Donna Brazile's misguided Fox News foray
Let's take Donna Brazile at her word. The longtime Democratic strategist has signed on to be a contributor to Fox News, she says, to help rebuild America's broken and deeply uncivil national dialogue.
"It concerns me, as it does the majority of good Americans, that our national debate has become hostile and disrespectful," she wrote in an explanatory op-ed at the Fox News website. "We no longer simply agree to disagree. Too often we demonize the intentions of others. Our lines of communication are frayed, if not broken."
Sounds like a worthy goal, and a respectable argument. The problem is that almost nobody is buying it.
"If Fox News does anything better and more consistently than demonizing the intentions of others," Martin Longman wrote at Washington Monthly, "it's breaking the lines of communication between their audience and a thing called basic reality."
A lot of the criticism lobbed at Brazile echoes arguments Democrats have been making for years — but is perhaps intensified thanks to Jane Mayer's recent New Yorker profile revealing Fox's obsequiousness to President Trump, and the resulting announcement that the party won't let the network host any of its 2020 presidential primary debates.
Simply put, Fox News is a propaganda outlet for the Republican Party, and any Democrat expecting a fair hearing on the network's airwaves is fooling themselves.
This is all true, as far as it goes, but it's important to take the argument one step further: It's not just Fox News that's the problem — it's the whole structure of cable news, and CNN and MSNBC aren't much better. If you want to restore some semblance of civility to American politics, TV isn't the place to do it.
Conflict is part of the cable news business model, after all.
To get a sense of this, it's good to go back and revisit the New York Times Magazine profile of CNN honcho Jeff Zucker from April 2017. Zucker has had an odd career in television, moving from news to entertainment and back to news again — he helped bolster Trump's brand by putting The Apprentice on air at NBC — and it's not entirely clear that he sees a meaningful distinction between the two: The article demonstrates how Trump's candidacy built CNN's ratings, and concludes with Zucker enthusing that one of the president's stunts made for "great television."
It would be one thing if CNN's improved fortunes had something to do with its efforts to bring truth to a news-starved viewership. Instead, the network's formula is dependent on creating moments of conflict and drama, which CNN covers much like ESPN covers a sporting event: filling hours of airtime with bombastic commentary.
"As Zucker sees it, his pro-Trump panelists are not just spokespeople for a worldview; they are 'characters in a drama,' members of CNN's extended ensemble cast," the Times reported. "'Everybody says, 'Oh, I can't believe you have Jeffrey Lord or Kayleigh McEnany,' but you know what?" Zucker told the magazine, "they know who Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany are."
That's stunningly cynical.
Lord, at least, was fired by CNN a few months later for using a Nazi slogan on air, and McEnany just signed on to work for Trump's 2020 campaign. But Zucker's observation hints at why cable news — as currently constructed in America — is bad for our national debate and bad for democracy: The medium doesn't want thoughtfulness and bridge-building — it requires conflict and drama. Fox News is worse than its competitors at this kind of thing, but it is not as much of an outlier as you might think.
Not coincidentally, watching cable news seems to make you very gullible. A poll last year suggested that viewers of CNN, Fox, and MSNBC were more likely to believe false statements about the news than consumers of public radio and print outlets like The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Economist.
All of this suggests that cable news is a terrible place to try and build a respectful political dialogue — and that Fox News, with its agenda focused on electing Republicans, is even worse. One might as well start a polite debating society in the middle of a professional wrestling ring.
"My decision to serve as a commentator for Fox News is rooted in the belief that you cannot make progress, let alone reach compromise, without first listening to, and understanding those who disagree with you on critical issues," Brazile wrote.
It's a nice sentiment. And she's right: Most Americans could stand to listen more and shout less. But Brazile's conclusion is almost certainly wrong. A new era of comity and respect is not coming to Fox News — or anywhere else on your cable dial.