Five people died during the storming of the Capitol, and it could have been a whole lot worse. The attackers chanting “Hang Mike Pence” came within a minute of finding the vice president. Federal prosecutors allege that a retired Air Force officer who was carrying zip-tie handcuffs wanted to “kidnap, restrain, perhaps try, perhaps execute members of the U.S. government.” Police officers interviewed by The Post described a “medieval battle scene” with rioters “battering the officers with metal pipes peeled from scaffolding and a pole with an American flag attached.”
The seditionists assembled at the president’s invitation. The Wall Street Journal reports that one social media post from the Proud Boys told their members “POTUS wants you in D.C. on 1/06/21.” Impeaching and convicting Trump is the least we can do, given his role in inciting this violent insurrection.
But while holding Trump to account is necessary, it is also insufficient. There is a whole infrastructure of incitement that will remain intact even after Trump leaves office. Just as we do with foreign terrorist groups, so with domestic terrorists: We need to shut down the influencers who radicalize people and set them on the path toward violence and sedition.
Some argue that trying to silence the voices of insurrection is a hopeless task — that hate will always find a way to get through. And it’s true that there is a danger that seditious plots will now move to encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram, where they will be harder to track. But research firm Zignal Labs found that online misinformation about election fraud fell 73 percent after Trump and key allies were suspended from social media.
That’s a good start. Anyone who cherishes our democracy should be grateful to the management of Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites for their newfound sense of social responsibility. We should expect at least the same level of responsibility from broadcast media — and in particular from Fox News, which has the largest reach on the right.
To its credit, Fox News acknowledged that Joe Biden won. But, reports Media Matters for America, “in the two weeks after Fox News called the election for Biden, Fox News cast doubt on the results of the election at least 774 times.” According to NPR, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs said Trump’s opponents in the government were guilty of “treason” and that it would be “criminal” for Republicans to recognize Biden’s victory. Fox News host Mark Levin told viewers: “If we don’t fight on Jan. 6 on the floor of the Senate and the House — and that is the joint meeting of Congress on these electors — then we are done.”
The pro-Trump insurrectionists were listening. To take but one example, The Post reports that Ashli Babbitt, who was killed in the attack, “was an avid viewer of Fox News, praising Tucker Carlson and other far-right media personalities on the network as she derided their liberal targets.” This is dismaying but hardly surprising. As the New York Times notes, “Fox has long been the favorite channel of pro-Trump militants. The man who mailed pipe bombs to CNN in 2018 watched Fox News ‘religiously.’”
Cumulus Media, one of America’s largest talk-radio companies, has ordered its hosts — who include some Fox News personalities — to stop spreading false claims of election fraud. (If only Cumulus were doing a better job of enforcing its new policy.) But Fox News itself has issued no such edict.
James and Kathryn Murdoch, part of the family that controls Fox News, just called on “media property owners” to stop propagating “lies” that “have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces.” If James’s brother, Lachlan (co-chairman of News Corp and chief executive of Fox Corporation), and father, Rupert (executive chairman of News Corp and co-chairman of Fox Corporation), won’t listen, then large cable companies such as Comcast and Charter Spectrum, which carry Fox News and provide much of its revenue in the form of user fees, need to step in and kick Fox News off. And if smaller competitors such as One America News and Newsmax continue to incite viewers, they, too, should be booted off.
But while we should expect better behavior from media executives, we shouldn’t count on it. CNN (where I’m a global affairs analyst) notes that the United Kingdom doesn’t have its own version of Fox News, because it has a government regulator that metes out hefty fines to broadcasters that violate minimal standards of impartiality and accuracy. The United States hasn’t had that since the Federal Communications Commission stopped enforcing the “fairness” doctrine in the 1980s. As president, Biden needs to reinvigorate the FCC. Or else the terrorism we saw on Jan. 6 may be only the beginning, rather than the end, of the plot against America.