Fox News employs a six-step strategy to attack opponents, and it has often worked. But we can change the story. (More)

The Fox Effect, Part III: Changing the Story (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at the just-released book The Fox Effect, by David Brock, Ari Rabin-Havt, and the staff at Media Matters for America. Thursday we considered the Fox News motto ‘Fair & Balanced’ through conservative frames. Yesterday we examined their emerging role as a Republican Party campaign organization. Today we conclude with Fox News’ consistent and too-often effective six-step strategy for attacking opponents, including the authors and Media Matters.

About the authors: David Brock is the founder of Media Matters, and the author of five books including his memoir Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative. Ari Rabin-Havt is the vice president of research and communication at Media Matters.

“… the administration’s most potent foe.”

On March 9, 2009, the Obama administration announced that Van Jones would serve as Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Jones had an impressive résumé in community organizing and environmental issues, having founded San Francisco’s Bay Area Police Watch to provide legal assistance for victims of police violence, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color of Change, and Green for All, in addition to writing The Green Collar Economy. Jones’ appointment to the post – which he described not as “czar” but as “handyman” – pleased many progressives.

But back in 1992, Yale law student Van Jones had offered to help as a legal monitor in San Francisco during the protests after the Rodney King verdicts. Like many others at the protests, Jones was arrested. According to Eva Patterson, for whom he was working, Jones was released within hours and the charges against him were dropped. He and others won a small settlement from the city for wrongful arrest. By 2005 he was a rising voice in the environmental movement, and he said this in an interview with the East Bay Express:

I was a rowdy nationalist on April 28th, and then the verdicts came down on April 29th. By August, I was a communist.

Aaron Klein wrote about that interview in April 2009 at the World Net Daily, which has a reputation for “presenting outright falsehoods and goofball right-wing conspiracy theories as the truth.” Thus the mainstream media largely ignored Klein, until July 2009 when Glenn Beck began pushing the story on Fox News. Beck falsely claimed Jones was a “convicted felon” who had “spent, I think, six months in prison after the Rodney King beatings.” This narrative of Van Jones as the Violent Black Communist fit the picture of President Obama that Sarah Palin had begun painting with her “pallin’ around with terrorists” line in October 2008, and Fox News D.C. editor Bill Sammon expanded with his on-air “tantamount to socialism” comments later that month.

In September 2009, the story spread that Van Jones’ name appeared on a 2004 petition circulated by a 9/11 ‘truther’ group. Jones immediately denied ever having suspected U.S. government involvement in the 9/11 attacks, and the group later said he had never signed the petition. Still, Jones resigned a few days later, a move that Politico‘s Ben Smith wrote “confirmed Beck’s stature as the administration’s most potent foe.”

The Six-Step Strategy

Like the destruction of ACORN and the resignation of Shirley Sherrod in 2010, the attacks on Van Jones were almost completely fabricated. Yet the damage was done, and authors David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt point to a six-step strategy employed at Fox News:

  1. Conservative activists introduce the lie – The reliability of the source is irrelevant. World Net Daily started the attack on Van Jones. The ACORN video was made by then-unknowns James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles and first appeared on a website run by Andrew Breitbart, an online media designer with no track record as a reporter. Breitbart also posted the Shirley Sherrod video. Fox News made no attempt to verify these stories.
  2. Fox News devotes massive coverage to the story – Instead, Fox News spent hours discussing each of these “developing” stories.
  3. Fox News attacks other outlets for ignoring the controversy – As we saw yesterday, Fox News was built on a talk radio rather than a broadcast news model, and their hosts primarily rely on other news outlets to “develop” stories. If other outlets ignore or debunk the stories, Fox News adds them to the target list, implying and sometimes stating outright a media conspiracy to conceal the ‘truth.’
  4. Mainstream outlets begin reporting on the controversy – Once attacked, other media outlets respond by discussing the story, often repeating the Fox News framing while their reporters begin checking the facts.
  5. Media critics, pundits praise Fox News’ coverage – As the story builds momentum, the narrative shifts to why the other media were “late” to pick up the story. The tacit but clear implication: Fox is the most reliable source for developing news.
  6. The story falls apart once the damage has been done – Once real reporters begin digging, these “scandals” turned out to be overhyped fabrications. Yes, Van Jones was arrested, and he was released within hours and later won a settlement for wrongful arrest. Yes, Jones dabbled in communism, but then rejected it as unworkable and became a self-described “eco-capitalist.” Yes, an ACORN employee made provocative statements, because she recognized the interview as a prank and chose to prank the pranksters. Yes, Shirley Sherrod said in a speech that she didn’t want to help a family because they were white, and then continued by describing the epiphany that changed her worldview. But by the time the facts came out, Jones and Sherrod had resigned and ACORN had shut down.

Changing the Story

As the authors detail near the end of the book, in the summer of 2011 Fox News launched that six-step strategy against Media Matters for America. The attack began on June 21 with a column in the Washington Times by former George H.W. Bush counsel and Fox News contributor C. Boyden Gray, who argued that Media Matters’ tax exempt status should be revoked. Bill O’Reilly interviewed Gray on the air the following night, and over the next two weeks Fox News ran 35 segments on Media Matters, including directing viewers to a pre-filled IRS complaint form on the Fox News website and interviewing viewers who had filed the complaint. The campaign continued at the Fox Nation website for another month …

… and then went away. The IRS never contacted Media Matters with any complaint.

What happened? Last January, Sarah Palin had ignited a firestorm with her “blood libel” tantrum after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona. Palin had also embarrassed and angered Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, who had told her to “lie low” after the shooting. In April, President Obama released his long-form birth certificate, silencing all but the craziest birther conspiracy theorists. In May, President Obama ordered the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, shattering Fox News claims that the president was “soft on terror.” And Glenn Beck had just been fired. Other media outlets had finally recognized that Fox News was not a journalistic colleague, but a conservative Republican media organization. When Fox News attacked Media Matters, the other media refused to join the feeding frenzy.

As summer turned to autumn, polls showed Americans increasingly recognizing Republican extremism after the debt ceiling debacle. Then Occupy Wall Street emerged to change the media narrative. Fox News tried to drive a narrative of the Occupy Movement as violent radicals, but videos of police attacking passive protesters largely pushed the Fox News myth aside. Unemployment and income inequality began to dominate the news.

Fox News will continue to push the Republican agenda through 2012, and last month the conservative Media Research Center launched a $5 million campaign against mainstream media outlets. But Fox News has, at least for now, lost much of its power to define the political narrative.

When progressives organize and speak out, we can change the story.


Happy Saturday!