FOX News: State Television and Propaganda

State television! We like to think that state television is something that exists in autocratic nations like Russia or Cuba. Unfortunately, it exists in liberal democracies as well.

Republican media strategist Roger Ailes, who served as paid consultant to Nixon and Bush Sr. in the 1970s and 1990s, launched Fox News Channel in 1996, ostensibly to circumvent the “prejudices of network news” and deliver “pro-administration” stories to heartland television viewers. But this was something that was in the works since the 1970s.

A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News” (read it here) is an unsigned, undated memo calling for a partisan, pro-GOP news operation to be potentially paid for and run out of the White House. Aimed at sidelining the “censorship” of the liberal mainstream media and delivering prepackaged pro-Nixon news to local television stations, it reads today like a detailed precis for a Fox News prototype. From context provided by other memos, it’s apparent that the plan was hatched during the summer of 1970. And though it’s not clear who wrote it, the copy provided by the Nixon Library literally has Ailes’ handwriting all over it—it appears he was routed the memo by Haldeman and wrote back his enthusiastic endorsement, refinements, and a request to run the project in the margins.

The 15-page plan begins with an acknowledgment that television had emerged as the most powerful news source in large part because “people are lazy” and want their thinking done for them:

For 200 years the newspaper front page dominated public thinking. In the last 20 years that picture changed. Today television 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.

As a result more then half the people now say they rely on television for their news. Eight out of 10 say they tune in radio or TV news at least once daily.

This is a plan that places news of importance to localities (Senators and representatives are newsmakers of importance to their localities) on local television news programs while it is still news. It avoids the censorship, the priorities, and the prejudices of network news selectors and disseminators.

Aware that the national television networks were the enemy, the document clearly lays out the purpose of this plan:

Purpose – To provide pro-Administration, videotape, hard news actualities to the major cities of the United States.

The plan is spectacularly detailed and according to Ailes’ copious margin notes, he thought it was an “excellent idea” that didn’t go far enough and might encounter some “flap about news management.”

Basically a very good idea. It should be expanded to include other members of the administration such as cabinet involved in activity with regional or local interest. Also could involve GOP governors when in DC. Who would purchase equipment and run operation—White House? RNC? Congressional caucus? Will get some flap about news management.

So… yeah. A news television program funded and operated by the White House and/or the Republican party itself for the purposes of delivering pro-Administration news with the overall goal of doing all the thinking for its viewers! — Literally the very definition of state television!

But it gets even better! Let’s skip ahead to the year 2020 where Fox News admits to being mostly propaganda for its viewers.

Let’s take a look at McDougal v. Fox News Network, LLC:

US District Court, Southern District of New York. Filed 09/24/20, McDougal v. Fox News Network, LLC

Plaintiff Karen McDougal filed this action asserting a single claim of slander per se after she allegedly was defamed by a segment on the popular program “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” which is produced by Defendant Fox News Network, LLC (“Fox News”) and airs on Fox News Channel. Specifically, Ms. McDougal alleges that the host of the show, Tucker Carlson, accused her of extorting now-President Donald J. Trump out of approximately $150,000 in exchange for her silence about an alleged affair between Ms. McDougal and President Trump. After the case was removed from New York state court, Fox News moved to dismiss Ms. McDougal’s claim on the grounds that Mr. Carlson’s statements were not statements of fact and that she failed adequately to allege actual malice. For the reasons stated herein, Fox News’s Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED.

This is what Carlson said on his show:

Remember the facts of the story. These are undisputed. Two women approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money. Now, that sounds like a classic case of extortion.

Fox’s attorneys, from Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, motioned for dismissal:

The motion argues that when read in context, Mr. Carlson’s statements “cannot reasonably be interpreted as facts”

The court document continues:

Fox News seeks dismissal at the pleading stage on two constitutional grounds. First, it asserts that Mr. Carlson’s statements on the December 10, 2018, episode of his show are constitutionally protected opinion commentary on matters of public importance and are not reasonably understood as being factual.

Fox News first argues that, viewed in context, Mr. Carlson cannot be understood to have been stating facts, but instead that he was delivering an opinion using hyperbole for effect.

This “general tenor” of the show should then inform a viewer that he is not “stating actual facts” about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in “exaggeration” and “non-literal commentary.”Fox persuasively argues, see Def Br. at 13-15, that given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer “arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism” about the statements he makes.

It is true that Mr. Carlson added color to his unsubstantiated rhetorical claim of extortion when he narrated that Ms. McDougal “approached” Mr. Trump and threatened his career and family. But this overheated rhetoric is precisely the kind of pitched commentary that one expects when tuning in to talk shows like Tucker Carlson Tonight, with pundits debating the latest political controversies.

Isn’t that an amazing? The #1 show in Fox News in what is arguably the most watched cable news network in the country is saying that a reasonable viewer should treat it as propaganda.

Amazing indeed!

Thanks for reading,


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