Gabe Sherman describes propaganda at Fox!

MONDAY, MARCH 10, 2014

And perhaps at that other channel: Earlier this year, New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman published The Loudest Voice in the Room, a strongly critical biography of Roger Ailes.

In January, Sherman discussed the book with Jane Hall as part of C-Span’s After Words series. We watched their discussion two weekends ago.

To watch the full hour, click here.

Late in the hour, Sherman and Hall discussed the nature of propaganda, especially as practiced by Fox. Sherman’s description was basic but interesting.

This is the way he began:
HALL (1/29/14): What about the idea of repetition, which is a classic in terms of driving a message. Do you see Fox as repeating the same message throughout the day?

SHERMAN: Yes, that is one of the principle techniques Fox uses is they develop story lines. You know, the health-care debate was a classic Fox News story line...

HALL: When you say story line, what do you mean? Good guys, bad guys?

SHERMAN: Yes, they develop it into simple plot lines. They develop adversaries...They develop these kind of, these characters who would be on the opposing side, and then they would build up their characters on the “pro” side. So George W. Bush as the president was the hero. They develop these story-lines and repeat them through the day. They start on Fox and Friends, they go through the news hour and then they’re continued in prime time. And you see that going back to TVN, they discussed how the repetition of stories can be a powerful propaganda technique.
Ailes worked for TVN, a Joseph Coors conservative media operation, way back in the mid-1970s.

In that passage, Sherman described a very basic type of “propaganda.” In this model, simple-minded “story lines” are created, with recognizable “good guys” and “bad guys.” These simple stories are repeated all through the day on Fox.

For what it’s worth, there’s nothing wrong with repeatedly covering a certain news topic throughout the day on a cable news channel. Sherman is describing something slightly different. He’s describing a process we ourselves have long described, in which simple-minded stories are handed to the public, with basic facts perhaps giving way to the need for simplistic script.

Is this the way Fox News operates? This is the way the whole press corps operated in the period on which we’ve done the most work, the late Clinton years and the twenty months of the Bush-Gore campaign.

As the conversation continued on C-Span, Hall seemed to suggest that MSNBC is perhaps developing a similar approach. It isn’t entirely clear what Hall meant, but this was Sherman’s reaction:
HALL (continuing directly): Well you know, you almost sense, if you watch MSNBC and Fox, sometimes you feel as if you’re watching parallel—

SHERMAN: It’s a fun house mirror.

HALL: —parallel universes...What do you see as the difference between what MSNBC is doing— Do they have, do they have—are they similar, or how are they different?

SHERMAN: Well, in many ways, they have outfoxed Fox on the left. I mean, MSNBC has decided that their business is as a progressive liberal talk channel. And I think that’s an interesting marketing strategy...

But what I think is interesting is that MSNBC is not as good as Fox. You know they—as, just as pure television producers, the programming is not as compelling, because they don’t have Roger Ailes’ unique talents. His ability to foster conflict, his ability to pick talent.
We don’t know what Sherman meant when he said that MSNBC has “outfoxed Fox on the left.” We don’t know if he actually meant that they have “out-Foxed” Fox in some way—if he meant they have adopted specific Fox techniques, or if our lower-case transcription is more appropriate.

At any rate, Sherman said MSNBC is not as good as Fox at the TV business. He said the liberal channel doesn’t have Ailes’ unique talents, though this was a bit of a left-handed criticism/compliment when you see one of the talents he cited—Ailes’ ability to foster conflict.

Shortly thereafter, Hall referred to a recent comment in which Ailes spoke well of Rachel Maddow’s work. For ourselves, we were already thinking of Maddow’s recent scandal coverage as Sherman sketched the outline of a type of cable news “propaganda.”

In our view, Maddow’s recent scandal reporting has been extremely strange. That said, we think her scandal reporting has always been strange. This isn’t always a party-line affair, although Maddow’s scandal coverage does tend to drift partisan.

When Maddow appeared with Bill Maher a few weeks back, she cited the amount of coverage she gave to the Rod Blagojevich trial. As we noted in real time, we thought her approach was peculiar in that case too.

What explains Maddow’s strangely repetitive scandal coverage, in which facts are sometimes invented or lost and guilt is assigned with great dispatch? We’ll spend some time the next few afternoons pondering that imponderable.

Tomorrow, we’ll return to Sherman’s portrait of propaganda—a portrait which neatly captures the simple-minded, repetitive way Maddow has covered the Fort Lee matter. We’ll also look at the Q-and-A in which Ailes voiced his admiration for Maddow’s work.

Later this week, we’ll look at some of the early profiles of Maddow, looking for other explanation for her peculiar approach to scandal reporting.

In her scandal reporting, Maddow tends to be free with her accusations, and rather free with her basic facts. In the current instance, liberals have been cheering her on.

We think that’s a bad idea. Your results may differ.


  1. Here's the problem Bob-oh. In your coverage of Maddow's scandal coverage you have been repetitive, free with accusations, and
    rather free with your basic facts. As a result, you have very limited credibility.

    1. Troll garbage.

    2. Fresh From the Troll Trash Can

      Somerby Facts:

      "as Maddow continues to clown and misstate" 3/6

      "On the Rachel Maddow Show, it became the occasion for some of the host's famous clowning" 3/5

      "When you see Maddow clown around and mislead you each night" 2/21

      "A heinous, clowning performance: MSNBC is slow today posting Rachel Maddow's transcript." 2/20

      "She created a segment on Maddow's show which wasn't straight out of clown college." 2/14

      "Maddow trumps pitiful Matthews: To appreciate the depth of last evening's scandal clowning," 2/13

      "Maddow loves to clown with these themes" 2/6

      "Rachel Maddow has become an undisguised clown." 1/28

      "Her ridiculous clowning on TV never seems to stop." 1/18

    3. Well now. Looks like you have hit repetitive and free with accusations along with fact free searching just one note of vitriol from the Somerby vocabularly.

    4. 354: do you come with English subtitles?

    5. Maybe if you imagine the word "with" might belong between "searching" and "just" it might make more sense.

      Subtitled? 3:54 says 3:50 played the "clown" word to win in the Repetitive and hit the trifecta.

    6. More trash from Trolls: The Accusation Waste Bin

      "On liberal cable, they hand us bullshit about New Jersey, a point we’ll continue to note all week. They wouldn’t stoop to discuss black kids if their own lives were at stake. 3/3/14

      "On the liberal cable channel, the various millionaire hosts would rather jump off the world’s busiest bridge—top deck!—than discuss such children’s lives and interests."

      "You couldn’t make them (Maddow, Matthews, & O'Donnell) discuss the needs and interests of black kids if you took all their children away. After all, they could always have more kids. At worst, they could always adopt! 10/15/13

      "But the children on The One True Channel would rather jump off the Eiffel Tower than stoop to the level of discussing our ratty public school students." 9/5/2013.

  2. Propaganda is the enemy of a thinking populace. Not because it rounds off the edges of facts to fit preferred narratives, but because it encourages people to relax, accept prepackaged messages and stop thinking. Little mental effort is needed to digest such stories because the good and bad guys are clearly identified and all the reasons to love or hate them are supplied, along with modeling of the appropriate affect (that's why folks like Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes must be animated instead of calm).

    In classrooms, some teachers don't care what opinions you hold as long as you reach them via thought and can support them with reasoned argument and facts. In others, teachers believe that their job is to make sure all students acquire the right set of opinions and facts because these are equated with understanding and knowledge. I think we need people to be reaching better conclusions using their brains more effectively, especially about important issues, but swaying opinion by disabling the ability to think is too big a cost to our society. We can become a technology-based totalitarian state and I wouldn't want to live in such a country. So it bothers me a lot when Maddow and liberals who support her (and MSNBC's other puppets) set our feet on that path.

    1. Nice criticism.

    2. I particularly like the propaganda free reference to puppets.

    3. Ooh! I like puppets. Really, just the muppets.

    4. Mr. Bungles was a puppet.

  3. I don't dislike her work that much, although I think her endless lead-ups and methodical explanations of background are tedious. I know it's supposed to be "wonky" and "geeky" but it's dull.

    I read a Bob Woodward book once and I had the same reaction. It's like they're reporting on "reporting", almost playing a role. It's disconcerting. They are too much IN this. I think they would do well to step back a few paces and let the recounting of events and recitation of statements and quotes do more of the work.

    We'll GET it. They don't have to lead us by the nose.

  4. The difference between MSNBC (actually liberals in general), and Fox is their tendency to obsess over issues that no one else gives a damn about. I have, by this point, lost any interest I had in a lousy two-day lane closure, especially when it isn't clear that Christie was directly involved. What I do care about is that America's top one percent owns most of the country and that mainstream American incomes are either stagnant or even falling. What I care about is that we are cooking the planet to a point where western culture may be unsustainable. What I care about is the destruction of our constitutional rights. What I care about is the profound ignorance of the average American as to how our tax dollars are spent and how the government actually works. These are major issues in which the fate of hundreds of millions of Americans hangs in the balance. Rachel Maddow is just a narcissistic money-grubbing careerist bitch who's hurting our country by distracting her audience with a bunch of insanely trivial bull shit.

    Fox on the other hand, knows how to pick its fights and how to lie (which I don't recommend but which you can't say lacks a track record of being at times most politically effective). In the run up to the Iraq war it painted opposition as favoring American weakness. Reasonable tax hikes are "job killing" (actually, no, they're not). Fox tells its viewers how liberals are supposedly hurting them. Maddow OTOH is all about intellectual snobbery and tribalism and speaks in a way that has virtually no hope of appealing to outsiders.

    1. Yep, Fox appeals to outsiders. Too bad that bitch Maddow doesn't.

      I too care about the 1 percent. That's why a movement to force Americans to think about that would probably garner much media attention and probably save the cdountry and thus the whole world. It would take a grass roots effort and involve people taking to the streets for days, but it would work.

    2. Fox has purpose and focus. Their coverage is specifically designed to advance a political agenda.

      The bridge story, by contrast, is supposedly all important primarily because dearest "Rach" is personally "obsessed" over it. Speculation regarding what Officer Chip might have said, and when he might have said it may make Rach giddy, but to the average person, especially the ones who decide elections, it has no importance.

  5. Reminds me of Noam Chomsky (A paraphrase by David Edwards): "Corporate power is in favour of 'law and order' (on its terms) and is certainly opposed to corruption, which acts as a drain on profits and interferes with the control of society."

  6. OMB (It's Not in the Mess Room Either BOB)

    We are so happy to find BOB discovering a book the third month into its publication. Since media issues are equal to, if not just ahead of, educational issues for BOB, we thought he would have been on to Sage's book faster than an old blogger jumps on a young scribe peddling piddle about Poland.

    Good thing there is no evidence in this post BOB has bothered to read the book or even get offended by its reviews. He saw it on TV. We're sure it was in living color. They don't make black and white telly anymore.

    "Later this week, we’ll look at some of the early profiles of Maddow, looking for other explanation for her peculiar approach to scandal reporting."

    Is this a teaser for the shrinking cap again? Has he found it after all this promising? We can't do more than hope BOB will put that on while treating us again to passages from People and other purveyors of personality profile puffery. What better way to look at the psyche of a piddle pushing pimp.


    1. "Later this week, we’ll look at some of the early profiles of Maddow, looking for other explanation for her peculiar approach to scandal reporting."

      Didn't we already "been there, done that"? Didn't this lead to the interesting dilemma of whether Maddow was a sharpshooter or totally inept with firearms? Plus the utterly revealing story of how she bought her first TV? Not to mention that interesting slice of "American discourse" when sharp-eyed Bobettes surmised that Maddow had to be lying about watching a black-and-white TV in 1980?

      And Bob calls Maddow "obsessed"?

      How many "early profiles" of Rachel Maddow has he found? Let's hope he's found some new ones. But that's never stopped Bob before.

    2. We may have suggested, as you clearly do, some repetitions is in our future as Readers of The OTB.

      Readers, can we talk? Gabe Sherman has written a biography about a man who has shaped how cable news has become 24-7 info-tainment. As BOB notes, the strong bent of this seems to be toward sensational and propagandistic instead of such truly necessary coverage of news such as slowly progressing school test scores. Surely this book deserves at least one post on its own merits or failings rather than use as the source for multiple posts on onemere hostess of a show in this genre which serves as the signal beacon for the collapse of out intellectual culture. After all, there were at many, many posts of young Amanda's Mark Twain ripoff novel "Huckstertested Finn and the Prince of Polish PISA. "It was a very big deal for BOBreaders.


    3. Thank goodness we have KZ here to defend Maddow and her spectacular journalism.

    4. So why is pointing out Bob's obsessive six-year "War on Maddow" have to be a defense of "Maddow and her spectacular journalism"?

      Fella, it has gotten to the point where he is looking for more ammo in "early profiles."

    5. You know, Anon @ 10:11 the problem many of the tiniest minded BOBfans have is an inability to focus on anything other than the object of BOB's propaganda. Thus two comments we directed almost entirely at BOB for his failure to treat Sherman's book seriously as a source of anything other than fodder for an attack become a defense of the person he has attacked.

      Nothing can better show the effects propagandists have on their fandom. We are only disappointed Anon @ 9:57 did not point out our love for the spectacular overseas school yarn of Amanda Ripley. It was a real page turner.


    6. Is Bob wrong about Maddow and the quality of her journalism during his 6 year war? That she follows scripts ala Fox and doesn't advance progressive interests? Do we believe that is not the case?

    7. Do we believe BOB knows best when it comes to advancing "progressive interests"? Do we believe BOBreaders can define "progressive interests"? Do we think BOB is justified to use the exact same quality of journalism and follow scripts as he criticizes?

      What explains BOB's strangely repetitive personality fixation, in which meanings of words from those to whom he is affixed are invented/inferred/suggested, or phrases are lost and guilt is regurgitated over dispatches from long, long ago? We’ll spend some time the next few afternoons pondering that imponderable.

      We just don't know. It is possible BOB is right. Everything and anything is.

      In the meantime, how likely is it that some younger dude with a suitcase who needs to take a leak takes an interest in your coffeeshop reading? This murky thought provoking matter is probed while he uses the plumbing.


    8. To answer your questions in order.

      Yes he is. No she doesn't. I have no idea what "we" believe.

      As Sherman points out, Fox built its audience on the entertainment of conflict -- O'Reilly screaming at his "guests" to shut up, and cutting off their mikes.

      The next time Maddow has a guest with whom she disagrees, watch how she handles it. Then perhaps you'll give up your "MSNBC is no different than Fox" absurdity.

    9. "Do we believe BOB knows best when it comes to advancing "progressive interests"?

      No. Like anyone, Bob is sometimes right and sometimes wrong about political strategy. Also, who cares? I read what Bob writes and then make up my own mind as to whether I agree.

      "Do we believe BOBreaders can define "progressive interests"?"

      No. Everyone will have a slightly different opinion about what "progressive interests" are and will value different interests differently. Also, who cares?

      "Do we think BOB is justified to use the exact same quality of journalism and follow scripts as he criticizes?"

      Too vague to answer easily. Bob's not a journalist so I don't expect him to call sources and independently confirm all facts. I also fully expect him to state his opinion and to write in a style that would not be appropriate in a newspaper. I also don't expect Bob to correct minor factual errors that aren't relevant to his main points (frankly I don't understand why newspapers bother either) but I do expect him to acknowledged any serious relevant factual errors. I don't expect Bob to avoid speculation or armchair psychology as I would a newspaper.

      As for scripts the perniciousness of scripts is that they get repeated throughout the press and become "facts." Bob is entitled to construct a script on his own and follow it. The only relevant question is whether the script is supported by facts.

      "What explains BOB's strangely repetitive personality fixation, in which meanings of words from those to whom he is affixed are invented/inferred/suggested, or phrases are lost and guilt is regurgitated over dispatches from long, long ago?"

      Even granting the premise, I don't think this question is knowable, relevant or interesting.

    10. 12:18 PM

      You feel Maddow does a good job as journalist?

    11. What is a "journalist" in the Information Age? As we found out during the "Rodeo Clown" incident, it can be just a guy at a state fair with a Smartphone and a Facebook account. (A point which continues to elude Bob).

      Maddow has a show which can be described as analysis/commentary. But she has also done some very good hard reporting on key issues that have gone under-reported. She (and her staff) pays attention to what's happening around the country -- such as the voter suppression efforts, the chemical spill in West Virginia and the coal ash spill in North Carolina, climate change, and yes, even (gasp!) real corruption and scandals.

      She has also gone past the "shout show" format invented by John McLaughlin in the 80s that once dominated such cable shows, especially during the Lewinsky era where you line up "guests" with opposing views and let them scream over each other. That format still dominates the competition on Fox.

  7. It's been a long, long time comin, but a Sage is gonna come:

    "Ten different mayors in fifteen years? Was that really such a large number?

    We wondered if Maddow’s claims and insinuations about New Jersey were accurate or reasonable. But alas! Answering that question requires reporting, something that almost never occurs when Maddow, a scandal propagandist, discusses the sewer of public corruption in this astonishing state.

    Tomorrow: Concerning propaganda, what Gabe Sherman said

    Posted by bob somerby on Monday, March 03, 2014"

    Make it 11 mayors, now Mr. Somerby. And this one really is a sewer
    of corruption.

  8. "When Maddow appeared with Bill Maher a few weeks back, she cited the amount of coverage she gave to the Rod Blagojevich trial. As we noted in real time, we thought her approach was peculiar in that case too."

    We have no idea what Bob means by "peculiar". He doesn't tell us.

    But if he is saying -- and again we have no idea -- that the Blagojevich scandal was also over-covered as is his consistent theme with the bridge scandal, well, when the governor of a state puts a U.S. Senate seat up for sale to the highest bidder, I'm not exactly certain how that could possibly be over-covered.

    It's a pretty big deal, Bob.

    1. Bob was very critical of Maddow and others then. I do not, however, recall a spirited attack on them for pointing out three of the previous six governors of Illinois had been convicted of crimes. Nothing from Somerby saying "hey, fifty-fifty are pretty good odds you got a good Governor" or anything of the sort.

    2. Over-coverage is blogger's primary theme in the bridge scandal, the quality of the coverage is.

    3. Well, when Maddow appeared on Maher's show a few weeks back, Maddow was responding directly to Maher's charge that MSNBC was giving the Bridge far more coverage than it deserved. "It isn't Watergate" he famously said.

      She also brought up Blagojevich as a direct response to the other numbnut on the show who accused her of covering this story so hard just to take the leading Republican out of the presidential race.

      Again, I do not know what Bob means by "peculiar" in regards to the Blagojevich coverage, but it is a constant theme -- though hardly his only one -- that Maddow is covering the Bridge at the expense of far more important stories. "She doesn't care about low-income kids," he famously said.

      So please, dear Bob fan, don't fall into the bad habit of your master and simply "disappear" facts before you.

      And that she has over-covered the Christie and the Bridge is a charge Bob has made repeatedly and endlessly. In fact, you can go back to his own Incomparable Archives where he called this whole thing a "ginned-up controversy" then later doubled down by saying it is nothing more than the product of a "scandal culture."

      And here is the sad thing. Bob is so stuck on that theme -- that everything is a phony scandal -- that he either can't tell a phony scandal from a real one -- Christie and the Bridge, Gov. Ultrasound, and even Blagojevich -- or he is too intellectually lazy to bother to discern.

      So much easier to dismiss them all as phony.

  9. Over coverage isn't ..