BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Bob Garfield.
SEAN HANNITY We're going to cancel anybody we disagree with. Cancel culture now has permeated every single part of our society. Sadly, I predict it's only going to get worse. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Silence more dangerous voices?You know, Sean Hannity, maybe you're on to something. In advance of an impeachment trial of the ex-president on the grounds of inciting insurrection, there is growing sentiment for the cable channel that most amplified Donald Trump's ravings to be held accountable as well. In the past week, The New York Times, Washington Post, Mother Jones, Variety and CNN have all entertained musings about Fox one way or another being shunned from polite society. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan declared, quote: "Corporations that advertise on Fox News should walk away and citizens who care about the truth should demand that they do." Such is the post insurrection comeuppance zeitgeist.
NEWS REPORT After the January 6th riots, mainstream social media rid itself of Donald Trump and thousands of other conspiracy theorists. Twitter dropped more than 70,000 accounts devoted to QAnon in a single day. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Likewise, Parler the extremist-heavy Twitter clone lost its Internet host. Republican members of Congress suddenly lost sources of campaign funds, and Donald Trump himself lost crucial business relationships. Cancel culture, Sean? Well, yeah, more or less. And so in this hour, we address two questions. First, what if Fox News were to be neutralized or at least radically ostracized? And secondly, in a democratic society in which free speech is foundational, is that an outcome we really want? Both questions are premised on the belief that whatever Fox has been since its 1996 launch: a megaphone for wedge issues, fear mongering lies, conspiracy theories, culture wars, has poisonously mutated. It's no longer just an argument with the left, it's explicitly a safe space for insurrectionists and all those who imagine themselves under the heel of tyranny.
TUCKER CARLSON Tens of millions of Americans have no chance. They're about to be crushed by the ascendant left. These people need a defender. You need a defender. Why is no one defending them? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That was Tucker Carlson one day after the storming of the Capitol. Which, according to Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of the left leaning advocacy group Media Matters for America, exemplifies the channel's dark and treacherous turn.
ANGELO CARUSONE They know that a deep part of their audience, especially Tucker's, aligns with this idea of white genocide. That white culture is in some way being replaced and decayed, and they are trying to appeal to that, and they're warning them that they're coming for them.
HANNITY It's a political persecution, plain and simple. It's now standard operating procedure in the Democratic Party. Are you or have you ever been a supporter of Donald Trump? Why not put a scarlet letter "T" on supporters?
JEANINE This is a slippery slope. Are people going to say, "well, we're not going to sell you a car, republicans," "we're not going to say we're not going to issue you a mortgage, conservatives." I mean, how far does this go?
TUCKER CARLSON Listen as the geniuses, explain how the single biggest threat to this country isn't Chinese hegemony or even the coming hyperinflation, pretty much a certainty now, which was one hundred percent caused by elite mismanagement of our economy. But no, let's not talk about that. The real threat is a forbidden idea. It's something called QAnon. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That's Carlson dismissing worries about QAnon, a cult dedicated to dismantling a government filled with pedophiles and cannibals. Which is something of a departure from historical conservative values of states rights, fiscal responsibility, a strong military and self-reliance because, you know – cannibals.
ANGELO CARUSONE The last year in particular is when it certainly seemed as though the cauldron of extremism and lies that Fox News had been boiling, boiled over. And I think it affected everybody's lives. First with COVID, and all the misinformation and how they influence the public health response and then in the aftermath of the election and how they kind of built the framework that really helped undermine the results in the minds of so many of our fellow citizens.
BOB GARFIELD And after the rage it had helped fuel finally materialized into violence, did Fox pull back, humbled and chastened over its own dark power? No. Just last week, here was Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch in Australia denouncing not insurrection, but cancel culture.
RUPERT MURDOCH It's rigidly enforced conformity. Aided and abetted by so-called social media. It's a straitjacket on sensibility. Too many people have fought too hard in too many places for freedom of speech to be suppressed for this awful woke orthodoxy. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Murdoch's denunciation of political correctness was widely interpreted as a vow not to cave, either to the bleeding hearts, or to the even fringier conservative channels like Newsmax and One America News, where many MAGA faithful fled on election night when Fox was the first to call Arizona for Joe Biden. In the aftermath, the perennial ratings leader skittered at least temporarily, to third place in cable news. And for now, Murdoch is steering into the skid. As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, by taking even more news out of Fox News.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK One of their top news anchors, Martha MacCallum, she was shifted from seven pm, a prime evening slot to three p.m. in the afternoon, and that is a major opinion hour. And let's be clear, conservative opinion hour. Among those auditioning is Maria Bartiromo, an anchor who has made a lot of unfounded and unhinged claims. Here's one from her... [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD So let's just, for the sake of argument, accept that Fox News Channel has not only crossed a line, but defiantly stayed there, and thus the chorus of calls for boycotts by its advertisers and of its advertisers in order to starve the beast. In the interest of full disclosure, in other spaces, I myself have called for that very thing. This happens to be the work Carusone's Media Matters has been undertaking for years with mixed success.
ANGELO CARUSONE One of the big efforts was a campaign to get either Glenn Beck to be less destructive or ultimately fired, and that's exactly what happened. On the other hand, more recently, advertisers have fled Tucker and Laura Ingraham. They have lost about half of their paid commercials. I mean, they used to have more than 30 commercials a show. Now they averaged between 14 and 16. And even though they've lost money, obviously they're still on the network and they continue to thrive.
BOB GARFIELD This has just entirely bewildered me for decades because I know consumer brands are highly sensitive to their reputations and they are historically especially allergic to politics because they are always at risk of offending half of their customers by advertising to the other half, yet they've stuck around. Why are Procter and Gamble and Progressive Insurance sponsoring disinformation and hate speech?
ANGELO CARUSONE In the case of Progressive, which advertise across the network, they make the argument that we put so much money into this base across the board. We just don't make these decisions. And I don't think the general public was giving them enough backlash for that and holding them accountable because their ads were everywhere, and I think they felt like they were so saturated that the risks were very, very low of being singled out.
BOB GARFIELD Now, you would think that 25 million COVID infections, 400,000 plus deaths and one insurrection would, you know, at long last tip the scales for the likes of Progressive Insurance. Do you have any indication that these holdouts are finally prepared to put their money elsewhere?
ANGELO CARUSONE I think the most likely companies that we're starting to see get a little shaky are the pharmaceutical companies that remain. Because it's become increasingly difficult to continue to advertise on Fox News when Fox News is pushing anti-vax content and vaccine skepticism. And just last night, Sean Hannity said that he's been having his doubts about getting the vaccine.
BOB GARFIELD As we discussed in a recent show, boycotts are difficult to sustain. Consumers are loath to give up value and convenience for a grievance that can be tweeted about at no personal sacrifice. And businesses are loath to surrender access to an important market niche. So how to get advertisers to stop underwriting hate speech without shaming them? Nandini Jammi is co-founder of Check My Ads, a for profit company that she created in the image of her nonprofit Sleeping Giants. Her first target four years ago was Steve Bannon's Breitbart.com.
NANDINI JAMMI We started Sleeping Giants in the weeks after the 2016 US elections to let brands know that their ads were appearing on Breitbart.com, so we decided to start this campaign to let them know and give them a chance to block it from their media buy.
BOB GARFIELD And the reason they might not know it themselves is because so much digital advertising was purchased an automated way that you are targeting your ads at certain IP addresses at certain times with certain offers, not necessarily knowing which website it will appear on.
NANDINI JAMMI That's exactly right. This is happening at such scale that the average advertiser could be appearing on hundreds of thousands of websites, and, you know, no one really goes in and checks to see where their ads are actually ending up. What we did was we would contact companies in good faith and we want to give them a chance to do the right thing. We didn't need to boycott because all we had to do was show companies their own values statements, their own mission statements, how they talk about themselves and juxtapose that with their advertising buy. And when you kind of put those two things together, the decision is sort of made for them.
BOB GARFIELD However helpful the process was to the advertisers, your goal was to starve the likes of Breitbart News, was it not?
NANDINI JAMMI Oh, yeah, absolutely. Our campaign was so successful that we ended up losing Breitbart 90 percent of their ad revenues within the first three months of our campaign.
BOB GARFIELD How confident are you of those numbers? I mean, for one thing, they're still around. How do you know, 90 percent of revenue vanished?
NANDINI JAMMI Because Steve Bannon said so himself on video. There was a filmmaker following him around a couple of years ago for a documentary called Brink, and one of the scenes that didn't make it into the final cut was Bannon having dinner with a bunch of his pals in London.
BANNON This group called Sleeping Giant, they literally stripped out. They went to 35 exchanges that sell the ads, 31 went away. So the ad revenues dropped like 90 percent. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And so was this your biggest cultural war trophy?
NANDINI JAMMI Actually, it's it's not. Almost about 6 months after we had gotten successful with Breitbart. The news of Bill O'Reilly's sexual harassment allegations came out in April 2017.
NEWS REPORT On a recent investigation by The New York Times found that O'Reilly and Fox News have paid out a total of 13 million dollars to settle, with 5 different women who alleged O'Reilly had sexually harassed them, or engaged in inappropriate behavior. [END CLIP]
NANDINI JAMMI I think he lost about 50 or 60 advertisers at the point at which he went on vacation, so to speak, and never came back.
BOB GARFIELD Fox News Channel has lost a lot of its advertisers over the years, but nonetheless, as a bunch of big names still there, including Amazon, Procter and Gamble, Progressive Insurance, Liberty Mutual, a whole mess of other familiar brand names. Why are they still there?
NANDINI JAMMI When we launch a boycott against, say, Tucker Carlson or even with Bill O'Reilly, what the advertisers do is realize that they can't justify advertising alongside the rhetoric that is on that part of the channel. So what they end up doing is moving their ads to the news part of the channel. So Fox News ends up keeping the revenues, they just move the ads around.
BOB GARFIELD To Media Matters, Angelo Carusone, this wink, wink, nudge, nudge distinction without a difference is one of two major obstacles to boycotting Fox into submission.
ANGELO CARUSONE There is this impression that somehow Fox News has a news division and that it is distinct from their opinion commentary, and oftentimes that's how Fox News responds to critics. And the problem with that is that it just the data doesn't bear it out. So in the first 2 weeks after the election was called, for example, Fox News undermined the results. Actually either made accusations of fraud that were baseless or said there was cheating or just basically said the results were inaccurate, 774 separate times. And it was evenly split between their so-called news division and their opinion side.
NANDINI JAMMI And I guess that's where folks like me come in and say, you know, you're not going to be able to continue holding this position of neutrality anymore. You're going to have to get comfortable with taking a side. You have to participate in society and in our world, even when it's uncomfortable for your brand. I believe this is an inflection point.
BOB GARFIELD Maybe, but there is also to be reckoned with Carusone's other concern. Namely that even a successful advertising boycott of Fox News...is weak tea.
ANGELO CARUSONE The dirty secret about Fox News is that they don't need commercials. They don't make their money from commercials.
BOB GARFIELD As it turns out, and as we shall see in the next segment, advertising is not crucial to the Fox News business model. Guess who is?
This is On the Media.
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