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How Fox News molds reality into a serialized TV drama

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Somewhere in the middle of last week’s presidential debate — you may remember there was a news cycle before President Trump was diagnosed with Covid-19 — I realized that to anyone who doesn’t subsist on a steady diet of right-wing news, a lot of what Trump said must have been incoherent nonsense. The president spent the entire evening firing off a jumble of talking points that seemed to have no center other than a very basic grievance with the way the world was mistreating his base.

Trump’s debate prep seemed to have consisted of watching a bunch of Fox News, which honestly wouldn’t be that different from how he seems to spend his time normally. But his performance further underlined, on a national stage, how central Fox News is to the Republican Party in the 21st century. It’s a really curious relationship, one that has seemed to become even more unavoidable since August, when the Republican National Convention lineup was so swamped by speakers best known to Fox News viewers that this very website ran occasional guides to who those speakers were, to inform those who aren’t avid fans of the network.

To watch Fox News at any given time is to step out of this reality and into another one entirely, where President Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis has been the most important news story in the country since last Friday, but only because it shows that the coronavirus isn’t that big of a deal. Or at least not so big of a deal that it could preclude this news on Sunday morning when other networks were focused on the president’s health:

What’s always been interesting to me about Fox News (and the many other conservative media operations that travel along in its wake) is how successful it is compared to similar news organizations on the left — both in viewership, where it’s routinely the number one cable news network, and in framing political narratives. Surely partisan news should be popular with people on the other side of the aisle, too, right? And it definitely can be. MSNBC has had some success playing to mainstream liberalism, while leftist podcasts are a booming market. But there’s no left-of-center equivalent to Fox News.

And one under-considered reason for Fox News’s dominance only becomes clear if you watch a bunch of it over time, as I have off and on for the past decade: It’s structured a lot like a serialized puzzle box drama, like Lost or Stranger Things.

How Fox News draws you deeper and deeper into a reality that it spins for you

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If you spend a whole week watching five consecutive nights of a given Fox News program, especially in the network’s primetime lineup, you may notice something unusual: It’s structured like a soap opera. “Storylines” — the president’s strength in battling Covid-19, say — are layered throughout the week in a way where they can temporarily pause with a “payoff” on Thursday or Friday that will carry viewers forward into the next week. This serialization keeps viewers hooked, which is good for the network’s ratings. But it also creates an irresponsible view of how the world operates.

Consider the following storyline about the supposed evils of antifa — the principle of fighting against fascism, which Fox News has redefined as a global organization with shadowy, undefined aims — that Tucker Carlson’s program has used over and over in the last few years. Across a week, it will run, roughly, “Antifa is bad”; “Antifa is a threat to Republicans”; “Antifa is a threat to America”; “Antifa is a domestic terrorist organization and should be classified as such.” You can easily swap in any other left-leaning movement or cause in place of “antifa.” The story beats are always the same.

This method of “storytelling” — define a threat, elaborate on the threat, then propose a solution to said threat that will require viewers to keep tuning in to see how the proposed solution plays out — pops up everywhere on television, from soap operas to professional wrestling to primetime prestige series like Game of Thrones.

And it’s a mainstay on Fox News. The network’s most popular programs function less like nightly news reports and more like serialized dramas, where you have to watch every episode to really understand the “mythology.” There are so many villains and enemies in the Fox News “universe” that if you miss anything, you might not know who’s who. It’s similar to a program like Lost, where half the intrigue stems from trying to figure out how the pieces all fit together.

This hasn’t always been the way of conservative media. Though there was a period in the ’90s where conservative news outlets tended to get lost in the midst of the many Clinton scandals they cooked up (in addition to the actual Clinton scandals that existed), the mythology was still simple — Clintons bad, Republicans good. But that mythology grew more and more complicated during the Obama era, for a simple reason: Glenn Beck.

Though Beck no longer has a show on Fox News — he now operates his own website, The Blaze — his influence on conservative media is everywhere. After Obama took office, he steadily turned up the heat on the low-grade paranoia that was always present on Fox News and conservative talk radio until it reached a full boil. Beck’s primary method for doing this was to draw lines between lots of seemingly disparate news stories. (I first wrote about this in 2011, when he was still near the peak of his influence.)

Even if you didn’t buy what Beck was selling in the slightest, it was weirdly hypnotic to watch him turn the news into a hedge maze, impossible to solve unless you started busting through the walls. Beck transformed what had been a pretty easy to understand story of Republicans vs. Democrats into an elaborate global conspiracy to rival the aliens from The X-Files or the DHARMA Initiative from Lost. Everything was connected, from the Arab Spring to Obama’s White House to communism, and if you kept watching Beck’s program (and Fox News as a whole), you would start to see how the system was rigged against you, the “normal American” viewer.

Initially, I thought that perhaps Beck had made the story too complicated to follow, that nobody would want to watch so much Fox News to keep all of the players in this conspiracy straight. Later, I figured his line of reasoning would crumble early in the Trump administration, in the face of Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, the presidency, and arguably the Supreme Court.

I was wrong.

How Fox News constantly changes its target to keep its “story” interesting

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What I didn’t anticipate was the way Fox News had internalized Beck’s method for approaching “storytelling” (a method that has since been sharpened to a fine point by far-right outlets like Breitbart News and the TV network OANN). To understand how the nebulously defined global conspiracy against America might manifest in your own life, you have to keep watching and watching and watching. And if you live in a place where a lot of people are watching Fox News, you might find yourself tuning in just to figure out what the hell they’re talking about.

That’s the power of approaching the news as a complicated, serialized drama. Anybody can talk about what the president is up to today, but you can only talk about how, say, antifa is a pseudo-Democratic plot to stop him if you watch Fox News and are up on the lingo.

The problem is that the reality Fox News peddles has almost nothing to do with actual reality, because the network has subtly recalibrated the news to fit a particular storytelling model. As an example, every time Sean Hannity brought up Black Lives Matter when I watched a bunch of Fox News for research purposes in 2017, he said that its stated objective was to “kill more cops.” If you only get your news from Fox News, you might really have thought that was the stated objective of Black Lives Matter — despite how easy it would be to find information proving otherwise — because it’s how Hannity constantly defined this particular opponent.

Here is a more recent example of that very playbook in action, from an episode of Tucker Carlson’s show that aired earlier this year. This segment defines the media and Black Lives Matter as being in league together to destroy America:

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Fox News uses this approach to attack everything from trans rights to campus speech to Black Lives Matter to antifa, constantly shifting targets to find new boogeymen. And its ability to constantly choose new enemies is what I missed when I assumed the early Trump era would be a difficult period for the network. Trump’s brain seems steeped in Fox News’s storytelling, and his presidency has only heightened the network’s sense of grievance, of somebody somewhere having been done wrong. The war against some scary, nebulous “other” can never be over, because in some senses, that war is always beginning. A serialized drama can never really reach its conclusion, because there’s always a new villain, or an old one returning to the fore (again: Hillary Clinton). Nothing ever ends on a serialized drama, because you can never get every answer.

What’s more, creating a serialized narrative around reality gives viewers the accomplished feeling of mastering a complicated storyline that they can explain to the uninitiated. But instead of your Lost-loving friend explaining the secrets of the DHARMA Initiative, it’s a Fox News viewer trying to get you to see how antifa and Joe Biden are inextricably linked or something. This basic, paranoid approach isn’t all that far off from QAnon conspiracy theorizing, and it can create an impenetrable web of references and theories — a trap the president has repeatedly fallen into.

From a certain point of view, I’m a little impressed by Fox News. Keeping this constant web of intrigue and serialization spinning for over a decade now (roughly since the start of Obama’s first term in 2009) is a lot of work — even if much of it requires viewers to constantly assume the real people in power are some ill-defined “they” over there (the left, or Black Lives Matter, or trans activists, or…), preventing Donald Trump from being hailed as the hero he really is. And Trump is preternaturally good at playing the lead character of a Fox News narrative, the bold one striding forth into battle against the forces of darkness.

Someday, Trump will no longer be president. And yet the machine that created him out of weaponized paranoia and in some ways taught him everything he knows will still be there. Whether he leaves office in a few months or a few years, Trump will be gone, and should a Democrat take his place, this entire conservative media apparatus, led by Fox News, will switch directions to tell a new but very old story about how the left wants to accomplish some sinister end that will be very bad for America. That story is just so compelling. It can become impossible to ignore.

I used to hope that more compelling storytelling instincts on the left would help combat this tendency of right-wing media, but at this point, we might have to just grapple with the fact that it will always exist. It’s really hard to quit a serialized narrative full of dramatic twists and turns once you’ve so deeply committed to it. Eventually, the Island or the alien conspiracy will give up its secrets, right?

In fiction, maybe. But in reality, we’re all stuck with each other, sucked into a vortex where some folks are trying to put together puzzle pieces to build a raft and thereby prove the left created the whirlpool, instead of just putting on a fucking life jacket already.


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India’s Modi urges coronavirus caution ahead of festival season

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In televised speech, Narendra Modi says the government is working rapidly to ensure the supply of COVID-19 vaccines to all citizens once they are available.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the government is working rapidly to ensure the supply of COVID-19 vaccines to all citizens once they are available.

In a televised address to the nation on Tuesday, Modi urged Indians to continue wearing masks and uphold physical distancing rules to prevent further spread of the epidemic ahead of the upcoming festival season.

“Whenever the corona vaccine comes, how it reaches to every Indian as soon as possible, the government is also working for that,” Modi said in a short speech in Hindi.

Over the last month, India has seen a trend of declining cases on a week-to-week basis even though the country’s overall virus caseload has neared 7.6 million, behind only the United States.

On Tuesday, India reported 46,790 infections of the coronavirus in the last 24 hours – the lowest number in three months, as new cases continued to decline from a peak in September. It also reported 587 deaths, taking the total to 115,197.

Experts have warned that infections could rise again when large crowds gather for public celebrations for the Hindu festivals of Durga Puja and Diwali this month and in mid-November, respectively.

“Friends, until the time there is a vaccine for this epidemic, we must not let our guard down,” Modi said.

“This is not a time for carelessness … I want everyone to remember that we cannot be complacent in our fight against COVID-19.”

The head of India’s clinical research body, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), told reporters on Tuesday that drugs such as the antiviral remdesivir and anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), touted as potential weapons against COVID-19, were not working as expected in India.

“Debate and discussion are ongoing and at the national task force and we will take into cognisance the results of these trials and issue advisories accordingly,” Balram Bhargava, director general of ICMR, said.

Women wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) sanitise a ‘pandal’ or a temporary platform ahead of the Durga Puja festival in Kolkata [Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)

Meanwhile, India’s testing rate has remained constant with more than one million tests being carried out daily.

But experts say the true number of infections may be much higher as testing rates in the vast country – home to some of the world’s most crowded cities – are much lower than many other nations.

India imposed one of the region’s strictest nationwide lockdowns in March, forcing people to stay home and shut businesses, triggering an exodus of millions of migrant workers.

In June, the country started a phased reopening of economic activities.

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American Voter: Nile Blass

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US President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden are battling for the presidency in a sharply divided United States.

Trump has been focusing on “law and order”; Biden has been trying to strike a conciliatory note. The Black Lives Matter movement – and whether Trump will release his taxes – are among the many issues Americans will consider when choosing their president.

As the hotly contested election approaches, Al Jazeera has been speaking to voters across the US asking nine questions to understand who they are supporting and why.

Nile Blass

[Courtesy of Nile Blass]

Age: 20

Occupation: Production Assistant for Feral Films 

Residence: Prince George’s County, Maryland 

Voted in 2016 for: N/A

Will Vote in 2020 for: Joe Biden

Top Election Issue: Racial Equity 

Will you vote? Why or why not?

“I will be [voting]! I think that there’s a lot of conversation about reformation, or really like the deconstruction of the political system right now, and I agree with those things, but I always like to think about the interim. So, if we want to be put in a position wherein we can actually move forward and change the systems, we have to have an administration that’s receptive to opinion and perspective into science, and I don’t necessarily think that’s what we have right now.

“I think the only option is to vote … there’s work that needs to be done before and after an election, in terms of social justice and change, and the support of different communities. But right now, the most impactful thing I can do is participate in this national and local election, since judges and sheriffs will be on the ballot as well.”

What is your number one issue?

“I would have [to say] racial equity. Only because in every other issue — like if we talk about climate change, for example — that’s going to impact everyone. But if we look at the communities that are going to be immediately impacted, who’s going to be harmed first is going to be Black and brown communities, impoverished communities who are on coastlines, the states that are going to be flooding first — if oceans levels continue to rise in the next few decades— are black and brown communities. I think that when you’re looking at economics and unemployment rates, everything that is a national issue — when looked at on a more microscopic level— [it] becomes very clear who’s being harmed at an accelerated rate.

“And also, just because of how we’re dealing with race right now. The vice president of the United States said that he does not believe in systematic racism. And when you have the CIA and FBI talking about an imminent threat of white supremacy, that’s not a great narrative. So I think that’s the issue that I feel is central to what this country needs to deal with. And I feel like dealing with that allows us to deal with a lot of these other issues that stem from it — at least [those] with disproportionate impact.”

Who will you vote for?

“I will be voting for Joe Biden.”

Is there a main reason you chose your candidate?

“I understand the disappointment in Joe Biden. I’m more set on the left side of politics, so in terms of the candidate that was most progressive, and who would take a more immediate and strong stance on a lot of these issues, I don’t necessarily think he was that. I’m a proponent for the Green New Deal — [Joe Biden] is not. He stated as such on several different occasions. But when we’re talking about his climate change coalition – of committees of politicians, historians, scientists, who he is bringing together, who he wants to put on this issue and suggestion of policy – the authors of the Green New Deal are there.

“So that communicates to me that there’s a level of societal engagement and perspective and opinion that he’s willing to be receptive to and understand that I don’t necessarily think the other candidate is going to be doing. I don’t think he’s a perfect option, I don’t think that we can go back on autopilot like a lot of people were with Obama and that, ‘OK, we elected a competent person, and now we can have our hands off the wheel.’ I think we’re always going to have to be engaged. But I think that Joe Biden is the opportunity to do better, whereas the opposition is just — I don’t know. I don’t personally view there being a positive end.”

Are you happy with the state of the country?

“No, not at all. But I also think it’s important that a lot of people are discussing ‘Oh, back in 2015, 2016’ — I think the beautiful thing about America, at least on a conceptual level, is that it’s not being satisfied with where we are. Because at any given point, if you name a year, it’s when a certain group of people are going to be marginalised, disenfranchised or oppressed.

“Like there are people who are like, ‘Oh, I [miss] 2015, 2016.’ But for Black Americans, that was Ferguson, and for Indigenous people, that was the pipeline. So you’re going further back, there’s the fact that there was a point in time when we didn’t have handicap-accessible buildings or streets.

“And so there’s an obsession of nostalgia — that I don’t like the state of the country now, but there was a point in time where things were good. And it’s, ‘Well, things were good for you.’ So I don’t necessarily believe in ever being satisfied with the state of the nation. I think it’s understanding that we make progress, but the point is to continue making progress, because if we stand right here, and we congratulate ourselves on where we are now, it’s ignoring how much further we have to go. You’re never going to have a perfect union, but the point is to get as close as possible, and that just requires constant movement, and not an obsession with ‘I’m happy we’re here’.”

What would you like to see change?

“Everything. There’s so many issues that we have to deal with … I feel like we’re in a position where if we can, we address issues in terms of allocating resources, teams of researchers, of legislators, of local government and national government working together. We have to deal with the Black maternity death rate, we need to deal with the federal response to the coronavirus, we need to deal with voter suppression and whether or not we can have federal regulation that mandates ‘Hey, if you have a county with a certain amount of population, then for this amount of citizens, you have to have this amount of poll centres’. There’s so many different issues that are kind of intersecting that we can deal with.

“But the issue is everything — nothing right now is good. You have to deal with Black unemployment, we have to deal with Indigenous women going missing. There’s a lot of things from a legislative standpoint and a cultural standpoint that we need to be dealing with. So everything is a very – a cop-out answer – but it’s my legitimate stance that we have a lot of different areas of improvement, and not necessarily a big amount of time to start addressing those issues.”

Do you think the election will change anything?

“Not inherently. I think a lot of people who were disconnected during Obama and even during Bush, the thing they say is that ‘I trusted this leader to be reliable and consistent with their decision-making. So day to day, or even month to month, I did not feel that I as a citizen needed to be actively participating and paying attention to what they’re doing.’ I think that’s a failure.

“This current administration has shown a lot of people that engagement is before and after the election. So Joe Biden, to me, is an opportunity to make progress. But nothing’s promised, because he has a platform and you can argue as to whether or not you think he’s going to stick to that platform, or if he can be moved past that point, but if we elect him, and we stand back, then easily nothing can be done. And we can just either have a repeat of the last four years or just no significant progress past the last four years. So that’s what I would describe it as — an opportunity. But it’s not a promise. Nothing’s inherent in politics, unfortunately.”

What is your biggest concern for the US?

“My biggest concern is time. I tend to be an optimist. I can’t remember the exact wording, but there’s this James Baldwin quote, that’s essentially that ‘I’m an optimist, because I’m alive and being a pessimist makes life an academic matter.’ So I have to believe that we can get through this.

“I like to believe that we have the resources and the people available and willing to deal with all these issues. I think that the biggest problem to me is the time. I don’t know if we have a lot of time to still be discussing climate change, or to still be discussing white supremacy. I think we’re in the realm where we actually have to start doing really tangible things on a federal, local, [and] state level with consistent speed and dedication, and follow through. Because I don’t think that we can’t deal with these problems, but at some point, it’s going to be out of our hands if we don’t start. It can’t always be a conversation or a judiciary committee where we’re asking people to give us information that we already have. I think my biggest problem is time. We’ve got to start doing things a little bit.”

Is there anything we haven’t asked about the election that you want to share?

“The really important thing is a lot of people feel dissatisfied with the political system, including myself — I’m much more interested in the abolition of certain systems than I am [in] whether or not these systems can be reformed effectively.

“If you’re upset with a political system that puts two people forth, and you have to choose and you feel like neither of these people are my choice, then the work doesn’t start 20 days from the election, or even January 1, the work that it takes to reform and abolish systems is years in advance.

“So voting is an important part, but ultimately, a very small part in what can be done to make things better. And it’s [not] just waiting until November, to be mad and to express your issues, when you could have actively been doing something about it — in whatever way, because I understand economics and privilege and I’m a college student, so it’s very easy for me with like, where I am societally going to Georgetown [University] [to] be like, ‘you should do something.’ There are people who have to raise several children on minimum wage, and it’s like, ‘You know what, I’m not in a position to march in the streets.’ But I think that what people can do, they should do. And I think that if everyone does that to the capacity that they can do — like across different cultural, racial and economic standpoints — we’ll be in a much better place by next year.

“And then our future won’t just be on whether or not a Supreme Court justice dies at the right time, which is a weird conversation to have, or if the Russian roulette of our political process ends with two people that we find bearable.”

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AU, ECOWAS monitors say Guinea election conducted properly

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Monitors from the African Union and the West African regional bloc have said Guinea’s recent presidential election was conducted properly, amid rising tensions ahead of the release of official results.

Tuesday’s announcement came a day after leading opposition challenger Cellou Dalein Diallo said he had won the first round on Sunday after suggesting the poll was rigged, comments that set a showdown with incumbent President Alpha Conde. Diallo’s claim was swiftly rejected by the electoral commission, which called it “premature” and “void”.

Addressing reporters in the capital, Conakry, Augustin Matata Ponyo, the AU’s head of mission in Guinea, said on Tuesday the ballot took place “in transparency”.

Jose Maria Neves, the head of the monitoring mission of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc, agreed the voting process was lawful and urged candidates to “use legal channels to settle election disputes”.

Guinean opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo, centre, walks with supporters at his headquarters in Conakry, Guinea [Sadak Souici/AP]

The government rejected allegations of rigging and said only the official electoral authority can declare the results, which are due within a week.

The commission will announce provisional results within three days of receiving the last polling-station tally. The Constitutional Court will then have eight days to declare a winner. A second round of voting, if needed, is scheduled for November 24.

‘Regrettable’

The government said in a statement on Monday that the opposition “clearly intended to create chaos and to call into question the real results”.

Meanwhile, the United Nations, AU and the 15-nation ECOWAS called the premature declaration of results “regrettable”.

“This state of affairs is not conducive to preserving calm,” they said in a joint statement.

Diallo, 68, on Monday had called on “fellow citizens who love peace and justice … to defend this democratic victory”.

But joyous celebrations from opposition supporters in Conakry quickly descended into violent clashes with security forces.

Diallo tweeted on Monday night that security forces had shot dead “three boys” and wounded several people. He blamed Conde for the “crimes”. Guinea’s government did not confirm the deaths. An AFP news agency journalist saw three injured people and heard gunfire in a Conakry suburb on Monday night.

Incumbent Alpha Conde, 82, is seeking a controversial third presidential term, a move that has triggered months of deadly unrest in Guinea [Sadak Souici/Reuters]

Conde, 82, is seeking a controversial third presidential term, a move that has triggered months of deadly unrest in the country.

In March, the president pushed through a new constitution which he argued would modernise the country – but also allowed him to bypass a two-term limit for presidents.

The revamped constitution was overwhelmingly supported by voters in a referendum, although that vote was boycotted by the opposition.

At least 50 people have been killed over the past year during demonstrations against the new constitution amid a harsh crackdown by security forces, according to Amnesty International.

Rising tensions

After decades as an opposition activist, Conde became Guinea’s first democratically elected president in 2010 and was re-elected five years later, but rights groups now accuse him of veering towards authoritarianism.

Diallo was formerly a prime minister under authoritarian leader Lansana Conte. He unsuccessfully challenged Conde in both 2010 and 2015, in elections his party activists are convinced were rigged.

Before vote counting began on Sunday, Diallo’s activists said their observers had been obstructed at polling stations and alleged ballot-box stuffing.

Polling day was mostly calm after an acrimonious political campaign that saw Conde and Diallo trade insults, and was marked by violent incidents in some parts of the country.

The rising tensions had also raised the spectre of ethnic strife, with Conde accused of exploiting divisions for electoral ends – a charge he denies.

Guinea’s politics are mainly drawn along ethnic lines: the president’s base is mostly from the ethnic Malinke community and Diallo’s from the Fulani people.

In the run-up to the vote, the UN had urged candidates to curb ethnically charged hate speech, warning the situation is “extremely dangerous” and may lead to violence.

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