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Fake News Factories

With Trump’s help, right-wing media goes mainstream.

Bianca Fortis Sep 20

Issue 228

Though conservative media has existed for decades, the presidency of Donald Trump has allowed for the proliferation of the right-wing media into the mainstream. That Trump considers any news that doesn’t suit his needs to be “fake” has helped right-wing media, typically cast to the edges of the political periphery, thrive in the current climate.

There are three notable ways in which the media landscape has morphed since Trump first announced his campaign, according to Angelo Carusone, the president of the watchdog group Media Matters.

First, what Carusone calls the “leapfrog phenomenon”: Trump’s ability to amplify fringe voices and inject misinformation into the public discourse simply by retweeting something or making offhand comments, thus leaping over the traditional channels through which conspiracy theories typically spread.

Second, fragmentation: During the presidential campaign, hardcore conservative websites suddenly found themselves vying for Trump’s attention and arguing among themselves. That led to them splintering off from one another, demonstrating tribal behavior. Fragmentation inevitably leads to extremism, because websites can only keep their smaller audiences engaged by becoming more extreme, Carusone said.

Sinclair Broadcasting is attempting to buy the Tribune Company for $3.9 billion, which would give Sinclair control of local television stations in markets that reach 72 percent of U.S. television viewers.

And finally, there’s fake news. Right-wing message boards serve as factories for conspiracy theories, which are then written up as news by fake news websites that are typically only after clicks and are designed to mislead readers into thinking they are real. Those stories are then posted to Facebook amd other social media platforms where they saturate the internet with lies.

“It’s not that the media itself changed, but their relationship to misinformation has changed,” Carusone said. “There are a lot of lies injected into the daily news cycle.”

It’s clear that Trump favors Fox News as his source for information, often tweeting about the network’s ratings and encouraging his followers to watch segments from the network’s morning show “Fox and Friends.” There is evidence that the show influences his agenda: In July “Fox and Friends” incorrectly reported that James Comey had leaked information about meeting with Trump, a claim which Trump repeated on Twitter. Though the show’s hosts issued a correction the following day, the president did not. Prior to his campaign, Trump was a frequent guest on the network, and now that he is president he has used Fox as a talent pipeline to fill roles in his administration — further cementing the relationship between the cable network and the White House.

Breitbart, a website known for publishing conspiracy theories alongside articles with extraordinarily offensive headlines, led a relatively quiet existence in the conservative underground until 2016, when the site and its former executive chairman, Steve Bannon, helped facilitate Trump’s political ascent, thereby launching it into America’s mainstream consciousness. Bannon hailed Breitbart as the “platform for the alt-right.” During his seven months as Trump’s chief strategist, Bannon was able to permeate national politics from within the walls of the White House. Since his departure from the Trump administration, Bannon has retreated back to Breitbart, reportedly declaring, “I’ve got my hands back on my weapons.”

And then there’s Sinclair Broadcasting.

Propaganda Mill

Since its humble beginnings as the Chesapeake Television Corporation in 1971, the Maryland-based company has evolved into a media giant, now owning 173 stations in 81 markets. It continues to buy stations throughout the country, firmly rooting itself into the American media landscape.

Sinclair is known for its “must-runs,” pieces of conservative political commentary that it requires all of its stations to air. The company made headlines in 2004 when it required all of its stations to air Stolen Honor, a documentary film critical of John Kerry, two weeks before the presidential election. Now Sinclair stations are broadcasting must-run segments from Boris Epshteyn, whose last job was in Trump’s press office. In a recent “Bottom Line With Boris,” Epshteyn echoes Trump’s debunked claim that the United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the world. “Our elected officials should not approach lowering of the corporate tax rate with a defeatist mentality,” he says. “They need to get to as low of a rate as possible to see the most return for American businesses and the American people.”

Last year, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner revealed that the Trump campaign had arranged for some of Sinclair’s local stations to receive special access to Trump during the campaign in exchange for puff pieces about him. Sinclair required those interviews to be broadcast around the country.

Sinclair is now attempting to buy the Tribune Company for $3.9 billion, which would give Sinclair control of local television stations in markets that reach 72 percent of U.S. television viewers. The federal cap is 39 percent. However, Sinclair has appealed directly to Ajit Pai, the Trump appointed chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), who has taken steps to revive a loophole that relaxes that limit.

Karl Frisch, executive director of the consumer watchdog group Allied Progress, said that regardless of Sinclair’s partisanship, it’s unwise to allow one company to achieve such a large presence in the local TV news landscape. “It’s bad for competition, it’s bad for media diversity and it’s bad for consumers,” he told The Indypendent, pointing out that prices for cable and satellite programming could increase.

Trust in the media is at an all-time low, but a recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows that media consumers are most likely to trust local news. Another Pew Research poll shows that a majority of adults still use TV as their main source of news. But because Sinclair owns local affiliates of the major TV networks, viewers don’t necessarily know they’re watching a Sinclair-owned station.

Frisch encourages the public to contact the FCC and members of Congress, who can still stop the merger. The FCC has received more than 16 million public comments mostly opposed to rescinding net neutrality and has pressed Sinclair to provide more details about its plans, which leads Frisch to think the merger could be stalled until next year, according to multichannel.com.

Net Neutrality In Peril

Advocates are also concerned that the FCC will roll back net neutrality, the “1st Amendment of the internet” that prevents large telecommunications companies from controlling online content and requires that all traffic be treated equally. If this were to happen, the nation’s largest internet service providers — Verizon, Comcast, AT&T — would be able to block and censor websites and charge extra fees for faster service, leaving smaller sites at a competitive disadvantage.

Asked about solutions to the right-wing media takeover, Media Matters’ Angelo Carusone encourages people to speak up within their own social circles and online networks.

“Of course you don’t need to become a hall monitor for the internet,” he said. “But being silent against active misinformation and lies creates a clear landing strip for lies to be promoted.”

It’s also necessary, of course, to support independent media, which typically lacks the deep coffers that benefit right-wing and corporate-owned outlets. Progressive alternatives including the daily television and radio news show Democracy Now!, Manhattan Neighborhood Network and Brooklyn’s BRIC TV, WBAI-99.5 FM and podcasts like “Chapo Trap House” and “Street Fight” are a boon to voices and opinions that have been historically excluded from the mainstream. And there are still newspapers like The Indypendent, determined to persist.

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Illustration by Gary Martin.