Putting Press Intimidation in Context: The Disinformation Disorder and the Radical Right

By Lance Bennett & Steven Livingston

In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, scholars began to see the outlines of an emerging phenomenon, something Fareed Zakaria at the time called “illiberal regimes.” Others would later refer to hybrid governance to describe elected governments that, once in office, use their authority to systematically undermine institutions of democratic governance. To illustrate the idea, political scientist David Ost points to the Hungarian and Polish cases where the constitutional courts have been gutted, civil service politicized, and news media turned into a “government mouthpiece.” Also evident is an “official tolerance and even promotion of racism and bigotry, administrative assertion of traditional gender norms, cultural resurrection of authoritarian traditions, placing loyalty over competence in awarding state posts.” In other cases, authoritarians turn to violent repression. In the immediate aftermath of the failed 2016 coup in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government arrested over 70,000 people, including 2,385 judges and scores of university professors and journalists.  Erdoğan also shuttered 370 civil society groups. Similarly, India, Spain and Hungary have enacted laws restricting civil society actions.  In Hungary this year, President Viktor Orban government introduced a bill in Parliament that would all but abolish the Central European University.

Attacks on the press are also a part of the same repressive pattern. Last month in India, two journalists in as many weeks were murdered, apparently for standing up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.  Yet political leaders who are inclined toward authoritarianism do not always resort to violence when silencing troublesome journalists. Rather than kill reporters, some regimes kill facts. Undermining facts and the legitimacy of news organizations that deal in them is more thorough and enduring than murdering journalists. Branding news organizations as “fake news” has this effect, especially when joined by a campaign of disinformation that undermines rational fact-based discourse itself.

Donald Trump’s use of “fake news” to disparage stories, reporters and news organizations he doesn’t like is merely a new branding of an old product. Almost immediately on the heels of the Reagan-era repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, “The Rush Limbaugh Show” was syndicated nationally. A core part of the show’s marketing was Limbaugh’s constant stream of attacks on the credibility of the “lamestream” media and the idea that journalists and entire news organizations are biased left wing activists. The brilliance of the move was found in its ability to establish a one-size-fits-all premise for dismissing all criticism of the radical right’s ideas. It sidestepped direct engagement with the facts of any story by asserting that they are biased against the right and therefore to be dismissed out of hand. Trump’s fake news is only an update on the brand.

But the ironic brilliance of the move is found in the fact that much of what passes for news on the radical right is exaggerated or simply fabricated. It plays on and deepens the cynicism that feeds the delegitimation of legacy liberal institutions, including the press. Disinformation campaigns often weave bizarre interpretations of actual events into a series of reoccurring conspiratorial narratives that typically involve secret government programs, false flag operations, the nebulous “deep state,” and shadowy international financiers (George Soros is a favorite). The goal is to undermine facts altogether, creating a phantasmagorical world of confused public resignation.

What is new in all of this is the existence of a networked radical right (of various permutations from libertarian to social/cultural traditionalists to nationalist and white supremacist) information ecosystem of foundations, pressure groups, broadcast and web-based organizations that work to delegitimize legacy media and other institutions associated with the Enlightenment and Liberal democracy. At the core of the philosophy is a rejection of democracy and an embrace of autocratic rule. As Rosie Gray of the Atlantic put it, “It has brought new energy into a right that is questioning and actively trying to dismantle existing orthodoxies—even ones as foundational as democracy.” For over a half-century, right wing foundations and wealthy individuals have funded anti-democratic and illiberal institutions, including think tanks, university research centers, media “watch-dog” groups, and, more recently, websites devoted to radical-right causes. According to Nancy MacLean, the threat of democratic mobilization in mid-20th century America led to the emergence of a radical-right retrenchment. Wealthy and radical-right wing individuals, families, and foundations bankrolled the creation of institutions that would work to delegitimize state intervention in the economy while undermining the legacy news media, social justice movements, environmental science, and the sort of broadly popular democratic values that threatened concentrations of wealth or traditional hierarchies. The Heritage Foundation (established in 1973 with funding from conservative beer magnate Joseph Coors), the Cato Institute (established in 1974 as the Charles Koch Foundation, with the name changed to Cato in 1976) are among them. So, too, were various media watchdog groups devoted to finding examples of “liberal bias” in the legacy press. The Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) was established in 1985 with support from the conservative Scaife Foundations, which also supports the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Cato Institute, and the Center for Immigration Studies. Similarly, the Media Research Center (MRC) was founded in 1987 with support from Scaife Foundations,  the John M. Olin Foundation, and Castle Rock, a conservative foundation founded in 1993 with an endowment of almost $37 million from the Adolph Coors Foundation. Their expressed purpose was to root out liberal bias in the news, much as Limbaugh would later in his more colorful way.

Right-wing talk radio set the stage for Fox News, founded in 1996 by Rupert Murdoch and built by former Reagan aide Roger Ailes. In the last decade, the expansion of right wing media has included in 2005 Breitbart.com. Andrew Breitbart said that he was “committed to the destruction of the old media guard.” Billionaire libertarian activist Robert Mercer endowed Breitbart.com with at least $11 million the following year. Attacks on journalists must be understood in the context of a broader attack on the foundations of liberal democracy by the radical right.

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