Fox News had what should be its defining moment recently. During an interview with host Jeanine Pirro—a failed Republican politician once married to a criminal tax evader—the self-credentialed terrorism expert Steven Emerson spouted a bunch of easily refutable nonsense designed to inspire even greater Islamophobia than is typically the norm on the network. “There are actual cities like Birmingham [England] that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in,” he pretended, adding: “In parts of London, there are actually Muslim religious police that actually beat and actually wound—seriously—anyone who doesn’t dress according to Muslim, religious Muslim attire.”
This was just another day at the races for Fox News, a network that regularly pollutes our politics with a mixture of pernicious lies, purposeful ignorance and absurdly aggressive stupidity. On a different broadcast, Nolan Peterson, another self-credentialed expert, insisted that certain neighborhoods in Paris were governed by Islamic law to such a degree that French police feared to enter. “It was pretty scary,” he said. “I’ve been to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kashmir, India, and at times it felt like those places in the no-go zones.” Yet another expert suggested that the proper response to this problem was to “put razor wire around” the alleged “no-go zones” and catalog their terrorist-loving residents.
As per usual, this combination of xenophobic animosity and pompous idiocy barely raised an eyebrow in the so-called cable-“news” media. To the contrary, CNN offered its guests airtime to spout similar stories, and, equally typically, right-wing politicians took it and ran with it. Louisiana governor and likely Republican presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal warned that certain groups of immigrants are seeking “to colonize Western countries” by “setting up [their] own enclave[s] and demanding recognition.”
Again, not much new here to anyone who followed the conspiracy theories about President Obama’s birthplace, his religion, his actions (and those of Hillary Clinton) during the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, the alleged attack by the IRS on conservative groups and, of course, Obama’s open invitation to ISIS terrorists to enter the United States via Mexico so they could infect God-fearing Christian Americans with the Ebola virus. What was different this time was that after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the rest of the world was paying attention, and noticed that lunatics rule our political discourse. British Prime Minister David Cameron observed that Fox’s terrorism expert, Mr. Emerson, was “clearly a complete idiot.” The French television show Le Petit Journal visited the alleged “no-go zones” in Paris in search of bin Laden wannabes. And while the mayor of Paris did announce plans to sue Fox—thereby prompting that rarest of media phenomena, an actual apology—it was the widespread ridicule of Fox inspired by the incident that made it genuinely newsworthy.
True, we have Jon Stewart (and, until recently, Stephen Colbert), but the real secret to Fox’s success has been its ability to get the rest of the journalism and political world to take it seriously. Emerson, for instance, should never have been allowed near a TV camera in the first place. While his website might brag that he is “recognized as one of the first terrorism experts to have testified and warned about the threat of Islamic militant networks operating in the United States and their connections worldwide,” it fails to point out that his specialty is warning about the “threat” even when it has no connection whatever to the incident at hand.