I have come to hate tipping points on the media beat. These days, it seems likes things never tip in the direction of getting better.
For the past three years, I have written too many times to count that we are in danger of losing our democracy. But this week after watching the televised impeachment hearings and the reaction to them by some of the major players in right-wing media, I fear we have already lost more of our democracy than we will ever recover.
One of the greatest challenges of the Trump era is summoning the strength to find and then express moral outrage at the things that no longer shock and surprise us.
I and others have been writing about dueling narratives and worldviews in the realm of cable news for decades. So, there was nothing particularly surprising Wednesday night after the first day of hearings to see Fox News running headlines like, DEMOCRATS IMPEACH THEMSELVES" or "DEMS' IMPEACHMENT COLLAPSE," during the Laura Ingraham show at 10 p.m.
MSNBC, meanwhile, carried these headlines in the same prime-time hour: FIRST DAY OF IMPEACHMENT HEARINGS TIES TRUMP MORE DIRECTLY TO UKRIANIAN PRESSURE CAMPAIGN" AND "REPUBLICANS SCRAMBLE TO DEFEND TRUMP AS NEW EVIDENCE TIES HIM TO UKRAINE PUSH."
Silos on the right, silos on the left. Take your pick. But they are so insulated and far apart today, that people in one can longer talk to or hear those in the other. Viewers on the right and viewers on the left saw the same hearings no matter which channel they watched. But with the help of spin provided by show hosts and "experts" on the channels they watched, many came to opposite conclusions about the meaning of what they saw.
Trump and his defenders owe great gratitude to their leader's rescuer, the individual publicly known only as The Whistleblower.
Were Republicans scrambling to defend Trump in the wake of the Democrats' two opening witnesses, William Taylor, ambassador to the Ukraine, and George Kent, a State Department expert on Ukraine? Or, were they gloating over the fact that the two had allegedly impeached themselves and caused the collapse of the impeachment effort?
Same images. Opposite interpretations. What are you going to believe? What you yourself saw or what your friendly cable show host said you saw?
That divide in perception and rhetoric is problematic enough when it comes to the kinds of national conversations we have in the wake of major civic events like the impeachment hearings. But the conversation became even more polarized, dangerous and debased Wednesday night during an interview on the "Lou Dobbs Tonight" show on the Fox Business Network.
While interviewing husband and wife lawyers Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, Dobbs teed up the State Department's Kent for his guests to take a whack at -- something diGenova was happy to do with a wild and totally unsupported conspiracy theory involving liberal investor and philanthropist George Soros, founder of the Open Society and a favorite target of the far right.
"George Kent is a separate issue. His motives seem peculiar to me," Dobbs began.
Republicans argue that Trump did no harm to Ukraine and never got his investigations, but that just exposes how weak he is as a leader.
Citing a Fox News contributor, Dobbs continued, "John Solomon reported in March that George Kent pressured Ukrainian investigators to back off an investigation from the anticorruption action center that a George Soros group sponsored. This is a complicated deal here. And it seems he wanted to keep an investigation of Ukrainian corruption with limits on it."
The bait was instantly taken by diGenova, who wasted no time in delivering the kind of anti-Semitism you might expect on an alt-right website like The Daily Stormer, but not mainstream cable TV.
"Well, there's no doubt that George Soros controls a very large part of the career foreign service of the United States State Department. He also controls the activities of FBI agents overseas who work for NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). That was very evident in Ukraine. And Kent was part of that. He was a very big protector of Soros," diGenova said.
And diGenova wasn't done yet with his conspiracy mongering.
"He corrupted FBI officials, he corrupted foreign service officers," the frequent Fox guest said of Soros. "And the bottom line is this: George Soros wants to run Ukraine and he's doing everything he can to use every lever of the United States government to make that happen, for business interests, not for good government business."
A thoughtful and comprehensive impeachment document could memorably capture the entirety of the case against this president, and stand as the enduring judgment of history.
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Wow. Beyond the sheer outrageousness and slander of the statement, the Soros part of it is steeped in the virulently anti-Semitic suggestion that corrupt Jews secretly control governments in the pursuit of money. That evil trope goes back to the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and beyond that to some of the darkest calumny of the Middle Ages.
And there it was in prime time on the Fox Business Network in 2019 passing as a conversation about the historic hearing earlier that day on whether Donald Trump's deserves to stay in office as president of the United States after allegedly using the power of his office to try and get a foreign leader to dig up dirt on a political opponent.
That's what political discourse has come to in the United States in this historic moment at the hands of right-wing cable hosts like Dobbs on a mainstream channel owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations, sent a letter to Fox referencing the slanderous attacks of Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s in demanding a retraction and the banning of diGenova from Fox.
"This is beyond rhetorical ugliness, beyond fiction, beyond ludicrous," Gaspard wrote to Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott. "It's patently untrue; it is not even possible. This is McCarthyite."
Gaspard's letter to Fox continued, "I have written to you in the past about the pattern of false information regarding George Soros that is routinely broadcast over your network. But even by Fox's standards, last night's episode of Lou Dobbs' show hit a new low.
As any parent of any 6-year-old can tell you, a simple test is available: If Trump did nothing wrong, why can't he get his story straight?
Fox has not responded to requests for comment.
And then there was Fox News host Sean Hannity Thursday night trying to get out in front of any mention of him by former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in her Friday testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. He threatened lawsuits from "the best lawyers in the country" against anyone who spreads "bogus rumors" that he was involved in any campaign to get Yovanovitch fired.
Both Kent and Yovanovitch mentioned Hannity in closed door testimony last month in connection with what they described as a smear campaign allegedly led by Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to get her removed as ambassador.
Remember how Hannity's name came up in the testimony of Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney? If Hannity and Fox News kept a proper journalistic distance from the political figures they talk about and cover on the channel, they wouldn't need to be hiring lawyers and threatening people this way.
I have long criticized platforms like Fox News for presenting pro-Trump propaganda as news and analysis. But what we now see with hosts like Dobbs and Hannity is something different and even more dangerous: seeding mainstream airwaves with conspiracy theories for which they have no proof. And that is more dangerous than propaganda according to Peter Pomerantsev, author of "This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality."
"The media manipulation of the early Putin years didn't try to convince you of a fabricated version of 'truth,'" Pomerantsev wrote in a recent New York Times article. "Instead, it worked by seeding doubt and confusion, evoking a world so full of endlessly intricate conspiracies that you, the little guy, had no chance to work out or change. Instead of conspiracy theories being used to buttress an ideology as under Communist rule, a conspiratorial worldview replaced ideology as a way to explain the world, encouraging the public to trust nothing and yearn for a strong leader to guide it through the murk -- a tactic that's as common in Washington these days as in Moscow."
That's the way those on the right are trying to undermine the impeachment hearings, not by arguing Trump's innocence, but rather throwing out conspiracy theories to confuse us about the allegations against Trump.
It's not Trump who should be investigated, they say. It's Kent and Soros and a "very large part" of the State Department, according to diGenova.
Or, it's former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukraine energy company who should be investigated. Indeed, Devin Nunes, the ranking minority member on the committee, went straight to the Biden conspiracy talk in his opening remarks Friday.
And if that wasn't enough disgusting behavior from the right Friday, we saw the ugly spectacle of the president of the United States attacking Yovanovitch on Twitter in real time as she testified Friday, alleging that, "Everywhere Marie Yovanaovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia. How did that go? ..."
From the dais in an impeachment hearing room in the halls of Congress, to the White House the anchor desks at Fox Business and Fox News, the conspiracies lies flow hot and heavy this week as our democracy ebbs.