Parker Molloy on what years of immersion in right-wing media does to your brain
"They find one thing to be mad about on a given day, and just hammer it home."
For years, I’ve regarded Parker Molloy as something of a kindred spirit. We’ve never met or even talked on the phone until this Q&A, but we’ve followed each other on Twitter for longer than I can remember. We’ve retweeted and favorited and offered moral support through major life events, including marriages and pets dying and, in recent years, having our respective brains fried by immersion in right-wing media.
Molloy was an editor at large for Media Matters from September 2018 until June of this year — a period nearly overlapping with my tenure at Vox. During that time we fed ourselves a daily diet of Fox News and the Daily Wire and Newsmax, writing about trends, misinformation, and the hot conspiracy theories of the moment. Now, we’ve both gone independent and have taken our talents to Substack — Parker at her newsletter, The Present Age, and me here at Public Notice.
Parker still does some media criticism, but the cool thing about The Present Age is that she’s free to write about all sorts of stuff ranging from the persistent myth of drugged Halloween candy to Dave Chappelle’s boring trans jokes to a review of Twitter Blue.
Her writing is entertaining and insightful. I highly recommend you subscribe to her newsletter if you haven’t already.
Now that she’s a few months removed from the media-watchdog grind, I rung up Parker to talk about her big-picture takeaways from her time at Media Matters and the toll that right-wing media took on her personally.
“It got to be very tiring because I'm transgender, and so having to read all of these outlets that just would write these absolutely horrible, mean spirited things about trans people — it eats away at you after a while,” she said.
But despite feeling burned out, Parker also emerged with some smart insights about the state of journalism in our media-saturated, profit-driven world.
“That's what cable TV is about, it's about appealing to emotions. People don't want to sit down and watch two hours of, ‘Here, we're going to go page by page through the reconciliation bill,’ which I would love, but they just aren't things that end up on TV,” she said. “I came to this sad realization at some point that it's just—I don't know that capitalism and news gathering can really coexist, in a sense where they can be so linked together.”
A transcript of my conversation with Molloy, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
Thanks for checking out this free edition of Public Notice. If you’d like to support my independent coverage of US politics and media and help make this newsletter sustainable, please consider a paid subscription.
What was your media diet like at Media Matters, and how has it changed since you left a few months ago?
When I was at Media Matters, here's how my average day would go. I would wake up and check my burner Twitter account — it follows every right wing account possible, which was something that took me about six months of working at Media Matters to figure out would be a good idea, instead of just having them in my regular feed all the time. I’d read through that account, see what the general vibe was going to be that day. There would be a lot of links to The Federalist, Daily Wire, National Review, Gateway Pundit, those types of outlets. Daily Caller is another one. I'd read through those sites, see what they had to say.
For the most part, most of those sites don't do any actual reporting so it's largely just opinion pieces — which is fine, that's what a lot of places do — but I'd read that and see what they're upset about, and then I would check my coworkers' Twitter feeds to see what was going on that morning on Fox News. From there, I would have a pretty decent idea of what the main story that day is going to be. That's the starting point for everything as it concerns conservative media, where they find one thing to be mad about on a given day, and just hammer it home.
It would be a lot of checking in on Fox every couple of hours, seeing what my coworkers were writing about, especially those that worked in research and stuff like that to look through transcripts for key words — cancel culture, woke, these sorts of things came up a lot. Who was leading the conversation would determine which outlets I'd pay attention to the rest of the day.
At a certain point I got to be very efficient at it, but it got to be very tiring because I'm transgender, and so having to read all of these outlets that just would write these absolutely horrible, mean spirited things about trans people — it eats away at you after a while. It's really hard to have decent self-esteem if you're just immersed in this constantly, which is why the whole stereotype of, ‘Oh, you just don't want hear opposing views or different opinions’ — it's like, my man, the only thing I hear are opposing views.
I didn't tend to watch a whole lot of MSNBC or CNN. On occasion I would, but that wasn't ever really a part of my day. I would read the New York Times. I still do that. I would read the New York Times, I would read the Washington Post and just see what's going on there. Those are the only two things that had stuck — New York Times and Washington Post — just because it keeps you up to date with what's going on in the world, which is, I think, important, without having to dig through whatever Tucker Carlson said the night before, or whatever Ben Shapiro is tweeting about on a given day. I've managed to cut down a lot on my reading of The Federalist and Daily Wire and haven't watched Fox News in a long time. I mean, I watch clips as they get posted to Twitter, but I haven't tuned into it, which feels pretty good.
Having spent all this time immersed in right-wing media, what do you think this stuff does to people who consume it earnestly? Obviously people like you and your former colleagues at Media Matters approach it with a degree of detachment, but some people are actually getting their information from Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.
Setting aside anything scientific, just going off of my view and how I personally feel here, if I were watching this and if I'm your average American voter and I'm watching Fox News every day, I would come away with the impression that Donald Trump is being uniquely singled out by the media and that they were trying to undermine him for four years, that there's rampant voter fraud, left wingers are trying to change everything about the country in a way that will make your own life a living hell — that sort of thing. I understand why people feel the way they do when they consume that as media. That's why I have a lot of trouble placing blame on Fox viewers. It's only worse when you're talking about One America News and Newsmax. If that's where you're getting your news, I don't even know how to reach them.
But with Fox, you could come away with this belief that they're the ones telling you the truth, that no one else is, and that they are the only ones looking out for you. It's that classic setup that you might have with someone in a bad relationship, where it's, ‘Oh, you can't trust any of your friends, you can't trust this, and you can only trust us, Fox News. We have your back.’ They do not. That, I think, just drives the rest of the worldview.
That's why people, I think, end up watching Newsmax and One America News, because they get to this point where they believe what Fox is telling them, but when Fox then isn't extreme enough, they then shift even further to the right and seek out something that matches their view and that's where, I think, you truly get into trouble, where people are actively seeking out something they agree with. That's just generally not a very good way to go about consuming news, especially when these outlets sow so much mistrust in other outlets, where they call CNN 'fake news,’ or the New York Times is ‘the failing New York Times.’
Fox primes people to take their word for it, to not trust mainstream sources — and then you have the even more extreme versions of Fox which are just making it worse.
I think that there was really a turning point back when there was a feud between Tucker Carlson and Shepard Smith. That feud where Fox landed on Tucker's side and Shep Smith left the network. I think that was the moment that Fox went all in with, this is who we are. We are Tucker Carlson.
Interesting. I hadn’t thought about it like that before. That was in 2019, right?
October 2019. It was pretty late. But yeah, I used to joke that Shep Smith walks into work every day and goes, ‘Okay, I have an hour to undo 23 hours of misinformation.’ His reporting wasn't bad. I mean, it was fine. It was middle of the day reporting. But when they replaced him with Bill Hemmer — Bill Hemmer is not Shepard Smith. Bill Hemmer is a partisan. He has a very, very clear point of view that he pushes things in. I wouldn't say that that's necessarily the case with Shepard Smith. I think there are valid criticisms of him in that he provided cover for Fox for their more odious views and practices. I mean, people could go, ‘Oh, well, no, no, Fox News is fine. I mean, look, Shepard Smith, they still have him reporting.’
You hear that happen a lot. I mean, we're having this conversation hours after John Roberts — former chief White House correspondent for Fox News — said that Colin Powell dying after he was vaccinated from complications of Covid ‘raises new questions about whether vaccines work.’ It's like, no — no, it, doesn’t. Only on Fox is this acceptable. You can't just insert that sort of stuff in there. But he’s the person that people tend to point to and go, ‘no, no, no, see? There's news and opinion.’
But really, one thing at Media Matters we'd notice more and more was that whatever wall between news and opinion ever existed, which was always questionable, no longer existed after Shep Smith left. It just merged into one blob where they do that thing where Tucker Carlson says something one night and then the next morning they cover the reaction to what Tucker Carlson said, giving it value as news.
Especially during the Trump era, it was extremely easy to just go, ‘Oh, well, the president tweeted this, so it's news. We have to talk about this.’ And then they would make that their story the whole day. It cut out the middle man. It cut out the, ‘Okay, well, first we have to have an opinion host say something that then we can build on.’ But when you have the President of the United States tweeting out, ‘The election's rigged,’ you're going to have that come up as a news story. I think it benefited Trump in the way that it was framed, not only at Fox but at legitimate mainstream outlets as well. Because they had to treat it as serious because he's the president. That was an under-appreciated aspect of Trump's destructive Twitter presence, in my view.
Why do think it’s important for people who follow American politics, especially journalists, to pay attention to right-wing media? Or do you think that perhaps much of it can be safely ignored?
It's important to be aware of what's being said. There's this idea that you shouldn't feed the trolls, or you shouldn't boost people who wouldn't otherwise have an audience. Working at Media Matters, that would come up a lot. We would post a story and people would respond saying, ‘Why are you boosting this? Why are you giving a platform to Tucker Carlson?’ I hate to break it to people, but Tucker Carlson is not getting a platform from people tweeting out his stuff. He's getting a platform from Fox giving him a time slot that gets two or three million people a night.
I think that a lot of people just would rather not pay attention to this stuff, and I don't blame them. It's really toxic stuff and it's can be harmful. So I don't blame people for wanting to check out mentally from that.
Enjoying this Q&A? Please share it with friends.
I do think it's important to keep up with what is being said in media, generally, to pay attention to how things are covered. Not just right-wing media, but media generally. It's that focus, from the right, on how news media has gone for 50 or 60 years, that has gotten them to the point where you have news outlets that are afraid to upset the right because they know that if they say something wrong or they don't enough Republicans on a panel, that they're going to get a barrage of emails and angry tweets and what have you.
That's something that the right has really mastered. I, for a while, thought, why doesn't the left try to work the refs in the same way that the right does? I think the answer is that there's just simply not the same left-wing media ecosystem as there is on the right. I might hear Tucker Carlson talk about Superman for five nights this week. [This interview was conducted shortly after news broke that Superman will come out as bisexual in an upcoming comic.] That's not something that a normal news show would do. He has the luxury of being able to focus on whatever issue he wants to hammer home to stoke the culture war. At best, we have CNN covering an issue for a day, or MSNBC touching on it for a few minutes here and there, but you're not going to have five nights of just people pounding home this message over and over.
You have people like Sean Hannity, for instance, coming up with slogans and catch phrases that he uses over and over. During the campaign it was, ‘Quid pro quo Joe.’ That was his thing. Or, in 2016 it was, ‘The Clinton crime family.’ Now, it’s ‘the Biden crime family.’ At one point I had a supercut made that was just Hannity over the span of six months talking about the Green New Deal, where he'd say, ‘Oh, they want to ban the combustion engine, and they want to get rid of cows, and they want to build a train over the sea’ — or all of this ridiculous stuff that just wasn't true. But he would say it constantly, and it's through repetition that these messages get through.
So I think it's very important that people are aware of what's happening and are aware of the biases that do exist in media. That's why I always encourage people to read multiple sources, multiple outlets. I understand that people don't want to have to spend an hour a day reading three different newspapers because they don't have the luxury of doing that, but it doesn't hurt to check out the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Fox if you want.
One of the biggest challenges, I think, is really getting people working on media literacy.
Along those lines, I think one important thing about right-wing media that isn’t widely understood even among elite reporters is how little actual reporting these outlets actually do. It's mainly outrage bait, commentary — that sort of stuff.
Are there any major misconceptions about right-wing media that you noticed during your years of immersion in it?
There's this idea that MSNBC is the Fox of the left. That's something I hear a lot. I understand that there's bias all around us, but MSNBC is not the Fox of the left. Sometimes I wish it was. I mean, anyone who supported Bernie Sanders during either the 2016 or 2020 primaries is probably a little confused by the assertion that MSNBC is the Fox of the left because the treatment wasn't super great.
Yeah, they’ve got Republicans up and down their lineup of on-air talent.
After the 2016 election MSNBC put together an ad that said, ‘People might accuse us of being slanted to the right,’ because they went out and hired Hugh Hewitt, and Michael Steele, and Greta Van Susteren — her show didn't last long — Nicole Wallace, Megyn Kelly.
They all got hired by either NBC or MSNBC and look, I get it, they're trying to expand their brand a bit, and with the success of Fox, you get this idea that, ‘Hey, maybe if we appeal more to the right, people who watch Fox will come back to us.’ But that's just not true.
I think that there's this misconception — and this is less with audiences and more with people who make decisions in media — that you can win over Fox viewers, or you can win over right-wing viewers. But the truth is that no matter how far to the right any of these outlets go, no matter how much right-wing commentary you publish, people will always say the New York Times is leftist, MSNBC is leftist, NPR is leftist. None of those things are true. I wish.
I mean, people will constantly talk about, ‘Oh, the New York Times needs to have more conservative opinion writers.’ How often do you hear someone say the Wall Street Journal needs to have more progressive opinion writers? It's just not something that comes up a lot. So it creates this false sense of balance that there's a left and a right and Fox will take the right and the Washington Post will take the left. It's just not true. I mean, the Washington Post has some good columnists who represent left, liberal, or progressive views and they also have a lot of people who write very conservative things for them. There's still this impression that they're a left-wing media outlet and it’s just not accurate.
I think that's something that is both an issue with the general public, the audiences, as well as with decision makers at these companies. Because there's always this thought — ‘we can win them over.’ But if you really look into it, Fox viewers have been just primed to think, ‘No, everyone else is far left, they're all lying to us.’ There's no amount of changes that will bring them over. If anything, I think Fox knows that they're not going to lose people to the left, so now they worry about losing people to the right. After the 2020 election I wrote a piece that was about the Fox News death spiral, where it was trying to chase after the Newsmax and OAN viewers who it was worried about losing some of their audience to. I don't think there was ever really a chance that they were going to lose a significant chunk of their audience to either of those places, but that was the only place they would lose them to. It would only be to an outlet further to the right. They leaned into it and they moved further to the right.
What are your thoughts about the broader debate that seems to come up every couple months about whether it’s worthwhile for liberals to go on Fox? Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), for instance, lately has been going on there a lot. You probably saw that clip recently when a when he did a promo for Fox New’s 25th anniversary where he was saying, 'a diversity of thought and free expression are the hallmarks of our democracy,’ which was rich. But on the other hand he was on Maria Bartiromo's show recently pushing back on false claims she was making about Biden wanting to use the IRS to spy on people’s bank accounts, which to me is a good way to approach going on Fox.
It's always a tricky question. I don't know that there is necessarily a correct answer. I do think that if Democrats in Congress, or anyone on the left, goes on Fox, that they need to go in there with the facts ready to push back and debunk, because if you go on Fox and you completely destroy Maria Bartiromo, that's great — and folks like you or me or Media Matters might see that, pick it up and post it — but you're not necessarily reaching Fox’s audience beyond those who saw it live that day. That's not going to be the clip that gets played later in their shows if they bring something up.
I would be really curious to look at a breakdown of how often clips that would make Fox hosts look bad get repeated on the shows. For instance, Bernie Sanders did that town hall on Fox in the 2020 primary, and he did great. The audience loved him for it. The live audience reaction was great. But the next day on Fox was just an all out attack on him. The clips that they were showing were ones that made him look bad, or made him look extreme. They weren't showing the ones where he was talking about how his policies would help working class Americans. They took what he said and turned it into fear porn, which is always the risk when you go on Fox, because that's what they're going to try to back you into. They're going to try to push you into the direction to get a clip that makes them look good and you look bad.
If Ro Khanna wants to go on Fox, he needs to have those facts ready to push back. He needs to be aware of the current conspiracy theories that are making their way around the right-wing media ecosystem. Pete Buttigieg did that as well, and he was really good at that right before the 2020 election. He would go on Fox and he would pick apart arguments that were bad while acting as a surrogate for Biden. It was fine, and that brought up that same question — okay, should you go on or not?
If you're not worried about Fox's advertisers, if you're not worried about anything to do with Fox’s popularity as a whole, then yeah, I think it's fine to go on there. But if you're a group like Media Matters, or if you support those sorts of missions to get some advertising dollars away from Fox, then I think you're not going to win, because Fox is just going to use you as proof that they aren't a right-wing network. They're going to go, ‘No, no, no, we gave Bernie Sanders an hour town hall, we gave Ro Khanna 10 minutes to talk about whatever on here.’ That's something that comes up a lot that I think is important to keep in mind — be aware of what your goals are, and understand that anything you can say can and will be held against you.
Now that you’re a few months removed from the Media Matters grind, I’m wondering to what extent you were feeling burned out by right-wing media by the time that you left. Your circumstance is different than me because I don’t feel like my identity is personally threatened by segments about bathroom policies or LGBT rights in general. How much of a toll did that sort of thing take on you?
I was pretty burned out. I wasn't there for a super long time. I started in 2018, a little bit before the midterms, so I was there for a bit more than two and a half years, but there are a lot of people who have been there for 10 years. I don't know how they keep it all together.
It became frustrating when I was writing variations on the same story, because it's one thing I hate doing. I hate having to go, ‘Hey, here's this message that's going around. Hope everyone recognizes it for what it is, and push back.’ Where it was most frustrating would be when it would tie into places that you expect better from. Where it would be, ‘Oh, CNN botched something. Oh, CNN hired a Trump loyalist, like Sarah Isgur.’ Stuff like that. Or, ‘Oh, they invited this person on who constantly goes on these shows and complains about being canceled or not having a platform.’ I mean, just today there was a clip of Bari Weiss on Brian Stelter's CNN show the other day, just talking about how she's being silenced even though she was on CNN at the time. That sort of stuff.
It became frustrating to do what I thought was good and important work, and for it to not have the impact that I hoped for. When I took the job at Media Matters, my personal belief was I can help people understand what's going on. I can help them see things in a way that they're not seeing things. I considered it mostly a personal failing that I couldn't do that. That was something that I wrote about in my first post at my newsletter, The Present Age. I considered that somewhat of a personal failing that I couldn't get through and create the type of change that I had hoped for. It eventually wore me down. I thought it was good to, at the very least, take some time away from writing specifically and exclusively about politics, or at least in the context of right wing media. Because there are interesting things that happen all over. Today, I wrote about Superman. I might have been writing about Superman if I were working at Media Matters but it would have been with a very specific lens that doesn't let me just ramble on the way that I like to. My writing probably suffers from it, but it's still one of those things where it feels authentic and feels more me.
When it comes to the specific anti-trans attacks that would happen on air where they would do segment after segment about, ‘two trans girls in Connecticut won a state championship in track once’ — it's just frustrating and it hurts to see these things put out there and not see other networks fighting back against these messages, because they don't view these things as important, as Fox does, to their viewers to create the culture war rift. The other networks don't really see that as a problem for them to fix.
Overall, looking back on the work I did at Media Matters, the one thing that stands out is that I was shocked to realize how little policy gets discussed when covering politics. That, I think, is one of the biggest failings of political media. Everything is talked about in terms of the political effect it might have. ‘Oh, well, this thing costs $3.5 billion, that's so expensive.’ That sort of thing. It's not the way that these things should be covered. Because you could throw out a big number like 3.5 billion or a trillion dollars, or whatever, and you're going to set off some specific emotional reactions. That's what cable TV is about, it's about appealing to emotions. People don't want to sit down and watch two hours of, ‘Here, we're going to go page by page through the reconciliation bill,’ which I would love, but they just aren't things that end up on TV.
I came to this sad realization at some point that it's just — I don't know that capitalism and news gathering can really coexist, in a sense where they can be so linked together. That's why I appreciate places like news co-ops. There's this really, really great Chicago publication that I absolutely love. It's called Block Club. It’s just all reporting, it covers all the neighborhoods in the city. There are zero opinion pieces, which is amazing. I love that. Zero opinion pieces, all reporting. They've done some great work. It shows what can happen when you get away from the corporate media structure where everything is framed in the context of, ‘Okay, well, we've got to make sure that we don't alienate sponsors, or we don't upset a certain political point of view.’ That sort of thing.
It's hard not to come away from working in media feeling a bit cynical. I keep hoping that there will be something that comes along that gives me hope, that restores my faith in humanity, as old Upworthy articles might say.