by Tony Wyman
As a frequent political commentator, I’ve read dozens of articles professing to expose for readers the true secrets of the Fox News behemoth. While many were interesting and informative, none captured the true picture of how frighteningly powerful Fox News has become and what a threat to American democracy the network is like “Foxocracy” does. Tobin Smith’s book, the first I’ve read that pulls back all the blinds hiding the true nature of Fox News, should be on the bedside of every American voter and its last page read and digested before the existentially critical 2020 presidential election.
“Ultimately, when I discovered how what we were doing affected the millions of folks who fell down the Foxhole, I became ashamed of what I had helped Fox News accomplish. I am hopeful that more former Fox News opinion-program producers and contributors will add their stories to the record. Already, brave reporters like my old friend and longtime FNC reporter Adam Housley, Col. Ralph Peters, and recently Carl Cameron have quit Fox News in protest. For the good of our country and its democracy, I hope more come forward.”
That is how former Fox News contributor, guest anchor and self-confessed “right-wing hit man” Tobin Smith opened his explosive new book, “Foxocracy: Inside the Network’s Playbook of Tribal Warfare,” about his 14-year career at the world’s most influential and powerful news and social media conglomerate.
The book, due out on October 29th, is a concise, well-constructed and horrifying breakdown of how FNC became the political powerhouse it is today and how it uses half-truths, carefully re crafted facts and distorted conclusions to shape a media narrative that it promotes through its wide array of media outlets in a coordinated and orchestrated campaign to sell its audience a Fox-colored view of the world.
“When it comes to the raw power of spinning and propagating any national political narrative in America, today there is no more lethal force in the free world than the American Foxocracy. It’s not a race, it’s a digital slaughter,” wrote Mr. Smith. “And what no one until now has reported in-depth is the extensive and heart-breaking collateral damage to American families, our democracy, and the way our voting citizens sees and votes regarding America’s future.”
How Fox Won the Battle Over the Mueller Report and Why They Will Keep Winning
An example of that collateral damage Fox has inflicted on consumers of news that Mr. Smith explains in his book, is the way the network dominated the narrative about the conclusion reached by Special Counsel Robert Mueller about collusion between the Russian intelligence service and the Trump presidential campaign in 2015-6.
“As we all now know all too well these days,” wrote Mr. Smith, “creating and controlling the first twenty-four-hour narrative of any national political story is now decidedly in the hands of a certain right-wing, $3 billion-a-year, for-profit public company. But the real, yet almost unimaginable, power of Fox News is how it operates as an entire media and non-secular ecosystem that I have come to describe as the American Foxocracy.”
That ecosystem coalesced around the narrative that the Mueller Report concluded there was no orchestrated collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign, even though that was not the determination of the investigators, and propagated that message even before U.S. Attorney-General Bill Barr made his public comments on the report.
In Mr. Smith’s view, Fox News won the battle for America’s opinion on the report well before other news outlets were even able to share preliminary assessments of Mr. Mueller’s conclusion.
“Why?” asked Mr. Smith, “Because with Fox News’ now one hundred million-plus monthly audience reach for its emotionally overpowering content, the contest to be the first to own the Mueller story was never in doubt. More importantly, by the time Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference landed on Attorney-general Barr’s desk, the battle to spin it had already been won.”
In other words, regardless of what Mr. Mueller reported, the narrative believed by millions of America’s most important voters – the 55-year-old and older white audience that makes up the largest share of both television/social media news consumers and the nation’s largest voting bloc – would be determined not in the Justice Department or in the halls of Congress, but, rather, in the boardroom at Fox News.
“For Fox News and its phalanx of White House insiders, Trumpist sycophants, and highly paid spin-doctor contributors like me, all spinning the same mutually agreed upon fifth-grade language catchphrase twenty million times – ‘No collusion, no obstruction, complete exoneration’ – the game to own the political narrative was over after just a few hours,” wrote Mr. Smith. “In reality, it was over before the attorney-general started to speak.”
The fact that Fox had this power, that it could successfully shape the Mueller Report narrative in whichever fashion it desired, knowing with confidence that tens of millions of politically active viewers would repeat its conclusion hundreds of millions of times on their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, gave William Barr the cover he needed to draw a similar conclusion, allowing him to effectively ignore the parts of Mr. Mueller’s report that did not jive with what Fox sold to its viewers and what President Trump wanted his supporters to believe.
White Tribal Identity Content
How was it possible for Fox to grow such a dominant media presence unmatched by its competitors? Because they understood much sooner than other major media outlets what viewers were seeking on social media and they provided them that content in a manner designed to feed what Mr. Smith calls “the five key emotional pillars” enumerated in the “Fox News tribal warfare playbook“:
- Existential white tribal fear
- Bitter hatred and feelings of disrespect
- Blasphemous outrage
- Visceral bitter resentment
- Victimhood and blame of “elites” and “others”
“Fox News provides its content consumers with what they absolutely value more than almost life itself: the most emotionally engaging and satisfying content on the planet – with the exception of kitty and puppy videos – for free,” wrote Mr. Smith, pointing out what neutral viewers spot immediately when they visit Fox News online.
A scan of the Fox site as I type this is replete with stories about how the “media is in meltdown mode over whistleblower report” and how “climate protests are not about the environment,” surrounded by stories about Taylor Swift cancelling a concert because of criticism from animal rights activists and Beto O’Rourke being confronted by an angry woman accusing the presidential candidate of “exploiting our tragedies” with his plan to confiscate AR-15 rifles.
While each of the stories are different, they all share a similar core message: liberals are threatening the traditional white American way of life. In his book, Mr. Smith describes this as “white tribal identity activation media,” and he explains how Fox discovered it and monetized it as a lucrative marketplace.
With a social media audience on Facebook and YouTube 20 times greater than other media competitors, Fox is able to exploit the feelings of resentment, isolation, condescension and abandonment its viewers “…feel they get from every corner of liberal America” to motivate a more passionate consumer response than all other media outlets combined. And it really took off in 2008 when major social media platforms – YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – began “to redistribute and re target Fox News’ white tribal identity content for free.”
This broader dissemination of Fox content allowed the network to reach an even larger target market, bringing more people with similar views into the white tribal identity tent created by Fox. This audience began to see Fox as a shelter for people with increasingly unfashionable ideas, a shelter they grew to increasingly appreciate during the time of the Obama presidency.
“Fox News is very personal for them,” explains Mr. Smith about loyal viewers of the network. “Their hatred of liberalism and liberals and cultural PC-ism is bitter and visceral, too.”
To these viewers, Fox News is a safe space where they can share their views with other “deplorables” who think like deplorables think, where they can “…safely huddle around and feel pride about themselves and their close pals.”
It provides them a place where they don’t have to watch what they say and where their thoughts are validated by others who have the same white tribal view of how America could be made, in their view, great again.
“To use one of the combat metaphors that many viewers are so fond of, Fox News is a digital foxhole where they feel safe while they watch their tribal heroes bring the fight to ‘those people’ who constantly disrespect their Retro America culture and orthodoxy and want to confiscate their guns and disrespect their God.”
The 8-Point Emotional Moment Journey
Having identified and captured successfully their audience, having lured them into their digital foxhole safe space, Fox then takes them on what Mr. Smith calls an “Eight-point emotional moment journey from fear to victory” as part of the network’s carefully engineered and seductive “rhythm of white tribal identity porn” that looks like this:
- The viewer sees and/or hears the “Fox News Alert” or cold-open tribal heresy or threat (even though the opinion show is not a news program at all). The amygdala (your brain’s danger and risk assessment system) subconsciously decides that this is a fight-or-flight event and provides the viewer an adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrine boost.
- The Fox host then purposely scares the crap out of or pisses off the viewer with sound-on-tape B-roll (known as a “SOT” in TV lingo) of a liberal politician/celebrity/talking head impugning, insulting, or mocking the viewer’s right-wing tribal belief system/orthodoxy.
- The viewer naturally enters active tribal mode, with the tribal brain kicking in. The viewer’s risk-assessing amygdala silently shouts, “Say it again, and I’ll punch you out!”
- The tribal enemy (aka “libtard”) stands his/her ground, repeating the pronouncement and tribal heresy with more authority.
- The right-wing host and paid contributor heroes step in, coming to the defense of the right-wing tribe, rhetorically punching the tribal enemy in the nose for the viewer.
- Boom! The fight-or-flight adrenaline rush the viewer got from the opening tribal threat is replaced with a nice big dose of the brain chemical dopamine.
- The dopamine sets the viewer into anticipation of another tribal victory.
- With the thrill of victory triggered by the validation of tribal orthodoxy and feelings of continued safety, the viewer’s brain now releases the good stuff—serotonin, the opiate-like chemical.
Seeking Safety and Inclusion in Ideological Tribes
The point to this process that Fox uses to drug their consumers into a sense of membership and security is not, of course, to appeal to their better instincts or draw out their compassion for others who do not fit the Fox viewer tribal mold. It is, instead, designed to appeal to the natural human instinct to find affinity with those who look like us, who think like us, who share our values and rituals.
However, it was the intention of the Founders, as Mr. Smith puts it, to free us from being subservient to “our innate human wiring for tribalism and tribal behavior.” Fox is working directly against the wishes of our Founders and is succeeding in destroying the experiment started by Washington, Madison, Jefferson and the others by promoting white tribalism.
What led to this, Mr. Smith suggests, is “…we’ve allowed our innate tribal nature to retake control of our lives and impulses.” To counter this, Mr. Smith says, “At the very least, we must all acknowledge that American democracy is under attack by purveyors of white nationalist moral panic who are in business to profit by weaponizing and monetizing our tribal fears and hatred of the Other.”
The 2020 presidential election, therefore, has to be a repudiation of this racial tribalism if America, as we know her, is to survive. It must be, as Mr. Smith says, “…a referendum on both Trump’s weaponized racism and all Fox News predatory business practices.” If we fail to defend America from this assault on her true values, blame will fall squarely on the generation that stood by while democracy was corrupted. As Mr. Smith put it in his book’s conclusion:
“History will indeed rightfully judge us if we knowingly let this self-inflicted plague of fear and hate consume the liberal democracy which we inherited from our forefathers but left weaker and more divided on our watch.”
Kindle copies of the book can be ordered on Amazon.com for $10.99. Audio and hardcover copies are also available for pre-order.