The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Fox News’s blackout of Jan. 6 points to a hidden crisis for Democrats

Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity. (AP Photo) (AP)
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The not-so-shocking revelation that Fox News will not carry House committee hearings about the insurrection is yet another sign that right-wing media will go to extraordinary lengths to shield the GOP base from brutal truths about Jan. 6, 2021.

That partly reflects a serious political problem for Republicans. The hearings starting Thursday will feature a documentary filmmaker who has new video evidence of the violent mob assault incited by Donald Trump and extensive advance planning among paramilitary-type groups. Riveting material about Trump’s corruption and the GOP’s enabling of it will follow.

By contrast, Fox hosts are gearing up to substitute a propagandistic alternative story in which the only real victims related to Jan. 6 and the hearings are Trump and his supporters. House Republicans allied with Trump will manufacture material for this disinformation push designed to keep the truth from the base at all costs.

Yet Fox’s blackout also highlights severe information challenges that Democrats will face for the foreseeable future. The fact that Republicans enjoy a massive media apparatus that manufactures a separate reality for the base, even as Democrats rely on traditional news organizations to communicate with voters, creates deep information asymmetries that continue to bedevil them.

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I reached out to Dan Pfeiffer, the longtime communications adviser to former president Barack Obama, who experienced the evolution of this situation firsthand. Pfeiffer has a new book about the depths of this problem and how to counter it.

An edited and condensed version of our exchange follows:

Greg Sargent: You write that Republicans have a massive propaganda apparatus on their side while Democrats mostly get their information out to their voters via traditional news organizations that cover both sides of debates.

The Fox blackout of the Jan. 6 hearings is a case in point. Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity have already telegraphed that they’re going to offer a completely contrary fake propagandistic narrative, in which the primary victims of the Jan. 6 investigation are Trump and Republicans.

Dan Pfeiffer: If there is one last human being in Washington D.C. who clung to the idea that Fox is a center-right journalistic institution with opinion at night, this should be the end of that. They are going to ensure that their audience not only doesn’t see the hearings, but also gets conspiracy theories about what happened.

Sargent: The other side of this is that the right-wing media also exerts gravitational pull on the mainstream media.

Pfeiffer: When I worked at the White House, this right-wing operation existed, but it was a fraction of the size. Our biggest concern was not what was on Fox. It was that Fox was helping dictate what the rest of the press was covering.

We were living in this world where the pseudo-scandal du jour was infecting the larger media environment. Once Facebook reached a tipping point in 2014, this was now happening at hyper speed, at scale.

Sargent: It’s almost a deviously designed self-reinforcing loop. Right-wing media and Republican politicians beat up on mainstream media for not covering the concerns of “Real Americans” as expressed through right-wing media, which in turn leads major news organizations to say, “We’d better pay closer attention to what’s on Fox.”

That in turn allows right-wing disinformation to pollute the mainstream news information environment.

Pfeiffer: That’s been the goal since the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s a three-part process: One is to sow distrust in the mainstream media among Republicans. Two is to create this media environment for those people where you now control what comes into the hermetically sealed information bubble.

The third part is to influence the press. [The late Fox executive] Roger Ailes was a political ad maker. He had this insight that if Fox was a pseudo news organization, it would have a greater influence on what other news organizations covered.

Sargent: Democrats seem complicit in this situation. They often refuse to adapt to the current information environment.

Pfeiffer: Absolutely.

Sargent: When Republicans and right-wing media went all in on the message that Democrats were giving Real Americans’ baby formula to migrants, it was fact-checked into oblivion. But simply making a loud drumbeat communicates to low-information voters and to the base that something is wrong with the other party, that they’re out to hurt you.

The details are unimportant. Do Democrats understand this?

Pfeiffer: Political communications in the social media age depend on getting people to pay attention to what you’re saying. The right is very good at that. The left is not. Generationally, we have a party leadership that — for all its great attributes — came up in politics like three generations ago.

Sargent: It’s interesting that a younger generation of Democrats seems to get the information landscape better. They get the need for noisemaking and for big viral moments.

Is it time for a generational change in the party, if only because adapting to the new info-wars is essential?

Pfeiffer: Absolutely. I’m not calling for specific people to be ousted from leadership positions. But as we’re thinking about who is going to rise up in leadership, we need to elevate people who understand that getting your message heard in this media environment is essential.

Sargent: You call that the “megaphone problem.” What’s the answer to it?

Pfeiffer: We have to build up the progressive megaphone. That means we need progressive funders to invest in progressive media, just as right-wing billionaires invest in right-wing media.

We also need Democratic politicians to nurture the progressive media ecosystem in the same way that Trump and Republicans have nurtured the right-wing media.

We need to come up with a way to turn our millions of incredible grass roots volunteers into messengers. We need to get them tools to communicate with people in their networks.

Sargent: Would you envision the progressive media infrastructure kind of bludgeoning the mainstream media in a way designed to get them to stop bothsidesing issues and echoing Republican disinformation? Is there some way to do that in an above board way that’s more faithful to the truth and good discourse than Republican pressure on the media is?

Pfeiffer: It’s harder for two reasons. One, progressives consume traditional political media at a much higher rate than conservatives do. Second, when Democrats complain about the traditional media, the media pat themselves on the back and see it as proof of their objectivity. When Republicans complain, they have a meeting to figure out how to address the problem.

But we have leverage here. The audience for most media outlets is overwhelmingly Democratic. There is a point where this becomes bad business for them.

Sargent: It seems like the trick would be to somehow get the big news organizations to stop allowing their coverage to get polluted by right-wing bulls — t.

Pfeiffer: That is a very hard thing to do. It’s going to require a lot of generational and cultural change at the top of major media outlets.

The traditional way of doing political journalism is, you cover both sides. You treat them as essentially the same, but with different ideologies.

When one party becomes a threat to the things that a journalistic institution holds dear — truth, freedom of the press, democracy — if you cover them neutrally, you normalize and enable the things you worry so much about.

Sargent: There’s a big debate inside the party about whether “woke” excess is in some fundamental sense harming the party’s image of working class voters of all races. What’s the right way to preserve the party’s traditional support for minority rights while also repairing the party’s image?

Pfeiffer: We can’t repeat the mistakes of the ‘90s and go Republican-lite. The best thing for the party to do is have a populist economic narrative — because that unites our base and divides theirs — while spending as much time and energy as we can branding the Republicans as extremists.

Because of the overwhelming and understandable focus on Trump, we’ve spent no time branding the Republican Party. They spend all their time branding us.

Sargent: That leads back to the fundamental problem we’ve been talking about. Take Glenn Youngkin’s successful Republican candidacy for governor of Virginia. He was able to get a very extreme and galvanizing set of messages out to the base through the right-wing media network, while simultaneously repairing the party’s image in the suburbs.

Democrats don’t have the same kind of channels to do that, do they?

Pfeiffer: We have to build those channels. We have to build the capacity to communicate with our voters on our terms.

The Republicans who will be successful in 2022 and 2024 are the ones who communicate a broadly appealing message on broadcast television, and a hardcore MAGA message through the right wing media.

Sargent: At the same time, they benefit from the polluting of the mainstream environment that we’ve talked about. A good example is the Jan. 6 hearings. You have numerous news organizations claiming that Republicans and conservative media are going to “counterprogram” the hearings, which essentially places them on an equivalent plane. Is there an immediate answer to this?

Pfeiffer: There are no easy answers here. We have to start doing the work now to have any chance of success in 2022, 2024 and beyond.

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