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Fox News and Donald Trump are in a feedback loop that threatens to blow up the republic

On Sunday night, “Judge” Jeanine Pirro flipped the American justice system upside down. She declared FBI Agent Peter Strzok “a button man in the crime family of James Comey.” According to Piro, Strzok was everywhere—from hiding all incriminating information about Hillary Clinton’s email, to commissioning the Trump dossier, “the one bought and paid for by the Clinton team.” Then Pirro went on to declare FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe the “consigliere” of this FBI-Justice Department mafia. Following these accusations, Pirro demanded again that the whole team—presumably meaning both the FBI and the special counsel—be “led out in cuffs.”

The team that Pirro is attacking includes the agents and lawyers who successfully infiltrated, took apart, tried, and destroyed the largest Mafia families in the nation. It was Comey who took on the Gambino crime family and secured 14 murder indictments. Mueller who went after John Gotti. Andrew McCabe actually headed up the FBI’s efforts against organized crime and started his career as a special agent working against the mob. Lisa Page, who Pirro sneeringly reduced to the role of “mistress” and “gumade,” previously worked as a trial attorney in the Organized Crime Section of the Justice Department, and has deep experience taking down crime bosses from Eastern Europe—including some connected to Paul Manafort.

On the other hand, Jeanine Pirro’s legal experience comes from being a county court judge over two decades ago. She’s also a failed candidate for lieutenant governor, a failed candidate for Senate, and a failed candidate for New York State attorney general. Her elevation to the limelight came during the O. J. Simpson trial, when she became a go-to TV face from the simple coincidence that she had been involved with a case where a rich husband killed his estranged wife. And … that’s it. Her experience with the Mafia runs exactly as deep as her Netflix queue.

The astounding attack on the justice system might be easy to write off as just one more right-wing rant in an age where right-wing rants have become more common than grains of sand on a beach. But where Pirro was conducting her attack on Comey, McCabe, Mueller, Strzok, Page and others makes this far more critical than the latest lizardman threat on InfoWars.

Because Pirro is talking on Fox News. Which is increasingly working not just as the official propaganda arm of the Trump White House, but serving to both amplify Trump’s policies and corrode democracy. And it’s getting worse.

Fox News has become a 24-hour propaganda arm of the Trump White House. The only thing controversial about that statement is the phrase “has become,” as it implies this was not always true.

What makes Fox into propaganda is two things. First, there’s the close connection between the message put out by Trump’s team and that of Fox. But even more important is the gold seal of propaganda outlets—the lack of criticism.

It’s easy enough to discern some form of bias in any media outlet. But reaching the standard of propaganda goes beyond just having a slant in opinions. It requires removing facts, editing information, reversing reality, and flat-out lying to promote a singular position. Fox has easily cleared that hurdle.

But as jaw-dropping as it may be to find that the United States is hosting an official instrument of distorted state media, what’s going on at Fox News is worse than propaganda. It’s a more dangerous tool than RT or Xinhua. By far.

Fox News isn’t just echoing what the Trump White House sends it. It’s amplifying that message, turning it up to levels of distortion like that offered by Pirro, and sending it back to Trump … where it sprays out again. The result is that both Trump and his followers get a massively distorted view of both national events and national opinion. It’s very easy for Trump to say that “everyone” wants Robert Mueller fired or that “no one” believes there’s anything to the Russia investigation—because that’s exactly what Fox tells him and millions of others.

The round and round may be most obvious between Fox & Friends and Trump’s Twitter account, where you can sometimes follow the morning show’s itinerary by simply reading Trump’s tweets. This back and forth happens in real time. It’s quite likely that, on any given day, Brian Kilmeade has a much better idea of the White House agenda than John Kelly.

In the past, presidents rarely spoke directly with the press outside of scheduled press conferences. When more extensive interviews were given, they were subject to considerable planning, and care was taken to distribute these appearances to various media outlets—including appearances by President Obama on Fox News. But with Trump, those membranes between the White House and its chosen media outlet have thinned to nonexistent. Trump frequently makes direct contact with his favorite commentators. He doesn’t just use these occasions to vent frustrations and make comments that inform Fox programming, he also takes advice from Fox on how he should conduct policy.

Fox host Sean Hannity made clear in a phone call and on his show that Trump must draw a harder line on broader immigration enforcement as his price.

Trump sided with Hannity, according to a person close to the White House. The result was a list of demands unveiled Sunday night — conditions seemingly guaranteed to thwart a bipartisan deal.

It’s not just the positions where Fox is actively pushing the narrative that represent a threat. Even simply filing down the truth to take away all the edges that might irritate Trump represents an overwhelming threat. Trump’s strange confidence that the Russia investigation is winding down, and that the only people in trouble are Comey and, remarkably, Hillary Clinton, is easy to understand when it’s passed through the filter of an outlet that never even suggests that an alternative view is possible.

Of course Trump is fine! Everyone knows that. Of course Comey is evil! Everyone knows that. Just as they know that Comey, Rod Rosenstein, and Robert Mueller are all “Democrats” who were sympathetic to Clinton and prejudiced against Trump. Because Fox told them so.

This poses problems of two sorts—Trump may act against the special counsel investigation, confident that he has the backing of the American public. This could involve anything from encouraging congressional effort to interfere with or de-fund the investigation, right up to Pirro levels of handcuffs for those who don’t demonstrate the proper allegiance. There is also the strong possibility that Trump will react to any action by the Mueller investigation as if simply levying charges is itself a crime.

But in both cases, the feedback loop in place between Fox and Trump represents a fundamental threat. It’s more than a mutual admiration society. Worse than an echo chamber. It’s an amplifying device that makes both sides worse, day by day. It’s already enabling the demeaning and diminishment of the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and the special counsel. Fox also enables and accelerates the way in which the State Department, EPA, Interior Department, and other agencies have been gutted and turned into active predators of the resources they are supposed to protect.

And the Hannity phone calls and Fox & Friends tweets are just the visible part of this iceberg. Fox is well known for its practice of developing a set of talking points each morning which are then incorporated, repeatedly, across the day’s programs. This is still Fox practice. But … in the Trump era, a new question looms—one being asked by a growing number of White House observers: How much involvement is there with the Trump team in developing those talking points? It seems entirely likely that there is someone in the Trump White House who regularly coordinates with Fox to develop these points for the the next day; that in addition to the feedback we can see between Trump and Fox, there is still a buried pipeline that connects the two sources of power and policy.

Propaganda is one of the most dangerous tools mankind has ever created. Fox is worse.

Mark Sumner


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