How the American religious right pioneered propaganda as news
Before Fox News, there was Pat Robertson’s ‘700 Club,’ where I was an executive producer.
By Terry Heaton
So-called “fake news” took center stage on several occasions during former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. More than once, Comey pointed to specific articles by the New York Times as not true or completely false. However, he did validate others, including one in which he himself had been the Times’ source. The fake news meme has become one of the most troubling arguments in the history of contemporary journalism, ever since Donald Trump used the term to describe CNN at his first press conference as president.
Americans find themselves drowning in this unseemly and childish battle for the soul of news and information purveyance, and the undiscussed problem is that the entire mess is built on the false narrative of “the liberal (elite) press.” I know, because I was among the people who advanced the concept and shaped the discussion in the early ‘80s, as senior and executive producer of Pat Robertson’s flagship television program The 700 Club.
Before Fox News, there was The 700 Club with CBN News and “TV Journalism With A Different Spirit.” We knew what we were doing in the exploitation of the word “liberal,” and truth-telling demands its deconstruction today. The all-or-nothing split between conflicting political narratives has reached its pinnacle with the election of Donald Trump, and it needs to be hacked into a million pieces.
We knew what we were doing in the exploitation of the word “liberal.”
William F. Buckley was among the first to give the word “liberal” a pejorative interpretation, but it was the wordsmith William Safire writing for Spiro Agnew who in 1969 elevated it to a political talking point in his famous speech that opened the war against the press during Richard Nixon’s secret battles in Vietnam. The word became the central weapon in a strategy that involved attacking the messenger instead of changing the message.
That political strategy has been so effective to date that it has given birth to the idea that mainstream news is actually “fake news” and not to be believed in the administration of President Donald Trump. The number of people who now believe this falsehood is staggering, and it poses a real threat to our democracy.
At The 700 Club, we exploited attacking the press in order to insert ourselves to the right of everybody else in presenting a Biblical, a.k.a. Republican perspective on current events. We offered a daily news program that expressed Republican party talking points that we marketed as a Christian worldview. Thus began the shifting of evangelicals to the GOP and the shifting of the GOP to the right. We served as the intellectual wing of the Moral Majority, although there was no theological love lost between Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
“Right-wing news” is oxymoronic.
So let’s look at these events closely, because it has a direct bearing on the conflict today. Let me be very clear: the right-wing “news” that we created was a political response to the progressive nature of news and information. It’s important to understand this, because “right-wing news” is oxymoronic. There is no such thing, because the right represents olds, not news. By definition, news is new, and new is progressive. That conservatives view this as a bias is fine, but elevating that to some evil command-and-control mechanism for political liberals is a false narrative. Rush Limbaugh has made a living off of this phony hegemony, as well as Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and whole host of mostly broadcasting personalities. Why? Because it sells and has been selling for almost 50 years.
But it’s entirely false, for the press is not the purveyor of fake news. That title belongs with those who create stories for political gain and clickthroughs. It may be politically expedient to label the mainstream as fake, but in order to do so, one’s source must be propaganda and nothing else. To us in the early ‘80s, it was easy to stake our claim in the world of journalism without complaint, because the press thought us outside Hallin’s Sphere of Legitimate Controversy and therefore unnecessary to cover. In his 1986 book The Uncensored War, Daniel C. Hallin identified three spheres of coverage by the Washington press corps.
Ron Powers once said of us on CBS Sunday Morning that we were “so slanted as to be vertical,” but for the most part, we operated without notice, which gave us the time to write our playbook, the one borrowed in order to create Fox News.
The editorial commentators of media companies determine their political leanings, not the content of the news itself. To behave otherwise is a violation of journalistic ethics and tenets, and no self-respecting news outlet would deliberately compromise its relationship with viewers or readers for political gain. It’s just not their cultural role. Only political propagandists are permitted such luxury, and where that is disguised as news, it cannot be trusted. And yet many people do, because their ears have been trained by people such as myself to identify clever social engineering as information they need in order to get back what they feel has been taken from them or get what feel they deserve from life.
We need to grow out of childish ranting that “Billy started it” or “everybody is doing it too” and let our inner adults take over. Democracy doesn’t stand a chance without an independent Fourth Estate.