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Fox News "Takeover" of the Capitol: When Politics Becomes Spectacle, Democracy is at Risk
It was a shocking sight. There was Fox News host Sean Hannity opening his broadcast from the Rayburn Reception Room of the U.S. Capitol, with Republican members of Congress flanking him as though he were a head of state. Then the view broadened to show the elegant room turned into a studio set. Now Hannity was perched on a stool at the center, like the ringmaster of a circus. And finally, Hannity announced his "breaking news": he would be interviewing House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
The party elites who served as extras in this spectacle showed submission not to McCarthy, but to Hannity, whose network had helped them all to get elected. "Americans, I give you...President Murdoch and the coronation of Fox News as state media," was my reaction on Twitter.
The Hannity special was the latest sign of a subordination of politics to spectacle that presents grave dangers for democracy by giving the media an outsized influence on politics and what counts as news. This is not a new problem. Neil Postman penned his fundamental book Amusing Ourselves to Death during the 1980s, when America had the actor Ronald Reagan as President. And Thomas Meyer's Media Democracy dates from 2002. It examines how media can colonize the political system, with its own rules and priorities coming to dominate the presentation of politics --for example, Hannity sitting in the Capitol, deciding when the House Speaker would speak and for how long.
Some of this is inevitable, given the incredible power of images and performance today. Jeffrey Edward Green has argued that today's citizens should be conceived as individuals who encounter and engage with politics visually: they are “spectators who relate to politics with their eyes.” It is also hard to overstate the power of social media in this regard. In fact, in social media terms, Hannity's spectacle might be considered a "takeover" by Fox News of the Capitol space.
Yet "media democracy," as Meyer calls it, threatens representative democracy. It weakens political parties and confers dangerous amounts of power on “the shadowy figures who hone the politician’s images” --what I was getting at in invoking "President Murdoch" in my tweet.
It also influences who has success in politics, in that the qualities, character traits, and talents needed to succeed as a leader increasingly align with those that generate media coverage. Those who know how to manipulate media and public attention and construct a winning persona excel.
It's no accident that many authoritarians have had that know-how in abundance. From journalist and Italian Fascist head of state Benito Mussolini’s newsreel performances to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Instagram stories to former President Donald Trump’s use of television and Twitter, illiberal leaders have relied on their communications channels with the public to maintain their personality cults and have their lies believed.
Far-right Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, owner of a media conglomerate that included television networks, set the gold standard here for the 21st century. As I recount in Strongmen, as he mainstreamed extremism by bringing neo-Fascists into the government (including appointing the neo-Fascist Giorgia Meloni, now Italy's head of state, as Minister of Youth), he also made success on his television programs an entrée to a political career. "Showgirls" who attracted large audiences became members of parliament, and comics who criticized him had their shows cancelled.
“Welcome back to the studio!” Trump said to journalists who attended a Cabinet meeting at the White House in 2018. The feedback loop he had with Fox News --the network repeated his slogans, and he amplified the messages of Hannity and others on Twitter-- helped to accelerate the process of turning politics into spectacle.
In Trump’s America, the legal and the illegal, fact and fiction, celebrity and politics blended together until nothing had any value outside of its ability to engender clicks and build audiences and all that mattered was delivering a convincing performance.
The nefarious effects of four years of this were seen in the reaction of CBS News journalist Norah O’Donnell to Trump’s Jan. 2020 State of the Union Speech. Although the speech contained multiple false statements about economic growth during his presidency, O’Donnell interpreted it as a triumph by “the reality TV president…a master showman at his best."
This set the tone for acceptance of the Big Lie (that Trump and not Joe Biden won the 2020 election) and its conversion after Jan. 6 into GOP dogma. It has also made possible the elevation of performance --the performance of lies, in particular-- into an ingredient for political success.
It's no surprise that fraudster George Santos was rewarded with appointments to the House Small Business and Science, Space, and Technology Committees, and that conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene will sit on the powerful Oversight and Homeland Security committees.
In 2018, White House aides jokingly referred to Hannity as Trump’s "unofficial chief of staff…He practically has a desk in the place." Five years later, Trump is out of office, but Hannity feels empowered to turn the Capitol into his stage and appear as a shadow president, ready to lead the Republican war on American democracy into its next phase.