After Niagara Falls, and Texas, and Gaza, it’s way past time for anyone to think that “it can’t happen here,” because it’s happening now.
“There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” — George Orwell, 1984
In the ever-shrinking world of a free and fair media, the recent weeks have brought an explosion of untruth and a stepped-up war on reality. With democracy increasingly staring into the abyss both at home and abroad, propaganda and censorship are the double-edged sword of rising dictatorship. And now with violent hacking coming from both sides of the blade, it is indeed an increasing struggle to cling to the dream of truth-flavored sanity.
Americans got a scary peek into what the rising confluence of right-wing authoritarianism and its quasi-state media could accomplish on the day before Thanksgiving. That’s when what turned out to be a tragic, fatal car crash at the wrong time in the wrong way at the wrong place—a bridge border crossing between the U.S. and Canada in Niagara Falls—became a launching pad for a Big Lie about immigration and terror that circled the globe several times before the mundane truth put its pants on.
For millions of U.S. web surfers and couch potatoes, the mental connection of Biden, the border, and fiery chaos had already been implanted, and it will remain even as some of the erroneous tweets are deleted.
Here’s what really happened on Wednesday: A 53-year-old couple from Erie County, New York—Monica and Kurt Villani—were driving to a casino in Canada in a Bentley luxury car because of a canceled rock concert when something went terribly wrong. Approaching the Rainbow Bridge border post, the car was traveling 80 to 100 miles per hour—perhaps due to a medical emergency, or a stuck accelerator—and struck a curb, sending the Bentley into the air before a fiery crash and explosion that killed both occupants.
No one can fault the FBI or other agencies for investigating whether this was some type of terror attack, given the location of the accident at a key border crossing, the timing—perhaps the busiest travel day of the year—and the spectacular nature of the explosion. What’s inexcusable, however, was the rapid reporting of the most extreme speculation as fact, and the large number of supposedly responsible politicians willing to run with those untruths.
“What I’ve been told is that this was an attempted terrorist attack,” said Alexis McAdams, a correspondent for Fox News, the right-slanted network that despite a series of scandals and mishaps is still the most-watched cable news channel. Reporting just two and a half hours after the crash, McAdams added that her law enforcement sources believed that the motorists—in reality, remember, two middle-aged KISS fans—“have packed that car full of explosives.”
Thus, the “reputable” Fox News was adding the meat of confirmation to what a frothing right-wing echo chamber on social media was already proclaiming: The “blast” mean a network of terrorists is poised to enter America not only from the south but from the north, thus proving—in their minds—the inherent weakness of President Joe Biden’s border policies. And there was an army of political demagogues eager to run with a false meme.
“We need to lock down the borders immediately,” GOP Rep. Anna Paulina Luna of Florida posed on X/Twitter Wednesday. “Full deportation efforts need to begin. The U.S. does not need to be the world’s hospitality suite any longer.” Added another Florida Republican, Rep. Byron Donalds, in a now deleted tweet: “Open borders, soft-on-crime policies, and bending a knee to the woke P.C. mob is an inevitable threat to our nation and its people. Today’s apparent terrorist attack must be a wake-up call to all Americans.”
The website Meidas Touch published a list of more than 30 Republican officials or right-wing luminaries who tweeted similar sentiments and occasionally embellished their posts with new made-up details, like the discovery of an Iranian passport at the crash site. Some of these posts are still up, days after it became clear that the Niagara Falls crash was just a horrific tragedy and not the far-right’s fever dream of Islamic jihad to justify a repressive response. Others, including Fox News, have ripped yet another page from George Orwell’s 1984—tossing their initial reporting down a memory hole.
Unfortunately, their mission had already been accomplished. For millions of U.S. web surfers and couch potatoes, the mental connection of Biden, the border, and fiery chaos had already been implanted, and it will remain even as some of the erroneous tweets are deleted. And that sense that things are out of control in America is already being used to sell them on a rule-breaking strongman in the White House. That will be used in a Trump 47 presidency to actually carry out Luna’s howling at the moon, to deport so many migrants that America will need a gulag archipelago of camps to hold them.
The Niagara Falls panic didn’t happen in a vacuum, after all. It happened in the same week that Argentina elected a right-wing extremist president in Javier Milei, that the anti-immigration party of radical Geert Wilders won the most seats in the Netherlands parliament, that a fake rumor about the immigration status of a stabbing attacker sparked a destructive riot in Dublin—and that polls show Trump edging into the lead over Biden ahead of 2024′s election.
For these rising, right-wing authoritarians, a free press and its threat of factual public information rate high on their enemies list—as it’s been for strongmen and dictators for the last century. The alliance between Fox News, Elon’s Musk’s X (formerly Twitter), and right-wing blowhards shows how a strong propaganda regime has already been established—but what about the censorship side of the sword?
Also this past week, we saw a stunning partnership between an increasingly unhinged Musk, the world’s richest man, and a far-right attorney general, the disgraced-but-somehow-still-in-office Ken Paxton of Texas, in taking legal action aimed at undermining and perhaps destroying the left-wing media watchdog group, Media Matters for America. (Full disclosure: Over a decade ago, I had a brief fellowship with MMFA to support a book I was writing.)
It’s not just that the newest generation of chest-thumping strongmen are harnessing the electrons of the 21st century to hypercharge their modern Ministries of Untruth, but that the guardians of the actual truth—the newsroom grand poobahs, an American president who claims he ran to save democracy—are passively watching it slip from our hands.
Media Matters had run an explosive report about pro-Nazi hate speech published on X and ads for major corporations getting placed next to such content. Other X users confirmed the problem even as X’s CEO Linda Yaccarino claimed any instances were rare and unintentional. That didn’t stop Musk from threatening “a thermonuclear lawsuit” against MMFA or Paxton from announcing a state investigation of the group—chilling moves against a free press that could cost Media Matters hundreds of thousands of dollars just to defend its very existence.
The legally challenged Paxton won’t be a Trump 47 attorney general, but someone like him—like frothing right-wing lawyer Mike Davis, who recently told a podcast that “we’re gonna detain a lot of people in the D.C. gulag and Gitmo”—will get the job, which will surely include the task of siccing the Justice Department on journalists Trump has declared “enemies of the people.”
It’s teeing up a dystopian world in which journalists who do not obey the party’s propaganda line could face increasingly severe consequences—perhaps far worse than the ordeal currently facing Media Matters. Verbal abuse, lawsuits, and harassment is only where it starts. If you want to see where treating a free press as the enemy ends, look to Gaza. And not only because the communications minister in the right-wing government of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu is threatening sanctions against that nation’s most critical newspaper, Haaretz—although there is that.
They say that truth is often the first casualty of war, but in southern Israel and Gaza the heartbreaking casualties have been the truth-tellers themselves, the journalists. After four Israeli journalists were brutally and unconscionably killed in the October 7 Hamas terror attack, Israel’s violent war of retaliations has not only caused the deaths of Palestinian men, women, and children by the thousands, but has also killed journalists at a pace not seen in any conflict in decades.
A stunning 53 Palestinian or Lebanese journalists have been killed since the war broke out, and the circumstances of at least several journalists and their family members obliterated by precision Israeli drone strikes on their homes or offices has done little to quiet suspicions that some media members are deliberately targeted. Indeed, last week the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders claimed the Reuters visuals journalist Issam Abdallah was deliberately attacked when he was killed in southern Lebanon on October 13 by shells fired from Israeli territory. Wrote the group also known by its French initials RSF: “Two strikes in the same place in such a short space of time (just over 30 seconds), from the same direction, clearly indicate precise targeting.” Israel denies targeting journalists.
Major U.S. newsrooms have been mostly tepid in condemning these outrageous, violent, and attacks of little precedent on press freedom, to the extent that it’s mentioned at all. Ditto the Biden administration, which has made protecting democracy its core argument for a second term and yet seems to view the real-world implications of the First Amendment as an afterthought, if not a hindrance.
Indeed, one report suggested that Team Biden agrees with its odd-couple ally the Netanyahu government in wanting the public to know as little as possible about the extent of the destruction and killing in Gaza. Politico reported last week that a Biden administration fear, in negotiating a temporary cease-fire, was that it “would allow journalists broader access to Gaza and the opportunity to further illuminate the devastation there and turn public opinion on Israel.”
This kind of malarkey is what I find so alarming about our increasingly Orwellian present, and even dimmer future. It’s not just that the newest generation of chest-thumping strongmen are harnessing the electrons of the 21st century to hypercharge their modern Ministries of Untruth, but that the guardians of the actual truth—the newsroom grand poobahs, an American president who claims he ran to save democracy—are passively watching it slip from our hands.
After Niagara Falls, and Texas, and Gaza, it’s way past time for anyone to think that “it can’t happen here,” because it’s happening now. And the next 12 months may be our last chance to show that we are not going mad, that the people want the truth, and that we will stop fact-based journalism from sliding down Orwell’s memory hole for good.