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4/19/19

The case for a Fox News boycott is extremely weak

Bernie Sanders held a town hall on Fox News this week. By most accounts, it was a smashing success. It also, however, reignited a familiar debate on the liberal-left: should anyone ever go on Fox News?

My take on this is that the case for a Fox News boycott is remarkably weak. This is particularly true when one considers the sheer weight that it has to carry - all of the demands it makes of skeptical comrades.
  • First, it asks us to abandon any political benefits that an appearance on Fox News might seem to offer. One can argue that it would win votes, expose viewers to a different perspective, raise left morale, and so on - but that answer will always be that the cost of breaking the boycott is too high. Partisans of the boycott have to hold the line on this, because if they make exceptions, then suddenly every appearance is negotiable.
  • Second, it asks for moral authority. Since the boycott demands universal buy-in, its advocates have to insist that their strategy is not a legitimate approach but the legitimate approach. Necessarily, the partisan of the boycott claims the right to call skeptical comrades enablers of the right - perhaps unwittingly, or perhaps, of course, due to their sinister right-wing sympathies. This is why so many debates over what should be merely a question of tactics devolve into serious allegations of moral failure.
  • Finally, the boycott demands all of this for the indefinite future. This is not some surgical short-term action; it's a long war against a machine that has been at this for years and shows no signs of slowing down. And there is, evidently, no reality-check that we can conduct which would allow us to conclude at some point, "Okay - this isn't working."
This is a lot to ask from comrades who oppose the right, and who hope for an end to Fox News - but who don't find the arguments for a boycott terribly convincing.


Note that I say "arguments" in the plural. Because unfortunately, the debate over a Fox News boycott seems to have a real whack-a-mole quality: address one case for it, and you'll soon be informed that the argument for a boycott is something else entirely. This makes it difficult to have a productive conversation on the topic, and it also makes it hard to write about the boycott in a systematic way; the best I can do is take on the different arguments one-by-one.


WHACK-A-MOLE ONE: "No one who watches Fox News is open to persuasion"

The view that all Fox News viewers are brainwashed partisans may be popular among activists who are looking for a simplified culture war, but it is just that - a simplification. In fact, about one in every five Fox News viewers identify as liberal, according to a study of ideological segregation by the National Bureau of Economic Research. [1] Consider meanwhile that Bernie Sanders, for example, has a roughly 13% approval rating among self-identified conservatives [2]: that puts the "gettable" Fox News viewers at as much as 30%, depending on what one is hoping to accomplish.

Additionally, one also has to take into account the way that any given Fox News appearance can disseminate beyond the channel's immediate audience, generate secondary media coverage, produce viral content online, and so on. These propagation effects can be hard to measure rigorously, but nevertheless, it seems clear that in today's media ecosystem an appearance in Fox News can become an appearance everywhere.


WHACK-A-MOLE TWO: "Fox News will make you look bad"

Because the channel is notorious for bullying guests, manipulating them, and misrepresenting them with unscrupulous editing, advocates for a boycott occasionally argue that one simply can't do a successful appearance on Fox News. This objection isn't really worth contesting much beyond pointing out that it's demonstrably untrue. In just the past year, leftists from Katie Halper to Elizabeth Bruenig to Rutger Bregman made extraordinary appearances on the channel, and as Nathan Robinson argues, all it really takes is some talent and preparation.


WHACK-A-MOLE THREE: "If you go on Fox News, viewers will regard it as a legitimate outlet"

Here, I think advocates for a boycott run into a serious practical problem that opens up with a simple question: for it to work, does everyone have to participate? Or does it become more or less successful as more or less people buy in?

Consider the first possibility: that for the boycott to work, the liberal-left needs to hold the line and deny Fox News even a single fig leaf of legitimacy. It's entirely possible that this is how it would have to work; by analogy, we can look at the GOP's strategy of denying Obama-era legislation bipartisan legitimacy by refusing to give it even a single vote. As soon as a single Blue Dog Congressperson or a rogue pundit appears on Fox News, one can easily imagine a tidal wave of commercials featuring their image and selling every show as "fair and balanced."

If this is how the boycott needs to work, then the analogy to the Obama-era GOP gives us another insight: strategic discipline is extraordinarily difficult to maintain among large and diverse groups of people with different interests over the long term. The goal of maintaining this kind of absolute, unbroken boycott - and not just among politicians, but among pundits, activists, and anyone else who could possibly give the network ideological cover - strikes me as so ambitious that I think it's entirely fair to question its plausibility. As evidence, I point to the past fifteen years of attempted boycotts, which have never been able to achieve universal buy-in for all kinds of obvious reasons.

On the other hand, one can always argue that the Fox News boycott doesn't need to be absolute to achieve its intended effect; for it to work, the liberal-left only need to reach some critical mass of people unwilling to appear on the channel to delegitimize it. This strikes me as a more plausible strategy, but it also means that we have to start talking about the boycott strategy in a different way: as soon as we concede that it doesn't need absolute buy-in, then one can legitimately make the case for circumstantial exceptions.


WHACK-A-MOLE FOUR: "If you go on Fox News, you'll legitimize it for advertisers"

This is the boycott argument proper: we should stay off Fox News as a way of imposing financial pressure against its owners, forcing them to change their business model in order to retain its corporate sponsors. I don't think it takes much imagination, however, to see that this argument faces the same buy-in problems as the last one. If we can put pressure on advertisers without demanding absolute buy-in on the boycott from the liberal-left, then any particular appearance is negotiable. If on the other hand the boycott demands absolute buy-in from any and all potential guests on the liberal-left for the foreseeable future, then it's probably not going to work.

On that note, I think it's worth reflecting on how this strategic analysis fits into broader debates about boycotts on the liberal-left. There is no denying that they've proven themselves a powerful tool in the hands of activists working to achieve specific, limited goals; even when it comes to Fox News, the liberal-left has successfully used boycotts to bring down hosts and cancel shows. But part of being a socialist is recognizing that some problems are simply too big, and too entrenched in the fundamental operations of capitalism, to solve with private-sector activism and conscientious consumption. The proletariat does not have infinite leverage, through our collective resources and sheer force of will, to bend and shape markets however we please; that's precisely why we have to overthrow capitalism altogether.

In this case, after fifteen years, the liberal-left has not even come within radio-telescope distance of bringing down Fox News. It's a multi-billion dollar brand, and despite occasional fluctuations in business expenses, its ad revenue continues to grow. Our occasional successes with targeted boycotts have brought down particular shows, but they've merely been a manageable business expense to the network at large.

Fortunately, if you're a socialist, there's an alternative to consumer activism: you can seize control of the machinery of ideological production through the arm of the state. Until then, there are probably going to be occasions when it makes sense to go on Fox News. There will also be occasions when it doesn't. Either way, socialists can discuss them without leaning on the simplistic solution of a boycott and the vacuous moralizing that usually follows.