• The Contextual Issue
    The Contextual Issue
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    My Fox News Addiction

    How I ended up on air.

    Every day starts the same. After the stretches and groans that seem to have increased substantially since my 30th birthday, I stumble to the couch and grab the remote. Comcast HD channel 950 – known worldwide as the Fox News Channel – is my destination. If I was particularly gluttonous the night before I don’t even have to enter the numbers because reruns of the Big Ones – O’Reilly, Hannity, Kelly – will have preceded my slumber. Three less buttons to push for me. For my girlfriend, the sight of Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade, and Elizabeth Hasselbeck on the Fox and Friends couch is too much to take first thing in the morning. On the days when she makes it to the remote before me, I feel a slight panic and a tinge of guilt because I know what’s coming next: “Really, Justin?” And my response:

    “Sorry.”

    “I can’t help it.”

    “I know it’s bad for me.”

    “But it’s so good!”

    Blank stare. Channel flip. She holds the remote like a disappointed mother who has just found a needle and spoon behind the toilet. Her indignation is well-deserved. When pressed by her, and by my friends and family, I consistently fail to come up with a reason for my viewing habits.

    I don’t consider myself too invested in the politics of the left, but my opinions on current events cause most people to put me in the liberal camp. I bristle at calls to build fences to keep people who are fleeing South American countries out of our own. Even though I’m a product of white privilege I also acknowledge its existence, something you won’t find in most conservatives. I’ve spent a significant portion of my career reporting on crime and the lives of the marginalized. What I’ve seen and heard while working on those stories has only reinforced my belief that capitalism is a system that serves the powerful and afflicts the weak. This worldview permeates my work. I have been accused of advocacy journalism (for this series) and did not shy away from the charge. For these reasons and others, my friends and family have every right to wonder why I watch Fox. At least one has floated the idea that I’m a closet conservative, but most just consider it an especially crazy quirk of my personality. I have never been able to provide an answer, but I know this: they have a word for people who can’t explain why they do things they know are bad for them – addicts. My name is Justin, and I’m addicted to Fox News.

    On October 7, the channel celebrated its 18th birthday. I know this because throughout the day each show in Fox’s daytime stable ran a segment marking the occasion. Here was a wide shot of the Times Square studio, the one they fade into each morning as Fox and Friends comes on the air, with the red-lettered news ticker running around the side of the building. Inside, via grainy, pre-HD images, barely recognizable newsmen in the wide-shouldered suit jackets of the mid-90s sat on a couch, ready to share the morning news with the world. This, and the ensuing 18 years of success, were made possible by “two great men,” Gretchen Carlson said that day, “Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes.” She smiled wide as she said this and I couldn’t help but agree. Whatever your opinion of Murdoch and Ailes, you can’t deny their contribution to American politics and broadcast journalism. Many consider the pair and their network modern-day yellow journalism, but for me Fox News is an experience that begins as entertainment and background noise, and ends with incredulity and anger. It’s so bad it’s good, and I couldn’t quit it if I tried.

    My Fox News addiction began in earnest in 2009 with the Glenn Beck Program. But, like my work as a reporter, can probably be traced back to my news-centered childhood.

    My father is a man of routine. The local paper and the Wall Street Journal join him for breakfast each day. And at 5:30 pm, you will find him standing in front of the TV, a Manhattan in one hand and the other loosening his tie, while NBC Nightly News recounts the most important developments of the day. As a child I always had some meaningless-in-hindsight but monumental-at-the-time story to tell my father.

    “Hey dad, I —”

    “Shh, hang on. I want to hear this.”

    Countless times during my youth the same interaction took place until I learned not to interrupt his news watching. 

    Rockets painting the sky green as we invaded Iraq. Troops on the move in Bosnia and choppers in Somalia. The final collapse of the Soviet Union. O.J. Waco. The Oklahoma City bombing. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” All played out in front of me as my father listened intently. None of those defining events of the 1990s would likely be memories had he not chided me for interrupting his intake of news. It impressed upon me that it is important to be informed. That some things can wait. That the world is a much bigger place than what you see in front of you. All reasons, according to him, why I shouldn’t be watching Fox News:

    “I think there’s something wrong with you,” he says.

    Clearly.

    Until recently, I’d been removed from my habit – more than a year without cable TV prevented me from consuming Fox at my current, dangerous level. But like an alcoholic who cracks a beer for a friend only to learn that it will prompt a relapse, I’ve found that having cable is too much temptation to stay away. If I have access, I will watch Fox. And I will watch it all damn day.

    Since I work from home, this is a luxury I can afford. But for a long time, thanks to eight-hour workdays that kept me away from the comforting red-white-and-blue glow of Fox, I wasn’t able to absorb the frighteningly intoxicating combination of paranoia and outrage provided by the channel’s personalities. In those days, when I came home in the afternoon looking for a newsy fix, I turned to the Glenn Beck Program. 

    Beck provided some news on his short-lived 5:00 pm slot on Fox. But the hour-long show was mostly filled with winding conspiracy theories. Often those theories had President Obama pulling the wool over Americans’ eyes and selling them lies that would end in the demise of our great republic. Obama’s presidency, Beck would tell his viewers each day, if allowed to take its course unhindered, spelled the fall of the American empire and marked our moral decay. That is not hyperbole, although it may sound like it. I know Beck made these dire warnings because I watched. I listened. None of Beck’s theories really made much sense but that was never the point. I heard Beck out each day because I was invested in him, not his delusional ravings.

    Glenn Beck’s hold over me has its roots in my own desire to hear the thoughts of the marginalized. I listened to Beck the same way I’ve stopped to hear what the raving mad man waving a Bible on the street corner had to say – maybe he’ll say something brilliant. In Beck’s case, this never happened. But his antics kept me coming back. I've seen him cry on live TV.

    Beck’s monologues, often accompanied by apocalyptic imagery that combined historical atrocities with modern American politics, were at times impossible to turn away from. I stared in amazement as Nazis marched across the screen just seconds before prominent American politicians at four in the afternoon on the biggest fucking cable news network in the country. I was shocked then and I’m still confused as to how Beck got away with all of this. Knowing I was alone in my home didn’t prevent me from looking over my shoulders in “Are you seeing this?” disbelief. That’s how crazy Beck’s show was – it made me look for phantom friends and talk to myself. I can’t imagine what it did to people without the means for such self-reflection. But many clearly followed Beck to The Blaze, where they fill comment sections with the vitriol of a Klan meeting and the paranoia of a 9/11 truther on bad acid. 

    Like all trips, psychedelic or otherwise, Beck’s program on Fox came to an end. It turns out that even Fox had a limit to how much insanity they were willing to dump on the over-burdened and under-read minds of the American people. 

    Beck serving as my introduction to Fox is akin to injecting heroin into your eyeball before ever having a puff of weed. There is simply no way that anyone on Fox – no matter how hard they try – can compete with that intense of a high. This is probably why I keep watching, waiting in hopeful expectation of another round of the glorious and irresponsible brand of chaos Beck brought to the network. I’ve come to terms that it’s not likely to happen, but I’m content with Beck providing an introduction to Fox’s other prime time players, and the theme they all operate under: “The Real America,” to borrow a phrase from Sarah Palin.

    While covering the unrest in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown, I was asked if I’d be willing to appear on radio or TV. Events were unfolding so quickly that media outlets were looking for anyone and everyone to go on camera and talk about what was happening there. I was happy to oblige, despite having never been interviewed by anyone other than small town radio hosts. Never did I think my agreement would mean an appearance on Fox, but that’s exactly what happened. And so, on a sticky August night in a Target parking lot, I made my Fox News Channel debut – first with Shepard Smith, then Megyn Kelly. Friends and family were blowing up my phone – “Your dreams have finally come true!” – and the Facebook post announcing my impending appearances got more likes than anything I’ve ever done. 

    I played it cool, not telling Shep that I refer to him by that nickname, that I’d love to tailgate an Ole Miss game with him, or that I consider him to be the only normal person on the network. I also didn’t mention to Kelly that I liked her better with short hair. Or that what she chose to name her children – Yates, Yardley, and Thatcher – is quite possibly the most obnoxious thing about her (and that’s saying something). Instead, I stood there in a Hanes t-shirt bought earlier that day from Target (since I’d run out of clean clothes and did the correspondent-on-the-ground thing). But the combination of fatigue and nerves outdid the knowledge I’d gleaned from years of Fox News viewing. I managed to get the last word with Shep – not exactly a noteworthy achievement considering his interviewing style is rarely confrontational. But when Kelly ended our hit with one of her famous takes, the air left my lungs, and I felt the heat on the back of my neck that only comes with enraging Fox News statements. I’d been had.

    “There’s a lot of witness statements that say [Brown] was in the process of surrendering when he was shot and therefore probably shouldn’t have died,” I told Kelly, who came back with this:

    “And yet many of those witnesses have already been inconsistent in the testimonials they’ve offered about the events. And that’s why this needs to play out in a court of law as opposed to having people call for the condemnation of the officer, who is under threat tonight with respect to his own life after six years of serving his community without incident, we are told. Nobly, and without any disciplinary incidents. Thank you, Justin.”

    All I could come back with was “Yup.” Then I returned to earth. The producer helped me unclip my earpiece and I wandered over to my girlfriend who hadn’t heard Kelly’s side of the interview. I was stunned. I felt utterly alone.

    “I can’t believe she did that,” I said of Kelly as I told my girlfriend what had happened. 

    “You should have known that was coming,” was the obvious reply.

    It wasn’t enough that I refused to be goaded into an argument, that I tried to be as objective as possible knowing fully well that sharing my actual opinions would have resulted in Kelly talking over me and making me look like a babbling fool. She still got what she wanted.

    “Nobly, and without any disciplinary incidents,” her voice repeated in my head.

    “Yeah, from a police department that once sued a guy for bleeding on officers’ uniforms after they beat the shit out of him!” I thought. But my riposte was too late. 

    No matter. I joke that I now have beef with Kelly. And I still watch her show every night. 


    I asked for help recently. Not in quitting my habit but in defining it. “Can anyone help explain my fascination with Fox News?” I asked on Facebook. “The certainty,” a friend wrote. And he’s exactly right. What makes me so helplessly addicted to Fox is its brashness. The people who work for Fox, either by default or through training, believe so fervently in their overall rightness that it makes usually reasonable people like myself tune in. I am the liberal husband and Fox is the conservative father-in-law, and every day is an explosive argument over Thanksgiving dinner waiting to happen. (Jon Stewart also falls victim to this dynamic, repeatedly sparring with Bill O’Reilly, one of the most dense and infuriating television personalities to have ever existed.)

    But the certitude with which the various personalities of Fox operate isn’t born of academic or cultural elitism, at least not on the surface. That Fox News purportedly represents “The Real America” is a mentality that pervades the network, but in some cases it’s entirely false, a mirage best exemplified by Gretchen Carlson.

    A former host of Fox and Friends, Carlson has now taken over the 2:00 pm slot, and the “My Take” portion of her show has become the highlight of my daily Fox intake. Carlson’s folksy musings recently included a hot take for the “punks” (students) of a Denver school district, who were protesting a change in curriculum that critics said presented a too-rosy view of American history. On our grand country and this affront to her honor, Carlson told the student to, basically, love it or leave it.

    “The last time I checked, we were still living in the United States of America, where we have a national anthem and an American flag,” Carlson started out that day, noting entirely correctly that we do have both a song and a flag that are all about our country. “Are they the next things to be controversial and talked about being thrown out?”

    No. Not at all, I thought to myself. But I kept listening.

    “[The new curriculum] would also encourage that there be no disregard for the law. Isn’t that why we have laws on the books? Or have we come to the point where breaking the law is now an admirable choice?”

    The books, folks, are there for a fucking reason.

    “Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for freedom of speech and the ability to gather and state your claim. But, quite frankly, if you don’t like it here, and you have a problem with promoting the basic freedoms that men and women have died for – protesting for the rest of us and protecting us – then get out.”

    Such stirring words probably caused many viewers to pump sausage-knuckled fists into the air, but they left me staring open-mouthed into the blonde void. 

    While Carlson has done an admirable job convincing viewers she’s as real as it gets, her background is more tony than most probably know. In addition to time spent at Stanford and Oxford universities, Carlson is an accomplished violinist, having performed “Zigeunerweisen, the violin composition of Sarasate,” on her way to being crowned Miss America in 1989. I’m one of the average Fox viewers who have never fucking heard of Sarasate, but I’m probably in the minority by knowing that Carlson’s background includes a lot more than learning how to speak into a camera. She’s an intelligent, well-rounded, culturally-sophisticated woman. But on Fox, she reduces herself to calling protesting high-schoolers “punks.” She battles against the non-existent “War on Christmas” and generally tows the line for a network that’s not as dumb as it looks, but is absolutely geared toward tickling the fears and stroking the egos of America’s dumbest.

    She is right, though. You can see the conviction in her eyes. The whole network is right about everything all the time. It’s that confidence that brings me back. That bravado in the face of overwhelming evidence against most everything being pushed by the network.

    In a hundred years, when students are learning about this era of history, there will be no mention of a groundbreaking Fox News report. But, I think, there will be plenty of knowledge of Fox News – the network isn’t going anywhere. They have convinced a significant portion of the American public that their voice is the only trustworthy one. Fox News is the parlor wall at Mildred’s house, where a vapid combination of news and entertainment played on while Guy Montag and Faber did their best to preserve knowledge in Fahrenheit 451. It is for this reason that I tune in each day – I feel I’m witnessing in real time the dumbing down of America. I have plenty of other news sources to keep me informed; Fox is there for entertainment. Distressing, infuriating, addicting entertainment. For me it’s a show, but for a hell of a lot of people it’s the exact opposite. Carlson’s new program provides the tagline for the network and the belief of its viewers. It’s called “The Real Story.”

    They say by the time you reach 30 your daily routine and the lifestyle you lead is the one that will carry you to the end. You are set in your ways, unlikely to change, and growing more ornery by the day. Like the Camel Lights I continue to puff, the pot of coffee each morning and the bourbon straight each night, Fox News is part of my routine. I know how it began, and like the foreign toxins provided by nicotine and alcohol, my addiction to Fox might be best explained by the chemicals of my own brain. Maybe a warning label should be required.

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