on giving content to Fox News

The Fox News website has published four op-eds of mine over the years (“Federal citizenship test: What should a good citizen really know about America?“; “ObamaCare and Millennials: Why lessons of 2014 will last a lifetime“; “What bipartisan budget agreement suggests for future of American democracy“; and “GOP’s future could depend on Romney and your kids“). I believe I also appeared on the Fox TV network once in 2012. When people see these stories on my Facebook page or posted on other people’s pages, the venue–Fox News–draws the most attention. Some assume that the author is a right-winger and attack my position without reading it. Some are perplexed–or pleased–that Fox would run these stories.

I’ve had entirely positive feelings about appearing on Fox. (I also go on conservative talk radio for similar reasons.) But this isn’t a simple matter, and I understand where the critical reactions are coming from.

I would be the first to decry the impact of Fox on our national political culture and on public opinion about specific topics (such as climate change). Some critics may overestimate the political impact of the network; to a significant extent, a media business is a manifestation, not a cause, of public opinion. It mostly serves a market; it doesn’t create one. DellaVigna and Kaplan find that the rise of Fox News affected political outcomes, but not by much: the GOP gained up to 0.7 percent of the vote as a result of its growth.

But a case can be made that Fox has expanded the market for what my colleagues Sarah Sobieraj and Jeff Berry call “outrage,” which, in turn, has debased our political culture and made it harder for us to govern ourselves as a republic. Sobieraj and Berry define outrage as “efforts to provoke emotional responses (e.g., anger, fear moral indignation) from the audience through the use of overgeneralization, sensationalism, misleading or patently inaccurate information, ad hominem attacks, and belittling ridicule of opponents.” Outrage as a genre also has other notable characteristics: a celebrity voice, a purely editorial stance (no original reporting), ideological narrowness, skill at engaging viewers, and lots of mutual references among like-minded commentators. (See Jeffrey M. Berry  and Sarah Sobieraj, The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility.) Outrage sells, and Fox News has pioneered and expanded that market.

Fox does not pay its editorialists or guests who appear on the air. Thus I am not guilty of taking money from the network. On the other hand, I am giving them free content. If they are a malevolent force, one could ask whether that is the right thing to do.

I believe the answer is yes, for these reasons:

  1. It’s not a one-way relationship, with me giving them content. They are giving me and my organization a platform. It is an especially valuable platform for engaging people I might not otherwise reach.
  2. One of our problems as a nation is “outrage,” which is practiced on both the right and the left. Another national problem is the kind of right-wing politics exemplified by at least some of Fox’s hosts. But a third problem is polarization. If we stop trying to reach across the partisan divide, we are giving up on that third problem, which I am not willing to do.
  3. I endorse Archon Fung’s argument in “Deliberation Before the Revolution: Toward an Ethics of Deliberative Democracy in an Unjust World?” (Political Theory, Vol. 33, No. 3, Spring 2005). I’ve written at greater length about this piece before, but the basic idea is that you should presume that a powerful entity will deliberate with you until it specifically demonstrates that it won’t, at which point you are free to be strictly adversarial. You shouldn’t write them off because of their overall record or structure, but try to engage them until they fail to reciprocate. In game-theory terms, this is not a losing strategy, because you are free to disengage. It is rather a strategy for spreading deliberative norms as far as they will go.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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