by Eric Boehlert
Imagine if Fox News had been on the air back on February 28, 1993, just months into the new Democratic president’s first term, when agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempted to serve warrants on David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound, located on the outskirts of Waco, Texas. Agents arrived because federal authorities got a tip that Koresh and the followers of the misguided messiah were stockpiling weapons.
The authorities were right. Outgunned, ATF agents quickly met resistance from the Davidians, who had a .50-caliber rifle, machine guns, and more than a million rounds of ammunition at their disposal. The shootout lasted hours and became the longest in American law-enforcement history. In the end, four ATF agents were killed, and 16 were wounded. Inside the compound, five Davidians were killed and scores more injured, including Koresh, who was shot in the hip and the wrist. The gunbattle signaled the start of a 51-day standoff between Koresh and federal authorities.
Rupert Murdoch’s all-news channel didn’t debut in America until October 1996, but it’s chilling to consider the what-ifs of how today’s Fox News lineup of doomsday, anti-government prophets would have reacted to controversial and defining news events in the early 1990s — like Waco.
As news of the failed Waco raid broke, would Fox News’ notoriously weepy and apocalyptic host Glenn Beck have broken down on the air and wept for the tyranny that he saw unfolding in the government’s raid? While FBI negotiators tried to win the release of Koresh’s followers, would Beck have warned viewers that the president would “take your gun away one way or another“?
Amidst the 51-day siege, would Beck have warned against the creeping “totalitarian state” inside America? Would the host have gravely announced that we’d “come to a very dangerous point in our country’s long, storied history“?
Would Beck have routinely vilified President Clinton as a fascist? Would he have told viewers that he wanted to debunk the militia-movement conspiracy theory that the federal government was building prison camps, but that he just couldn’t knock the story down — and that, at first glance, it appeared to be “half true”?
And can you even imagine Beck’s on-air reaction when the FBI’s final, failed assault on the Waco compound unfolded on live TV on April 19, 1993? As the horrific images of the compound going up in flames and the grim realization spread that Koresh’s followers were not coming out — that they had staged a mass suicide (and in some cases, executions), rather than surrendering to federal officers — would Beck have claimed that the scene of destruction reminded him of the “early days of Adolf Hitler”?
Would he have invited self-styled militiamen onto his show to game out how the pending civil war against the Clinton-led tyranny was likely to play out and to ponder whether members of the U.S. military would fire on American citizens when the blood began to flow in the streets? And setting aside all decency, would Beck — post-Waco — have pretended to douse a Fox News colleague in gasoline and, lamenting how the government was disenfranchising its citizens, then urged Clinton to just “set us on fire,” or pleaded that it would be better if Clinton had just shot Beck “in the head”? (That’s how Koresh died inside the Waco compound: from a bullet to the head.)
Based on the paranoid, anti-government rhetoric that Fox News has embraced since President Obama’s inauguration, it’s no leap to suspect that if Murdoch’s outlet were broadcasting in the early 1990s — and if it were broadcasting the same fringe message it’s echoing today — that the militia movement would have found a friend in Fox News during the Waco era and throughout Clinton’s first term, when the conspiratorial patriot movements flourished.
And that’s the chilling significance of what’s now unfolding. Last week, I wrote about the inherent dangers and irresponsibility of Fox News consciously shaping itself into a kind of militia news outlet and how it’s impossible to ignore the anti-government message some viewers such as Richard Poplawski, the man accused of shooting and killing three Pittsburgh police officers, might be taking from Fox News.
But let’s take a step back and see just how extraordinary Fox News’ latest lurch to the revolutionary right really is. And let’s clearly understand how Fox News is actively trying to mainstream fringe allegations, how Murdoch’s outlet functions as a crucial bridge — a transmitter — between the radical and the everyday.
What Fox News, and specifically Beck, is doing in early 2009 is giving a voice — a national platform — to the same deranged, hard-core haters who hounded the new, young Democratic president in the early 1990s in the wake of Waco (i.e. the Clinton Chronicles crowd). What Fox News is doing today is embracing the same kind of hate rhetoric and doomsday conspiratorial talk that flourished during the ’90s, and Fox News is now dumping all that rancid stuff into the mainstream. It’s legitimizing accusatory hate speech in a way no other television outlet in America ever has before.
Today’s unhinged, militia-flavored attacks from the right against Obama are clearly reminiscent of 1993 and 1994 and the kind of tribal reaction conservatives had to the Democratic White House. What’s different this time around is that that it’s being adopted and broadcast nationally by Fox News, as it proudly mainstreams and validates the fringe.