A FoxNews story last night warned me of U.S. Department of Education funds being used (via PBS, of course) to indoctrinate children in the ways of Islam. The story was extraordinarily well-sourced [cough] via some outfit called the Christian Action Network (Slogan: ‘spreading lies and fear for Jesus since 1990’).
Like many of Fox’s National Inquirer-style stories, I don’t doubt there’s some kernel of some fact underlying this. I also don’t much care to know the details. The truth or falsehood of the story was scarcely the point.
The story slotted nicely into Fox’s ‘fear the Muslim’ frame (they’re coming for your children!!) , but it was also a fascinating study in FoxNews propaganda more broadly. The segment was rife with oft-used conspiracy themes and the frames to convey them, all intertwined. Let’s dissect.
[Note: for a more detailed discussion of the concept of framing, see George Lakoff’s excellent Don’t Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame The Debate (2nd Edition, 2014, Chelsea Green Publishing). Lakoff is a Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. In this seminal work, Lakoff argues that language and specific word selection (and the related imagery that words evoke) are powerful influences on the structure of principled debate.]
The manifest thrust of the story was: The U.S. Department of Education is Funding the Teaching of Islam to Public School Children
The first frame: The Left. This is a recurring frame for FoxNews, in fact, it is perhaps its longest-running theme, and the foundation upon which the entire network was launched. Not surprisingly, it’s largely a myth. The Left is a construct, a straw dog, built up for the express purpose knocking it back down, and simultaneously justifying the network’s existence.
In reality, the Left doesn’t actually exist, except as a straw-man for the demonized opposition to ‘conservative.’ Never mind that FoxNews’ definition of conservative shifts with the prevailing winds and it is presently unrecognizable both from past iterations of ‘conservative’ and as a coherent political or philosophical doctrine. True, there are people and points of view to the left of center in the antiquated, linear ‘left, right, center’ model of the political spectrum. But the Left, as a unified group of like-minded agenda-driven people exists only as a construct for conservatives. (similarly, the label ‘conservative’ is a crude simplification of a multitude of points of view, though perhaps somewhat more cohesive a depiction than ‘the Left.’)
Conservative, to the core FoxNews audience, currently means ‘pro-Trump’ and little more. And as Donald Trump himself doesn’t have any principled beliefs beyond fame, adulation, popularity, wealth (and the appearance of wealth), neither does modern day FoxNews Conservatism. It means something, but it’s doctrinally empty.
FoxNews may self-refer, along with its core audience, as conservative, but at its most elemental, the modern version of Conservative simply means ‘us.’ By ‘conservative’ they mean to say the good, decent, hardworking, real American people, or simply ‘us’ (and not them).
By contrast, ‘The Left’ represents them, the enemy. The quasi-slur adjectives used to describe and caricature the Left shift like seasonal fashions, though some are enduring: Latte-drinking, NPR-listening, cucks and libtards. Coastal elites, tree-huggers and feminazis, to intermingle some of the dismissive labels du jour past and present. Also, French faggot-loving people who use phrases like “du jour,” doubtlessly. And if you don’t see why those tags are funny (to us), you probably are one (of them).
The Left and The Other
It is important to note parenthetically here that the Left is different than ‘the Other.’ While the Left is everything wrong with America, conservatives grudgingly allow them to stay. The whole ‘America: love it or leave it’ notion is intended as an indignant slap upside the head, you disgraceful unpatriotic libtards, not as an imperative. The Left is everything wrong with America, but I guess they can stay. They’d better clean up their act, though! Or so goes such thinking.
Further, while the Left is a frame in Lakoff’s use of the term – you will hear the words spoken nightly on FoxNews – the Other is not a frame, but a subtextual notion. Frames are used to convey subtextual concepts, but some subtext remains unspoken. The Other is referred to by inference only, often by how they’re regarded, treated or depicted. To use another example, a subtextual theme in current use is ‘fear the black man,’ while the frame is the linguistic structure used to convey that unspoken theme, like “crime-infested inner cities.” Inner cities instantly invokes the image of young dangerous black men run amok. Of O-Dog from Menace to Society.
The closest thing to a frame for the Other currently is Trump’s beloved ‘radical Islamic terrorists.’ He half-heartedly says that phrase refers only to a subset of Muslims, but he really intends to imprint the impression on all Muslims. Crude, but a frame nonetheless. The notion of the Other is much broader than Trump’s current target of ire and loathing. Historically, the Other has referred to whatever group an autocrat identifies as the cause of societies ills, the solution for which only he possesses. In 1930’s Germany, it was the Jews. In modern day Philippines, the Other is drug dealers. And of course, the notion of Other is usually expanded to engulf other vulnerable groups at the fringes of society. For Hitler’s Germany, the Other soon included Gypsies and the disabled or infirm. For Duterte’s Philippines, the Other now includes drug-users, not just dealers. Trump’s America is poised to include Mexicans and drug smugglers in its definition of Other. (In Steve Bannon’s America, I imagine Jews will find their way back into the expanding circle of others, presidential in-laws excepted.)
In contrast to the Left, the Other in America today needs to Get The F* Out! FoxNews conservatives think it’s a good idea to round them up, roughing them up in the process as necessary, and expel them from this country. GTFO. And if we can’t chuck them the hell out, internment camps will due, I suppose.
In its essence, the notion of the Other is a device; it’s demonization as a means to political power. And for the purpose of discussing the framing/themes of the narrative for last night’s story of FoxNews, I’m first talking about the Left. The Other is central to the narrative, as well, but is chronologically secondary.
We start with the Left because it figures prominently in the first propaganda theme/frame. Like many of the themes employed, much of the framework need not be spelled out explicitly to yet convey meaning to FoxNews’ core audience. The themes can remain unstated; the FoxNews viewer largely understands them implicitly. For example, it practically goes without saying that the Left has infiltrated government, particularly certain government agencies like the Department of Education. Just as it has the universities. Certainly you’ve heard that our Universities are ivory towers of liberal thought, with leftist, liberal professors kept in place through the vile doctrine of tenure?
In any event, the mere mention of the Department of Education implicitly means the ‘Lefty-infiltrated Dept. of Education’ (As a side note, this is probably a holdover frame from the days of segregation, and Brown v. Board of Education, i.e., it’s their shorthand for ‘nigger-lovin Dept. of Ed.’, though they’ve learned enough over the years to keep those thoughts from public-view.)
I didn’t watch the FoxNews story long enough to know exactly how the Public Boadcasting System (PBS) factored in. Presumably they were the source of the specific educational materials, videos or what-have you. But I scarcely need mention how PBS is a go-to target for the FoxNews crowd, virtually synonymous with the Left. And FoxNews certainly need not mention it. PBS is a frame all on its own, conveying significant meaning at the mere mention of the acronym. (Note: PBS is not a deceptive frame, with wording selected for their implicit meaning to steer a debate in a particular direction (like ‘death tax’ or ‘tax relief’), but rather a constructed frame, which through repetition has come to be synonymous with Leftist organization using our tax dollars to weaken society and impose a mostly pro-gay point of view.) In any event, by the time FoxNews has finished mentioning the Department of Education and PBS, their core audience knows where this story is going.
What Are They Up To Now?
This brings up a meta-theme in FoxNews framing, the ‘Oh Lord, what are they up to now?‘ theme. Those damn Lefties. This unspoken theme is repeated over and over in FoxNews stories, and often drives the network’s editorial selection of which stories to air. Sometimes this theme is so prevalent and overarching it almost drips off the screen to lie in a puddle beneath your television.
At this point, the basic structure of the propaganda frame begins to take shape: FoxNews has learned that the (Leftist Government) U.S. Department of Education, with the assistance of (super Leftist) PBS is insidiously teaching YOUR children to love Allah and Islam, with complete disregard for their/your Christian faith. To the FoxNews conservative, the Establishment Clause is a mere nuisance and anything deemed anti-Christian is by definition un-American.
Before moving on to the latter half of the implied themes in this story, I should also mention another meta theme/frame inherent: Big Government is bad. This one is a holdover from the earlier iterations of conservative dogma.
Of course, the current GOP has laid bare the hypocrisy of the longtime conservative trope, but it used to run hand-in-hand with the slur/label/frame of the “tax and spend liberal” and was intended to distinguish between the two political parties – the Big Government Democrats (“Bigger Government is the solution to all problems”) and the small government/State’s Rights Republicans.
This characterization was effective for many years, and is a good example of a previous era’s framing (and of how much more effective Republicans have been at framing than Democrats, for decades, as Lakoff insightfully observes). The inherent hypocrisy of the frame is exposed when you examine the actual federal budgets, deficits and debts of various administrations of both parties (you know, facts. Objective empirical data, pesky though it may be). In fact, Republicans have never had a problem with big government when it comes to e.g., military spending or staggering deficits, but have managed to deftly avoid the label of ‘tax and spend on defense’ or ‘big government’ for many years.
The hypocrisy of GOP framing sends us down a rabbit hole to an entire other discussion. I only mention it here because one undercurrent of our FoxNews story is that the Left is using Big Government (the Dept. of Ed.) for illicit purposes.
Teaching Islam to Schoolchildren
Now let’s look at the other subtexts in the subtly interwoven narrative of last night’s story. The latter half of the message in the story is the ‘teaching Islam to school children’ bit. This is intended to push the audience’s fear button. Fear, the great motivator. (People who study advertising will tell you that fear is one of two primary narrative themes of all advertising.)
In activating this fear reaction in their audience, FoxNews feeds into the second primary subtext and aim of the story: the demonization of the Muslim Other.
The dominate theme is the demonization of the other, but the other active subtext in the big Fear is the ‘insidious inculcation of our innocent youth.’ This fear has the same impetus that drives legislators to pass laws to try to keep gays from teaching your children to ‘be gay.’ The bad guys are trying to impose their way of life on us all by secretly corrupting the youth, or so this message argues.
It’s the same fear that drives stories about sharia law, and the wild rumors of how entire cities in this country are attempting to replace our existing laws with sharia law (you may have heard these stories). The fear this story taps into is the same as those inherent in conspiracies that Muslims secretly want to impose sharia law nationwide. Children are a convenient target to stoke these fears because they’re young, innocent and impressionable.
In discussing the implementation of this frame and the activation of this subtext, it’s important to note that the Left is not synonymous with the Muslim Other here. As deployed in this story, the Left is just the weak, hug-it-out, kumbaya-singing stooges who foolishly and ignorantly permit this atrocity (Islam is coming for your children!!) to happen while they (the Left) foolishly try to be inclusive.
Now let’s bring it back up to the top, and the story goes like this:
The Leftist Department of Education, with the help of the Leftist, un-American PBS, are trying to sneak one past you, good, decent, hard-working Americans, and inculcate your innocent American children into the ways of Islam, because in their dangerously misguided secret flower-power agenda of loving everyone, they don’t realize they are playing right into the hands the treacherous, devious, evil Muslim Other who seek only to destroy us and control everything.
Wrapping up, the last unspoken subtext in the story contains no small measure of self-promotion. The subtext is “you’ll never hear this on mainstream media” (or MSM, to use the social media slur version). Of course, this subtext conveniently overlooks that, based on ratings, FoxNews is the mainstream media, with higher viewership in various time slots and as a cable news network as a whole, for many years running now. It is yet effective, however. The implicit message of distrusting other news sources has the very real effect of boosting their own ratings and building a loyal fan base.
All in all, well done, FoxNews. That’s a lot of frames, buttons, subtexts and themes packed into one 2-minute story based on a core of distorted fact. And yet somehow, the unspoken message is heard loud and clear. Russia Today would be proud.