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Opinion Fox News helped radicalize domestic terrorist Cesar Sayoc, say his lawyers

Cesar Sayoc on Aug. 30, 2015. Sayoc mailed crudely made pipe bombs to prominent critics of President Trump. (AP)

Cesar Sayoc pleaded guilty in March to mailing improvised explosive devices to 13 people, including many prominent Democratic figures, among them former president Barack Obama, former vice president Joe Biden, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), as well as CNN. He drove around in a van festooned with political stickers and rants, one of them targeting CNN.

And now his lawyers have filed a sentencing memo citing one of the sources of his radicalization: Fox News. “Mr. Sayoc was an ardent Trump fan and, when Trump announced he was running for President, Mr. Sayoc enthusiastically supported him,” write assistant federal defenders Sarah Baumgartel, Amy Gallicchio and Ian Marcus Amelkin in a submission requesting a lenient sentence of no more than 121 months in prison. “He began watching Fox News religiously at the gym, planning his morning workout to coincide with Fox and Friends and his evenings to dovetail with Hannity.”

Cable-news watching wasn’t a lifetime activity for the 57-year-old Sayoc. By the account of his lawyers, he’d spent most of his life free from politics. Then came Donald Trump. Sayoc knew the New York real estate mogul from his motivational tapes. “Mr. Sayoc viewed Donald Trump as everything he wanted to be: self-made, successful, and a ‘playboy,’” reads the submission. “He listened to titles such as Think like a Billionaire: Everything You Need to Know about Success, Real Estate, and Life and Trump: How to Get Rich. The tapes helped Mr. Sayoc dream of a better life and motivated him to keep going. He pushed himself to work multiple jobs at once to get back on his feet....He followed Donald Trump’s career, watched his television shows, purchased Trump-branded products, and attended a Trump-sponsored career coaching event in South Florida. He was a Donald Trump super-fan.”

The sentencing submission suggests that Sayoc’s affinity for motivational material was his way of coping with a traumatic childhood that included abandonment by his father, plus sexual abuse at a Mississippi boarding school. Whatever the case, his boosterism fed right into the message coming out of Fox News, especially in the early-morning hours — “Fox & Friends” time — and prime time, when host Sean Hannity soothes the president’s most dedicated fans, including top fan President Trump himself.

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Ever since the 2016 presidential election, journalists, academics and hobbyists have studied how traditional media, nontraditional media and social media teamed up to pipe false and dangerous ideas onto Americans’ computer monitors and TV screens. Much is still blurry, but the broad outlines consist of motivated political actors — including Russian actors identified in Vol. I of the Mueller report — posting nonsense on websites, Facebook and Twitter. Once thus platformed, the nonsense spread.

This passage from the Sayoc sentencing memo affirms that the man who terrorized an entire country in the fall of 2018 was a participant in this ecosystem. From the memo:

Mr. Sayoc began watching Fox News religiously and following Trump supporters on social media. He became a vocal political participant on Facebook, something he had not done previously. He was not discerning of the pro-Trump information he received, and by the time of his arrest, he was “connected” to hundreds of right-wing Facebook groups. Many of these groups promoted various conspiracy theories and, more generally, the idea that Trump’s critics were dangerous, unpatriotic, and evil....They deployed provocative language to depict Democrats as murderous, terroristic, and violent.....Fox News furthered these arguments. For example, just days before Mr. Sayoc mailed his packages, Sean Hannity said on his program that a large “number of Democratic leaders [were] encouraging mob violence against their political opponents.” Hannity Transcript, FOX NEWS (Oct. 11, 2018).

To contextualize that moment from “Hannity,” the host was discussing remarks by Eric H. Holder Jr., who served as attorney general in the Obama administration. Rooting for a more pugnacious style of Democratic politics, Holder commented that he dissented from the lofty ideology of Michelle Obama, who said, "“When they go low, we go high.” Holder’s variation, as articulated on a campaign stop in Georgia before the 2018 midterms: “‘When they go low, we kick them. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about.”

Hannity duly reported Holder’s reaction to a backlash against his remarks — that he wasn’t advocating violence, just toughness — but insisted he wasn’t buying it. “He said kick 'em. He made those comments,” Hannity said.

Another source of information for Sayoc was Trump’s Twitter account, with its portrayal of political enemies as “dangerous, corrupt, and un-American,” in the words of the sentencing submission. In a handwritten letter to U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff, Sayoc wrote of his zeal for live Trump: “the first thing you here (sic) entering Trump rally is we are not going to take it anymore, the forgotten ones, etc.”

The filing makes much of Sayoc’s “cognitive deficiencies,” alleging that he had trouble handling schoolwork as a kid, couldn’t deal with the complications of running a dry-cleaning business and otherwise faced difficulties filtering the modern world. Accordingly, he was ill-equipped to reach critical evaluations of the rhetoric coming from Trump, Hannity and the couch surfers of “Fox & Friends.” “He lived alone in a claustrophobic van, did not have close relationships with his remaining family members, and did not have friends or loved ones to help puncture his alternative reality,” notes the filing. “He truly believed wild conspiracy theories he read on the Internet, many of which vilified Democrats and spread rumors that Trump supporters were in danger because of them. He heard it from the President of the United States, a man with whom he felt he had a deep personal connection. He read it on almost every website he visited. He saw it on Fox News, which he watched at the start and end of his day. And it was reinforced to him on social media.”

Whatever his shortcomings, Sayoc did manage to sniff out the two Fox News opinion programs specially designed for the Trump sycophant. “Hannity” is a full hour of frothing pro-Trump rants; “Fox & Friends” is a softer, friendlier version on the theme, with occasional dissents offered by co-host Brian Kilmeade. There’s no indication in the filing, in other words, that Sayoc enjoyed “Special Report” with Bret Baier or “America’s Newsroom” with Bill Hemmer and Sandra Smith — two of the network’s news-side programs.

Fox News is the country’s No. 1 cable news network, with millions of regular viewers and an indeterminate number of superfans. Sayoc doesn’t represent this group; he is an outlier, a perpetrator of domestic terrorism. His pipe bombs weren’t operational, according to an FBI analysis, and the sentencing submission mocks them: “the functional deficiencies of the devices are overwhelming and plainly intentional. Perhaps the best example of this is the fact that the clock was not set and instead retained the factory sticker simulating a display.” None of Sayoc’s improvised devices exploded.

Such caveats notwithstanding, the sentencing memo sends a pointed message to Fox News: A confessed domestic terrorist found comfort in your programming. His targets overlapped with the people vilified on your air. What do you have to say about this?

On Monday night, the Erik Wemple Blog asked Fox News for a comment. We will update this post if we receive one.

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