Two generations, a hundred yards and six feet apart
For the first 18 years of my life, I lived about a hundred yards away from my grandmother’s house. As a kid, I’d skip down the street to her house for a dinner of PopTarts and games of Kings in the Corner, “PBS NewsHour” always playing on the TV in the background. The TV volume muffled the sound of the back door, so I’d tiptoe as far into the living room as I could before announcing my arrival, to surprise her. We’d catch the end of the broadcast before dessert: white wine for her, an ice cream bar for me, “Antiques Roadshow” for us both.
Throughout my childhood, I watched hundreds of hours of the evening news at her house. But somehow I remember very little — I can only hear the “60 Minutes” clock ticking away on Sundays and recall that I thought stocks were physical towers rebuilt each morning. I can hear her sharp, rocky voice commentating on the TV programs, in both agreement and dissent, and her asking me to turn the volume up. Beside this occasional analysis, our conversations mostly revolved around piano and school, two things she cares deeply for.
At my own house, I spent years laying on the kitchen floor in front of the heating vent reading Newsweek. I remember election night 2008 — my parents sent me to bed before the results were announced, but my mom later snuck in to tell me that Obama won. I remember discussing Jennifer Granholm, the 2009 stimulus package and abortion at the kitchen table.
The women in our family tend to be stubborn and opinionated and I grew louder in high school by writing, photographing and editing for the Wind-Up, my school’s newsmagazine. I had a byline and a habit of making the principal nervous. And while my views may have contradicted hers, my grandmother’s name remained faithfully at the top of our sponsors list — though I sometimes made sure her copy got lost in the mail.
Today, my grandmother is 89 years old, and I’m a 21-year-old college senior at her alma mater. We keep our conversations limited to my classes, Ann Arbor and her health after her stroke last year. I see her much less often. She spends most of her time in a wheelchair, alone in her home, watching TV — but this time, instead of the British voices of “PBS NewsHour” or the juicy profiles of “60 Minutes,” Tucker Carlson’s voice reigns in her living room. My grandmother, now, spends all day watching Fox News.
I’ll be honest. I don’t have many conservative friends, and almost zero Trump-supporting ones. I blocked the president on Twitter in 2016 for the sake of my anxiety, and like most of Gen Z, I don’t have cable TV. Other than the occasional clips that dot my Twitter feed, I almost never watch Fox.
Until her stroke, my grandmother read the Wall Street Journal every day and mostly watched PBS. She went to lunch with friends, ran errands on her own and we’d still initiate political conversations at dinner. But since her stroke, and especially since COVID-19, she hasn’t left her house, she’s only seen her home aides and close family and has stopped reading the newspaper. Her transformation from lifelong conservative to a person I didn’t recognize wasn’t solely because of Fox News, and I’m far from the first to “lose” a family member or friend to the network.
But I felt I had to at least try. So this past week, I grabbed a notebook and recorder and walked the hundred yards to her living room. I asked her to tell me about Fox News and what she believed and why. We hadn’t talked politics in several years, aside from her calling me a socialist during a wine-induced conversation a few months prior. My mask helped hide both the exhaustion I’ve built up over the past four years and the smile I’ve been wearing since recently coming out — another part of me she’ll never know about. I sat in a brown wooden chair, six feet and a world away from her, captivated by the familiar — her language, distrust and fear — and the foreign: her.
“Fox has two pronouns, you and they, and one tone: indignation. (You are under attack; they are the attackers.) Its grammar is grievance. Its effect is totalizing,” she explained. “Over time, if you watch enough Fox & Friends or The Five or Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, you will come to understand, as a matter of synaptic impulse, that immigrants are invading and the mob is coming and the news is lying and Trump alone can fix it.”
In an essay for New York Magazine, Boston-based writer Luke O’Neil crowdsourced stories from people who’d experienced the same conversion with their loved ones.
“No matter where the stories came from they all featured a few familiar beats: A loved one seemed to have changed over time ... At one point or another, they sat down in front of Fox News, found some kind of deep, addictive comfort in the anger and paranoia, and became a different person — someone difficult, if not impossible, to spend time with.”
Nearly all of the respondents were adults writing about their parents, or someone describing a falling out with their spouse. Fox’s audience demographics are no secret: they’re 74% white, 44% middle class and 17% hold a college degree. They’re trusted most by Republicans and distrusted most by Democrats. And of Americans 65 and older, 37% say Fox is their main source of political news.
“Fox didn’t necessarily change anyone’s mind, so much as it seems to have supercharged and weaponized a politics that was otherwise easy for white Americans to overlook in their loved ones,” O’Neil writes.
My grandmother’s politics were easy to overlook, for a while. We’ve never been more divided, and I’ve gone back and forth on whether our relationship can handle the conversations I’d like to have with her. I’m not sure we’ll ever see eye-to-eye on much, but as someone entering the journalism field in just a few months, it’s hard to watch her belief in truth slip away. I wasn’t there to fight with her or change her mind, which was good because I was about two years too late. I began by asking where she got most of her news and why she relied on Fox.
Five minutes and 33 seconds into the interview, she began to cry.
“I feel this country’s just going to pot with all these liberals wanting to burn the country down and start over,” she said. “I think that’s so wrong. I do believe in our Founding Fathers and they did a lot — they were very smart people and they worked hard, they had very good ideas.”
She broke off, and I got up to find tissues.
“You’re all not going to have as good a life as I’ve had,” she said, alluding to my generation.
“They’re ruining your lives by burning the whole country down. And who wants to live through all these riots in every city?”
She paused and took a deep breath, her voice flooding with anxiety. “I just wish Trump would go in with the National Guard and put those people in jail.”
It was baffling to hear her distressed by things and events that I perceive so differently. I was thankful my mask could hide my shock and confusion — with that explanation, I wasn’t even sure where to start. I sat latching onto my shirt sleeve, quietly saying to her, “It’s OK, Grandma. Breathe for a second.”
I silently reminded myself that this anxiety is a direct result of the bubble she’s in, not necessarily her whole character. In moments of despair at the state of our country, I’ve been wondering if some people really just don’t have empathy — do they truly not care about their neighbors? What about people they’ll never meet? My grandmother will never meet the people protesting for Black lives in Chicago or Portland. She’s not evil, but she’s been conditioned to be afraid of what she doesn’t know. The way she ingests news, she will only ever hear that Black Lives Matter protestors are rioters, intent on tearing down our cities. I believe a completely different narrative, informed by the places I get my news.
“Fox foments fear and loathing not really because of a Big Brotherly impulse, but because the network has recognized that fear and loathing, as goods, are extremely marketable,” Garber writes.
A similar story to mine appeared in the Boston Globe, written by freelancer Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. She wrote about Jen Senko, whose father had descended into anger and fear after consuming hours of talk radio every day.
“A man who’d made his children read for an hour before bedtime, who always told them that higher education was the most worthwhile thing they could do, became suspicious of universities as liberal incubators. A man who used to stop people on the street when he heard an accent he didn’t recognize to say hello now didn’t like immigrants or Hispanic people. A man who’d welcomed his children’s gay friends into his home ‘didn’t want it in his face’ anymore.”
I wouldn’t say my grandmother used to stop people on the street to say hello, but she certainly wasn’t as paranoid as she’s become. Her idea of the truth has become so distorted that I had a hard time understanding her explanation. “Where does your trust in Fox come from?” I had to ask.
“Just watching them,” she said. “I call that the real news and I call the other the fake news. I can’t say that I ever felt they were lying. Now you keep hearing the other side saying that Trump lies all the time. I said, I don't know where he lies because I don’t have all the figures. And if he says, I made this much money for the country, you know, I don’t know those facts. So it might be that he exaggerated.” She believes liberals, like Nancy Pelosi, don’t use the facts and will lie about things all the time.
We agreed that most journalists work to tell the truth — that the ideals of the profession still remain and it’s more crucial now than ever. We disagree on exactly who is doing their job correctly. We disagree on almost everything, really.
It’s hard to comprehend how far apart we are, though the physical distance between us is usually less than a football field. I’m a college senior, dating a woman for the first time, preparing to plunge into the journalism world, seeking out new friendships and squeezing the last drops out of my education. My grandmother is largely alone in her house, with medical conditions, during a pandemic and with only one constant companion: Fox News. Our situation is a tangible example of the larger discourse happening in the U.S., one that’s exhausting and scary. My grandmother and I will never fully cross this divide together, though I know shouting from our respective sides of the chasm won’t do, either. We’re two generations, a hundred yards and now six feet apart, but in 2020, I’ll take what I can get.
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