An Opinion piece by Tobin Smith, a former Fox News contributor and guest anchor. Reprinted from the NYT with permission of the author.
In anticipation of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s recent public testimony in the House’s impeachment inquiry, the Fox News host Laura Ingraham and a guest concocted an insulting fantasy on her show: the idea that Colonel Vindman might be a Ukrainian spy.
It may have shocked a lot of Americans that Fox News televangelists and establishment conservatives like John Yoo are spinning the “narrative” of the courageous Colonel Vindman — a man who put his country’s interests ahead of his own — into one that suggests, as an immigrant, he wasn’t loyal to the United States. But as a former Fox News opinion talk-show guest host and contributor for 14 years, it didn’t shock me.
I can explain the art and purpose behind throwing a Purple Heart veteran under the Fox News bus. First, we must talk about narratives.
In my time at Fox News, narratives were weapons of mass emotional manipulation, what the Nobel laureate Robert J. Shiller defines in “Narrative Economics” as “contagious stories” — as he put it in a paper of the same name, “a simple story or easily expressed explanation of events that many people want to bring up in conversation or on news or social media because it can be used to stimulate the concerns or emotions of others, and/or because it appears to advance self-interest.” One recent report said that we find information or misinformation “22 times more memorable in narrative form.”
There’s little in this world that has the emotional manipulative power of a good tribalized — us versus them — narrative. It’s a contagion, and thanks to social media, or “participatory propaganda,” highly viral.
The Fox News counternarrative model is as simple as it is cunning. The segment producer’s job is to get the answers to two questions: What is the most emotionally engaging story we have right now (in 2019, that’s the most recent damaging attack — House impeachment hearings — on President Trump). The next question is, how do we construct a counternarrative that includes as many existing other believable meta-narratives as possible?
The hunt for the killer narrative starts with the “Morning Memo” to the producers. It shares the interpretation from the vice president of news of the highest-trending articles on Foxnews.com and Drudge. In the old days, the memo from the C.E.O. Roger Ailes dictated the narratives of the day. The next move is to get a few Fox News contributor regulars — elected officials and paid pundits — not just to deliver the new counternarrative but also to wrap it inside an existing or new meta-narrative.
What do the ratings tell the producers are the most engaging meta-narratives for the over 80 million Fox News viewers on all digital platforms?
Why do people love conspiracy stories? It’s human behavior. Being in on a good conspiracy theory makes you feel like you know something the other guy — in this case, any liberal — does not. The emotional payoff from being on the inside of a conspiracy is a self-esteem jolt that makes you feel smarter than your tribal foe and keeps your eyeballs glued to screens — television, laptops, tablets, cellphones — where the network makes money from advertising.
The Vindman coverage followed the Fox News conspiracy segment playbook perfectly. In the days after Fox News produced it, the spy tale was distributed by other dealers of conspiracy theory. Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida tweeted that “Donald Trump is innocent. The deep state is guilty.” The congressman’s message was amplified by an account tied to the online conspiracy movement QAnon to 160,000 of its followers as well as posted on a QAnon Facebook page.
If some of those who consumed the story go back to the original source, Fox, it’s more business for the network.
Every successful Fox News segment producer has the conspiracy script down cold. These segments work best when the “proof” of a conspiracy against a tribal leader — in this case the Republican president — makes the viewer feel under attack as well. It elevates the fight-or-flight juices. And it helps when a proposed conservative thought leader mixes in the meta-narrative to the effect that “we are victimized again by the condescending Beltway elites.”
Weaponized and tribalized political video narratives in the hands of Fox News producers can become something like drug-abuse epidemics — keeping addicts of that conspiracy theory high and coming back for more.
Believing in conspiracy theories is a psychological construct for people to take back some semblance of control in their lives. It inflates their sense of importance. It makes them feel they have access to “special knowledge” that the rest of the world is “too blind,” “too dumb” or “too corrupt” to understand.
And that is why they wrote Colonel Vindman into the wrong side of a spy novel.
Tobin Smith is the author of “Foxocracy: Inside the Network’s Playbook of Tribal Warfare.”