Email leaks in the American media underline the absence of moderate Republicans

A recent political scandal is a reminder of how the US news media and audiences are divided into two

Members of Rise and Resist participate in their weekly "Truth Tuesday" protest at News Corp headquarters on February 21, in New York City. Getty Images via AFP
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The US is being rocked by one of the worst political scandals in its modern history, yet the essential constituency remains blissfully unaware. The trove of Fox News emails uncovered in the lawsuit by Dominion Voting System, the election technology company, as I recently explained in these pages, reveal, apparently irrefutably, that Fox News Channel’s executives and star personalities deliberated and consciously misled their vast audience about the outcome of the 2020 election.

While privately mocking the notion that US President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump through massive fraud, both hosts and guests insisted – and still maintain – that the outcome is in serious doubt. The rift between Republican "red" and Democratic "blue" America is being severely exacerbated as right-wing audiences remain largely unaware they have been systematically deceived.

Although this is an unparalleled media scandal, Fox has refused to cover it at all, implicitly because anything it says can still be used against it by Dominion. But that ensures that at least a large part of its own audience remains unaware of being intentionally misled, as the overwhelming evidence seems to prove.

And it’s not just Fox. Its right-wing cable television competitors – the very upstarts that Fox apparently feared could capture its market share if it did not feed its right-wing audience the disinformation they apparently believed it craved as a matter of "respect" – aren't covering it either. Newsmax and One America News, and most major right-wing websites, are avoiding the topic altogether. In the right-wing echo chamber, only the upmarket and well-informed readers of the Wall Street Journal – also owned by News Corp, Fox News’s parent company – are being entrusted with these revelations.

This episode is not merely illustrative of the bifurcated landscapes – informational and imaginary – and presumed baseline realities, cleaving right and left America. It is deepening it considerably. A victory by Dominion is likely to be regarded as rigged and phony, much in the same way that Mr Biden's election was, by the rank-and-file of the political right, if they ever hear of it at all.

Because there have long been no rewards for Republican moderation, especially on Fox programmes, it now no longer exists

Considerable ink has been spilt explaining the proactive ways in which political disinformation, particularly on the right, beginning with the talk radio craze of the 1980s, shattered a supposedly shared set of fundamental political reference points defined, above all, by the network evening news programmes. As channels and programming proliferated in the US, it is widely and convincingly argued, audiences have been increasingly self-selecting and self-segregating into homogenising echo chambers. The internet proved the last straw, as algorithms – which are designed to maximise user engagement by social media platforms – fed viewers increasingly shrill propaganda, rewarded with ample jolts of dopamine.

That might be a cliched narrative, but it accurately summarises what happened. And by now the US news media and audiences are divided neatly in twain. One giant camp is not only being lied to but, Fox apparently believed, is demanding to be aggressively misled as a form of twisted political representation but is not hearing anything about how and why that happened. Meanwhile, the rest of public-affairs consuming Americans are looking on in dismay.

Most analyses of how and why the Republican Party has become so extreme in recent years have focused on the takeover of the party by traditionally fringe elements. But the Fox scandal suggests that an even more significant factor has been the concomitant disappearance of liberal and even centrist Republicans.

The key inflection points were probably the failed effort to impeach former US president Bill Clinton and the "tea party" response to the election of former US president Barack Obama. The mainstream of the party leadership, and Fox News itself, enthusiastically promoted the growth of such extremism for political and financial profit, only later to discover it was and remains completely beyond their control.

They couldn't stop the presidential nomination of Donald Trump in 2016, although they tried, and their increasingly ham-handed efforts to promote Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as an alternative to him for 2024 have yet to look any more effective.

All this created a reactionary echo chamber in which populist outbidding, pandering and absurd theatrics are automatically rewarded, so that in merely two years a talentless mediocrity such as Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene could rise to power, prominence and prestige in the House of Representatives purely on unmatched stridency.

Because there have long been no rewards for Republican moderation, especially on Fox programmes, it now no longer exists. As the emails demonstrate, Fox ended up chasing the audience it created down an endless rabbit hole of reactionary disinformation and extremism.

Lowest common denominator appeals of the Republican right have been consistent since at least the end of the Second World War. The first is sexual and gender anxieties, currently expressed through book banning and outlandish fears of "grooming" in public schools. The second go-to is racial hysteria, now embodied in campaigns to police the teaching of history in the name of opposing Critical Race Theory.

That's very old wine in slightly updated bottles. But what's now missing is any discernible voice of centrism and moderation.

The contrast with the Democrats is striking. Under Mr Biden, the party centre has fended off continuous efforts by the progressive left to push the agenda too far, most recently with his pledge not to veto a Republican-led effort to overturn changes to Washington's criminal code. And by sticking to the centre, Democrats are consistently winning.

Conventional wisdom held that only a series of dramatic political defeats could rescue the Republican Party from its freefall into ever greater extremism. But despite exactly such a cascade of debacles following 2016, no self-regulating moderation is emerging. But if Fox and its right-wing media competitors and Mr Trump and his Republican opponents insist that the 2020 vote was "stolen," the most significant of those defeats can be dismissed as "fake news".

In his first two years, Mr Biden accumulated legislative victories that will allow him to spend the next two years of his presidency cutting ribbons at major infrastructure and other spending projects creating new working-class jobs and opportunities. He will be making the case, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that he's really delivering on the renewed “greatness” Mr Trump only promised.

He's betting Republicans can be won over through good governance despite appeals to sexual or gender phobias and cultural anxieties. The 2024 election should prove a fascinating test of Mr Biden's theory, but only if most Republican voters ever learn about any of it. Don't bet on that.

Published: March 06, 2023, 2:00 PM