The Facts Won’t Save Us

The Daily Show lied to us. Defending "the facts" and debunking Fox News are no substitute for politics.

The news ticker at Fox News headquarters scrolls headlines before Special Counsel Robert Mueller makes a statement about the Russia investigation, May 29, 2019 in New York City. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

How about a “Fox News for the Left?”

Anyone following US politics during the past fifteen years has probably encountered this phrase, or something resembling it, on more than one occasion. Often appearing in the wake of Democratic electoral defeat, the apparently straightforward notion of a “Fox News for the Left” actually contains within it a whole suite of narratives and assumptions about American politics that have long informed the conservative movement’s opponents in the liberal mainstream.

Chief among these, and most obvious, is the idea that what liberals need more than anything is an institutional answer to the Fox media network itself: a secret weapon frequently deployed against Democrats to devastating effect. That argument naturally extends to the wider infrastructure of American conservatism, from its various partisan outlets and rage generators to the endless cavalcade of celebrity demagogues it has successfully turned into national figures.

In a 2017 essay for the Columbia Journalism Review, for example, the Nation’s Mark Hertsgaard declared: “[It’s] past time to build a countervailing independent-media infrastructure . . . to bring professional, truth-telling journalism to large numbers of Americans, many of whom trust neither Fox and Friends nor the mainstream media to tell the truth.” Aptly titled “Creating a Fox News for the left,” Hertsgaard’s essay centers the conservative media machine as 2016’s “veritable kingmaker” and an “indispensable” force undergirding Trump’s surprising victory.

Whether we accept this analysis or not, what matters for now is its long-standing presence in accounts of Democratic electoral misfortune going back at least to the Bush era. Then as now, Republicans generally dominated the US government, aided in their efforts by an influential media apparatus fronted most prominently by Fox. Likewise, then as now, partisan liberals and other opponents of the administration were stressing the imperative for some kind of truth-based countermeasure. Consider this passage from the April 2005 issue of the Atlantic:

Most Democrats consider the emergence of liberal talk radio a vital precursor to any return to power. They are unified in the belief that they must build a political “infrastructure” . . . to compete with the Republicans’, and many activists say that liberal talk radio, though still in its infancy, is already the most mature component.

During the Bush era, this belief would produce the ill-fated Air America radio network, fronted by Al Franken and variously billed as “the Left’s alternative to conservative talk radio” or the “progressive answer to Rush Limbaugh.” It would also, less directly, animate the far more influential Daily Show and its spinoffs: officially nonpartisan, broadly liberal, and generally taking aim at conservative media in their satire.

While these efforts (and countless others in the same vein) diverged somewhat in tone, emphasis, and style, each drew on the same basic assumption about why Republicans win and Democrats lose; and, more broadly, about why conservatism had made inroads in American politics while liberalism is repeatedly bludgeoned into submission and defeat.

In this all-too-popular account, the explanation is epistemological more than it is political: by creating an alternative media infrastructure, represented by Fox News and a revolving cast of demagogues, conservatives have effectively built an alternate reality immune to the facts. Equipped with its own knowledge systems — wherein climate change is a hoax, the forty-fourth president was born in Kenya, and taxes are a globalist plot — the conservative movement has been able to win the information war and put liberals on the back foot. It thus follows that the Republican Party’s opponents need analogous outlets and voices of their own, with a special emphasis on correcting the facts, marginalizing the conservative infrastructure, and rectifying the misinformation boosted by the Right.

Something like the same theory of American politics has come to enjoy broad purchase outside the partisan liberal realm. Various accounts of Trump’s victory, for example, have opted to center informational causes over strictly political ones, from Russiagate’s obsession with social media bots to the wider panic surrounding fake news. Relatedly, some have embraced the mainstream media itself as a fulcrum of resistance: the final guardian of facts and reason in an age of misinformation.

Obviously it would be wrong to understate the impact of the conservative movement’s terrifying media apparatus on the course of US politics. Outlets like Fox News have long waged a ruthless onslaught against scientific evidence, social science, and, in some cases, empirical reality itself, often with grave consequences. The signs are all around us, from the nihilistic refusal of GOP politicians to embrace climate change to the persistence of increasingly outlandish conspiracies on the right. Critical journalism and fact-based reporting are essential to a healthy media (though both are often undermined from within by corporate ownership and a profit-driven business model).

But conservative media being a problem does not make it the problem — at least in the sense implied by those who see a “Fox News for the Left” as the necessary cure. That’s because an ideologically sterile response melding “The Facts” with unwavering partisanship for the Democratic Party is a piss-poor substitute for a politics of solidarity offering both a clear analysis and a tangible program for change. Absent these, the idea of a politics rooted in The Truth fast becomes more partisan signifier than reality: “guns and religion” for blue state voters who read Heather’s Picks and binge-watch MSNBC.

Too often, this is exactly what has become of efforts to counter or lampoon the demagogues of the right. Accompanying the wholesale gentrification of American liberalism that began in the Clinton era has been a structuring belief that the most important binary in politics isn’t between left and right but rather between smart people and those too dumb to know what’s good for them. The smug and smirking affect that necessarily follows has long been a staple of liberalism’s cultural ecosystem — from cable news to late night comedy — and a liturgical obsession with The Facts, whereby objective reality always seems to bend toward a Democrat-voting, metropolitan liberal worldview, has tended to go hand in hand.

The phrase “Fox News for the Left,” after all, pretty aptly describes plenty of existing media ventures, provided that we take for granted the notion that “the Left” equals the Democratic Party. Rachel Maddow (who, incidentally, was a host on Air America) performs a nightly pantomime not dissimilar in its style and overall mission from the GOP-aligned pundits found on the actual Fox News, just in service to a different partisan cause. The same could be said of innumerable other liberal programs and talking heads, most of whom dutifully accept their designated role as a praetorian guard tasked with shielding Team Blue from the Republican hordes. Uncritical pro-Democratic partisanship invariably means externalizing its failures and weaknesses — and pushing the political causes of America’s many injustices and dysfunctions far from view in the process.

As the Intercept’s Lee Fang recently wrote of the Daily Show:

The Daily Show made tens of millions of dollars in ad revenue, transformed the minds of a generation of liberals into thinking that right wing cable programs and pundits are the only cause of America’s dysfunction. No analysis of class, economic power, or political corruption . . . Daily Show also provided a roadmap for a gazillion copycat liberal talk shows, cable programs, and lefty op-ed writers replicating the same simple case that our problem rests only with bad pundits and Fox News. It’s tedious and boring but it sells.

The outlook Fang so accurately describes isn’t just counterproductive and culturally reactionary, but wrongheaded on its face.

Republicans don’t ultimately win elections because people are stupid or live in an alternate reality courtesy of Fox News, (though the latter plays a role in making everything worse). They win elections because millions are poor, powerless, demoralized, and unrepresented in a bipartisan system built on deference to corporate America. The problems facing the majority of Americans — be they high health-care premiums, skyrocketing rents, racial prejudice, or student debt — are caused by politics, not epistemology.

Anyone looking to find a real antidote to conservative media demagoguery would be well advised to start there — and abandon the “Fox News for the Left” cul-de-sac once and for all.