Essay: Fact versus fiction – Parsing today’s increasingly devisive politics

POINT OF VIEW

ESSAYS

U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (centre) during an investigation into alleged communist infiltration of the government, 1954.


A Challenge Against Lies

March 9th of this year marked the 70th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s famous half-hour television broadcast in which he effectively put an end to McCarthyism in America by calling out Senator Joe McCarthy for what he was: a crusading anti-communist politician who would do anything and everything to root out what he felt was an evil in his country by any means necessary.

Edward R. Murrow

The broadcast largely uses McCarthy’s own words, recorded in both audio and video. Early in the broadcast, Murrow plays a recording of McCarthy saying a one-party system in America cannot survive, only to be followed by an audio recording in which McCarthy stated, “The issue between Republicans and Democrats has been clearly drawn. Is has been deliberately drawn by those of an entire twenty years of treason. The hard fact is those who wear the label Democrat wear it with a stain of a historic betrayal.”

The twenty years McCarthty referred to roughly corresponded to the election of Franklin Roosevelt as president, a left-leaning individual who was willing to try any and all social reform, some of which failed immediately, others of which endured well beyond his lifetime. To McCarthy, treason was being anti-American, holding such ideas or acting in such a way that would make it appear as though one might be a Russian communist sympathizer.

For McCarthy’s part, he was correct in saying that there were communist spies in the country. The CIA, during its long history under a variety of leaders, was continually found to harbor spies from Soviet Russia or to have its officers and information compromised by agents of that country. Despite its many flaws as a nation, the Soviet spy system was continually gaining advantages over its American counterpart. Meanwhile, Allen Dulles’ new agency fumbled about the in the dark, trying to arm communist resistance movements, installing foreign right-wing dictatorships, and engineering foreign elections to prevent leftist politicians in other countries from being elected out of fear that those politicians would soon join hands with Soviet Russia.


When describing McCarthy’s activities, Murrow said, “The Senator has been consistent, often acting as a one-man committee. He has traveled far, interviewed many, terrorized some. Accused civilian and military leaders of the past administration of a great conspiracy to turn over the country to communism, investigated and substantially demoralized the present state department, made varying charges of espionage at Fort Monmouth. The army says it has been unable to find anything relating to espionage there. He has interrogated a varied assortment of what he calls ‘fifth-amendment communists.’”

The accusations relating to Fort Monmouth involved a series of hearings between April and June 1954 in which McCarthy accused communists of having infiltrated the Army Signal Corps at the Fort Monmouth laboratory. The hearings brought forth a repudiation of McCarthyism from an Army counselor named Joseph Welch.

The issue was an attorney named Fred Fisher, who had belonged to the National Lawyer’s Guild, which was seen as representing communist clients. Fisher had been a member of Welch’s law firm, and had to leave the proceedings once McCarthy suggested someone should “look into him.”

This prompted the following response from Welch: “Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyers Guild… Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator; you’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Following Murrow’s See it Now program, McCarthy’s crusade against communism was over. The public turned against him. The Senate censured him. McCarthyism soon become a synonym for unsubstantiated, defamatory allegations.

Murrow’s reporting – the simple act of telling the truth and relaying the facts- set themselves in direct opposition to McCarthy’s various lies and slander, his fruitless investigations which appeared to have been driven by a hatred of anything on the political left. Murrow’s challenge to McCarthy’s lies would set up a line of demarcation in American politics that wouldn’t fully materialize until several decades later.


Rupert Murdoch

The Liars Gain a Foothold

Rupert Murdoch was an Australian businessman involved with various news organizations. At age 54, in 1985, he renounced his Australian citizenship and gained American citizenship in order to own a network television company, 20th Century Fox. As a long-tenured owner of various media enterprises, Murdoch proved to be successful to the point where he became a billionaire. Active for seventy-one years, Murdoch left an indelible stamp on media wherever he went.

Murdoch’s News Corporation launched a cable channel called Fox News in 1996. This station  arose as a counterpoint to the increasing popularity of cable news from Ted Turner’s station, CNN (Cable News Network). However, while Turner’s network initially did not have a political bias, Murdoch’s Fox News skewed to the right with Roger Ailes, a well-known conservative figure, serving as the company CEO. Ailes had previously served as a media consultant for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.

Over the years, Fox News established itself a place rife with sexual harrassment and rape with allegations between leveled against Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Charles Payne, and Eric Bolling. Fox News was there when, in December 2007, on the 234th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul held a fundraising event which he later cited to be the origin of the conservative Tea Party movement.

In January 2009, Barack Obama became president. This election animated the fledgling movement into a political force all its own. Fox News criticized Obama at every turn, sometimes using lies to do so. Fox News Insider gave air time to Donald Trump, who had spread a conspiracy theory claiming Obama was not an American citizen, insisting that a birth certificate be presented proving his citizenship. In 2011, Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks found that a commentators on Fox News and Friends had lied about Obama going to Japan to apologize for the nuclear bombings during WWII.

The liars on television and the liars in public office soon became difficult to distinguish from one another. The Tea Party movement, which started out as a fringe splinter movement in the Republican Party, soon became the party itself. Lying became a tactic to gain a real or perceived advantage over one’s political opponent; once they started down the path, both Republican politicians and Fox News could not stop themselves.

A $787.5 million settlement between Dominion Voting Systems and Fox News lead to the ouster of Tucker Carlson from television as a prime time show host. Fox News had given credence to Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen by suggested the voting machines were rigged. This claim has not only been proven to be false, it’s been proven that Fox News commentators knew it was false, and went along with it anyway.

Now, with a reputation as a conservative propaganda outlet, Fox News finds itself in a unique position: if it continues spreading falsehoods as it has done in the past, it may find itself on the wrong side of another multi-million dollar settlement. If it decides to tell the truth, it will find itself in the position of criticizing other Republican politicians who have gone along with Trump’s Big Lie. On the one hand, it stands to risk more lawsuits; on the other, it would lose the primary audience it has cultivated for twenty-eight years by changing the nature of its content.


Brigadeer General Donald C. Bolduc, of New Hampshire. Courtesy Photo

Telling the Truth Becomes a Political Act

Since Fox News and Republican politicians had spent so much time telling lies, such as GOP candidate Don Bolduc’s claim in 2022 that children were relieving themselves into litter boxes at school, telling the truth became a political act. In American politics, dominated by false dilemma fallacy thinking which assumes there are only two sides, the other side of a party telling lies over and over would be a party telling the truth.

A verbal contest between the two parties increasingly unfolds in this way: one side will tell a lie while the other side will cite facts to make a claim that appears to be truthful. However, instead of having Edward R. Murrow repudiate a liar on television for half an hour, the liars themselves are on television with no one to repudiate them on their own programming. Repudiation comes from another program, which creates the image of ideological combat between one and the other over what the facts actually are.

Led by Donald Trump, who has thus far never apologized for anything and continues to blame others for his own misfortune, the Republican Party finds itself in a place where it must become the dominant power in the land in order for its lies to become accepted as truth. 

Rather than reverse course and say they might have been wrong- even as an increasing number of Trump allies are sentenced to prison– the Republican Party maintains its course. Even as George Santos was expelled from Congress (with 105 Republicans voting in favor), the party has yet to detach itself from liars.

Responding and repudiating the lies has made Democratic politicians reporters in their own right- spreading factual information. Clashes between lies and truth can be seen in Congress between Republicans and Democrats, such as when Senator Jamie Raskin from Maryland challenges false statements on a regular basis. One example: Raskin challenged a Republican congressman who believed the 2nd amendment allowed citizens to take up arms against the government if the government was acting unjustly.

This environment of debating over facts has created an environment in which cooperation between two sides becomes increasingly difficult. While Republicans see their supporters and members indicted, expelled, and prosecuted, they themselves plan to take revenge by using the law as a bludgeon against those whom they dislike. The act of running for political office thus becomes less about serving the people and more about gaining enough power to enforce the law or break the law with impunity; to run the government based on factual information or loyalty to the leader’s person and positions; to keep news reporting as it is or to subvert it to the will of the ruling party; to maintain democracy or destroy it.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been the subject of conservative ire for years (even after his retirement) said in a CBS interview, “Do not accept and shrug your shoulders at the normalization of untruths, because we’re living in an era now- there’s so much distortion of reality, outright fabrication, lying, conspiracy theories, that it’s so prevalent that people sort of shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Well, nothing to do about it, it’s the new normal.’ No. Do not accept that as the new normal. Because whenever you have the acceptance of untruths and distortions ultimately it’s going to erode at the foundation of the social order and our democracy. And I think history has shown that.”