Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Three Days in the Swamp of Fox News' 'Trumpman Show'
"Everything will be OK; Trump is not crazy" seems to be the message when a THR columnist tunes in to TV's most toxic presidential reality show.
In the movie Kingsmen, Colin Firth's sophisticated spy character proclaims, "Manners maketh the man." His point is that we aren't defined by social class or education or upbringing, but by our own will power to act rationally and respectfully. When it comes to understanding the actions of President Trump, we have to adjust Firth's philosophy slightly to "Media maketh the man." One small difference in wording, one giant leap in meaning.
When "media maketh the man," the result is someone whose perception of the world is manipulated by the media he chooses, causing him to act impulsively, with limited knowledge, and often with destructive results. Trump has made no secret that his most trusted source of media information is Fox News programming — particularly Fox and Friends, which, because of the president’s loyalty to the show, The New York Times called "the most powerful TV show in America." Therefore, I decided to immerse myself for three days in various Fox News shows to better understand how their influence maketh the president. After three days of watching Fox and Friends, Hannity, America’s News Headquarters, The Five, Fox Report, The Greg Gutfeld Show, MediaBuzz and others, I did better understand Trump's obsession with Fox News — and why his dependency on it is so dangerous for the country.
Fox News shows and Trump are in sync when they both complain about "mainstream media" and "fake news." The reason they both continue to use the phrase "mainstream media" is because it promotes their desired image as brazen outsiders who are marginalized by the brainwashed hordes because they speak the truth that other news outlets don’t dare. Yet, Fox News is the opposite of an outsider. As of Aug. 17, 2017, Sean Hannity had the No. 1 show in cable news primetime and Fox News was the top cable news channel. It doesn't get more mainstream than that. And let's remember that ratings translate into millions of dollars in profits. If the president disparages news outlets that simply report facts that expose discrepancies in his statements, yet promotes the network that consistently praises him, and they profit from that promotion, that’s a quid pro quo business relationship. Nothing is more mainstream than a news organization lavishly endorsed by the president of the United States. Other countries — like China, Russia, and North Korea — call that state-run news.
The alarm Trump and Fox raise about "fake news" is legitimate. This public debate over the accuracy of news outlets may be the most important issue the country faces. The survival of democracy depends on its citizens receiving clear, un-spun facts in order to make informed decisions about the future of the country. Americans have always been proud of their defense of the First Amendment rights of a free press because without it, Americans would — like the people of China, Russia, and North Korea — receive only news that supported and praised the government. Then our choices would be a façade — no choice at all.
But what if the president only received news that supported and praised him? How would he know what all the people think or what they want him to do? He wouldn't. He would only know what his friends want and then act on that.
Fortunately, we have found the elusive source of fake news that Trump and Fox News have been railing against and it turns out to be Fox News and Trump himself. Let's start with Trump. A fact-check by The Washington Post showed that as of Aug. 22, Trump has made 1,057 false or misleading claims since taking office. His Aug. 22 speech at his rally in Phoenix only added to that tally. He referred to the media as "truly dishonest people," then proceeded to offer several lies of his own. He said that "very few people showed up" to protest his rally, yet photos show there were thousands. He claimed the news media wouldn't show the size of the crowd of supporters, but U.S. News & World Report tweeted photos of that crowd. He also told the crowd that TV cameras were being turned off because networks didn't want to show his speech, even as his speech was being aired live on television and online.
Also among the misinformation the president passed on during that speech was his belief that "clean coal" means scrubbing the coal as it's mined rather than technologies that reduce harmful emissions when it's burned. How can a president who lacks basic information make decisions about our energy policies?
Fox News already has a reputation for inaccuracies, and my three days watching didn’t dispel that reputation. PunditFact's analysis shows that only 22 percent of statements made on air by Fox, Fox News and Fox Business are true or mostly true. The remaining 78 percent range from half true to "pants on fire," with 30 percent false and 9 percent pants on fire. The most egregious recent example is Fox News promoting a conspiracy theory about the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich. Despite the "evidence" mentioned on Fox being discredited, and Fox itself retracting the story, Hannity continued to pimp the story on his Twitter account until his bosses shut him down.
I watched the shows with some hope that things had changed at Fox News. I was disappointed to discover they had not. While I found much of the reporting in their news shows to be straightforward and professional, there were enough comments to show a distorted and inaccurate view of the country. The mantra at Fox seems to be: "Your enemy is anyone who doesn’t make you feel good about your beliefs." The underlying message is "Everything will be OK; Trump is not crazy."
If you worry that systemic racism might be a problem in America because of the hundreds of studies that say it is, don't worry. They're all wrong. That's what I learned when I tuned in to watch America’s News HQ, which I had on my DVR. There was still about a minute of the previous Fox show on, showing demonstrators marching in Boston. To which the female correspondent assured us: "America is not a racist country, absolutely not. We have moved so far and will continue moving forward. That is what we do as Americans." This shows such a fundamental lack of understanding of what systemic racism is that it's shocking. There is not a reputable sociologist, political scientist or economist who doesn't admit that there is racism built in to our political and social systems. It's to the country’s credit that most people recognize this and are working hard to eliminate it. Pretending it doesn't exist doesn’t move us forward, it moves us backward.
A few minutes into America’s News HQ, anchor Leland Vittert reported that counter-protesters marching in Boston were made up of "leftist groups like Black Lives Matter." Huh? Technically, a leftist group seeks to address social inequities against the disadvantaged. But if the average Fox viewer were asked if they would like to see those who are disadvantaged get a fair shake, they’d probably say yes. Yet, stick on that "leftist" label, which most conservatives (a group that makes up 60 percent of Fox News viewers) see as a synonym for radical revolutionaries, and you've biased the audience. Why not say "social advocacy groups like Black Lives Matter," which is more accurate?
On Mediabuzz, a news ticker at the bottom of the screen claimed "Media Trumpet Bannon's Ouster." This suggests that the "mainstream media" is cackling with delight over Bannon's removal. You'd expect headlines like: "Bannon Told Not to Let the Door Hit Him on the Way Out" or "White House Exorcism Finally Removes Bannon." Here are the actual online headlines reporting Steve Bannon's firing. Fox News: "Bannon Out at White House"; CNBC: "Steve Bannon Out at White House"; NPR: "Steve Bannon Out as Chief Strategist, White House Says"; CBS: "Steve Bannon Out at White House." There are more but they all say pretty much the same thing that Fox says. No trumpeting. No cackling. Just reporting.
I thought there might be some ray of hope when I saw that James Murdoch, the chief executive of 21st Century Fox and son of Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, pledged a million dollars to the Anti-Defamation League in response to Trump’s failure to condemn Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville. I was also heartened by Kat Timpf, of The Fox News Specialists, whose reaction to Trump's limp non-condemnation was "I have too much eye makeup on to cry right now." Naturally, she received a tweet calling her "a disgrace to the white race." But that ray was snuffed out on Thursday, Aug. 24, when I tuned into The Specialists to hear the anchors gleefully agreeing with Trump's pledge in Phoenix to shut down the government unless they fund his wall.
If you are what you eat and President Trump is being fed a steady diet of "alternate reality" by a popular mainstream news outlet, then that explains why he thinks he can get away with constantly broadcasting his own lies. More frightening, does he even know the difference? Which makes the Trump presidency less a variation of the Kingsmen and more like The Truman Show, the 1998 movie starring Jim Carrey as a man who doesn't realize that he’s being raised by a corporation entirely inside a television show. In The Trumpman Show, Fox gives Trump misinformation that makes him think his world is real: that he won the popular vote, that people don’t think he's a racist, misogynist, xenophobe. It's been reported that twice a day Trump is given a folder of only good news about himself, which some in the White House refer to as "the propaganda document." When those folders aren’t enough, he can tune into Fox and Friends, where he can hear this comment about the growing number of athletes joining Colin Kaepernick's sitting out the national anthem in protest over racism: "It puts us in a position of weakness to the outward world. People look at us and say, wow, they're divisive already." Trump can then believe that it’s a football player causing all that divisiveness, not his tacit endorsement of white supremacists in Charlottesville.
The Trumpman Show is one show that needs to be canceled.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.