CNN’s Avlon: ‘Potential Death Sentence for Democracy’ Tied to Fox News, End of Fairness Doctrine

Wednesday on CNN’s “New Day,” senior network political analyst John Avlon continued his “Fractured States of America” series, which analyzes the “extreme level of polarization” in America.

In this episode, Avlon focused on the media, which he argued was contributing to that polarization. He gave mention to the launch of Fox News and the lapse of the Fairness Doctrine as components to the partisan media.

Transcript as follows:

BERMAN: All week, CNN is taking on the extreme level of polarization in this country. We’re calling it “The Fractured States of America.” And no conversation about the division within the American people would be complete without discussing the modern American news media.

John Avlon here with a reality check — John.


Look, America is self-segregating into separate political realities, and partisan media is largely to blame. Look, we’ve always had partisan newspapers in America. It’s a fight that goes back to Jefferson and Hamilton. But we’ve never had anything with this kind of scale and scope, amplifying extreme voices and even reaching into the Oval Office.

So in today’s look at “The Fractured States of America,” we’re turning the camera back on ourselves, the news media.

Now, once upon a time, the government enforced something called the Fairness Doctrine, which kept partisan opinions balanced by their opposition. This was considered a public good, not just a profit center.

And there were some epic skirmishes like Ed Murrow squaring off against Joe McCarthy with detailed fact-checks and eloquent reminders that we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. But, Murrow versus McCarthy was the exception rather than the rule.

And even as conservatives began to believe there was an implicit liberal bias at the big three networks.

Jump ahead two decades, and that’s where Roger Ailes comes in. A one- time talk show producer turned Nixon political adviser, who pushed a political strategy called positive polarization. And while Nixon repeated the mantra the press is the enemy, Ailes envisioned the creation of an entirely conservative news network.

The game-changer came when the FCC stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, and Reagan vetoed bipartisan efforts to put it back. On radio, the impact was rapid. The most popular formats went from music to partisan opinion, becoming big business.

In 1996, Ailes finally got his wish with the launch of Fox News. The idea was simple and not a little sinister. Only explicit bias could balance the implicit bias of the mainstream media, but they sold it as fair and balanced.

The launch of MSNBC later that year created a partisan opinion arms race. But sometimes what’s good for ratings is bad for the country, and polls showed that the rise of partisan media led directly to a decline in trust for virtually all news organizations, even C-SPAN. That means that people watching things like this became unwilling to believe their own eyes and ears.

This decline in trust was compounded by the fragmentation of the media online, where more outlets pursued a narrow but intense niche strategy to keep their audience addicted with anger and anxiety. Social media accelerated the trend with bots and trolls who hijack civic debate with disinformation as we saw during the ’16 election.

And, President Trump is both a product of partisan media and one of its greatest consumers, denouncing uncomfortable facts as fake news, giving interviews primarily to partisan media, canceling regular press briefings, all while tapping more than a dozen Fox News figures for his own administration.

Even this impeachment inquiry today stems from conspiracy theories that were peddled by partisan media to the president. The trickle-down effect is deep civic distrust, with 78 percent of Americans now saying that Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on basic facts. That’s a potential death sentence for democracy, which depends on being able to reason together.

But even against this den of disinformation and hyperpartisan hate, real journalists will keep insisting on a fact-based debate because, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

And that’s your reality check.

BERMAN: And look, today, I think it’s particularly important, John. I hope people listen to these witnesses over the next nine days. Listen to what these officials have to say in their testimony and what they saw with their own eyes and then make a judgment.

AVLON: That’s exactly right.

CAMEROTA: I mean, it’s unfiltered. It’s unfiltered today. Today, because of the public hearings, you get to hear it with your own eyes without having to go through the lens of some sort of partisan media, and that’s the beauty of what’s about to happen.

Follow Jeff Poor on Twitter @jeff_poor


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