. Underneath all the misinformation, so many of the conservatives in my world are brimming with selflessness, gentleness, and love. So I’m not of the opinion that people with bad thoughts are automatically bad people; admirable people can have disappointing thoughts. (Which is probably precisely how they view me in return.)
One of the greatest pieces of advice I’ve ever received was to recognize, when I disagree with an idea, that my problem is with the idea and not the person. I like to believe that as long as we maintain open and respectful lines of communication with the people who disagree with us, then maybe there’s still hope for us to see eye to eye someday after all.