In the 24 hours since Democratic National Committee (DNC) head Tom Perez announced that Fox News would be barred from participating in the party’s 2020 presidential debates, the network’s defenders within the larger community of mainstream news figures and elite political operatives have come to its aid, decrying the DNC’s decision.
This, despite the fact that a fresh New Yorker expose from Jane Mayer, which lent a substantial amount of fresh credence to the idea that the famously right-leaning cable channel had essentially become a propaganda arm of the Trump administration, hit the web in the days leading up to Perez’s announcement.
Whether the Mayer article prompted the DNC to rethink its previous decision or merely offered the pretext to announce a plan laid long-in-advance is, for the moment, the province of mind-readers. Nevertheless, the new details showing how Fox has become something akin to “state TV” were all but ignored by those bent on tut-tutting Perez.
Progressive consigliere Alyssa Mastromonaco said Thursday she was “disappointed” by the decision, drawing an affirming response from MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. USA Today columnist, and one-time Fox contributor, Kirsten Powers acknowledged the network’s role in propagandizing for President Donald Trump’s administration but told CNN’s Anderson Cooper the party “would be smart” to let Fox host a debate because “they would have access to a large audience.”
Fox’s own Howard Kurtz, who made his name at mainstream outlets over a period of years before joining the right-wing network, sidestepped the details in the New Yorker story to chastise the magazine for failing to mention “that Fox has a very professional and very solid news division.”
The language differs but the core claim is the same: Maybe Fox’s evening pundits and morning zoo crew are open propagandists who occasionally serve as hype men at Trump rallies, but the hosts Fox tags as straight news figures — Shep Smith, Brett Baer, Martha MacCallum, Chris Wallace, and the like — can be trusted to be fair to Democrats. This entire notion rests on the conviction that the network’s straight news hosts are meaningfully distinguishable from the broader Fox machine. That conviction is wrong, and one need not think any of the aforementioned anchors are personally unjust toward people outside the Republican tribe to understand how it’s wrong.
Here’s a brief thought exercise: Imagine you had a friend who behaved erratically every time they ingested cocaine but who, when not in the throes of their addiction was a fairly decent person. Would you trust them to house sit for you? Or would you choose somebody who doesn’t threaten to go on a bender that ends with your dog swallowing an eight-ball of blow by accident while you’re at your cousin’s wedding in Denver?
Delineating between the sober, decent version of your friend and the manic, dangerous version is not a luxury you can afford to rely upon in that situation. Neither can the Democratic Party afford to forget that whatever Fox’s much-ballyhooed straight news team does will get shoved immediately up the nose of the Sean Hannity/Tucker Carlson/Lou Dobbs smear machine.
Fox has always stridently insisted that its news and opinion arms act in similar fashion to those of any other media outlet. The well-worn playbook for that public crowing is directly contradicted by how the network actually operates day to day, as Media Matters’ Matt Gertz detailed Thursday. That PR push is central to how Fox “works the refs” to prevent other media figures from ostracizing the network. It’s also succeeded, as the above protestations aired on other networks illustrate.
Cable news is a club. The people who make it earn good money. They look out for each other, setting and policing boundaries on how their competitors can be criticized.
Fox is not merely conservative. It is a conduit for the worst and least credible slanders the right-wing fever swamp can generate, plucking ideas from the Alex Joneses and Lara Loomers and QAnon conspiracists of the world and injecting them into major media discussion. If Fox covers something enough, other media organizations feel they have to follow suit. Whatever scruples this or that individual staff personality might have about a given story or spin, the network as a whole will find some way to launder derangement into the mainstream.
In this way, Fox has worked to the detriment of many of the media organizations whose employees have lately defended the network against the DNC’s decision. But other media critics have figured out the gambit and begun to call it out.
“Episodic truth-telling about Trump doesn’t excuse fulsome conspiracy-theorizing about Trump,” the Post’s Erik Wemple wrote last fall at the height of Fox’s fluffing of the president’s obsession with a group of Central American migrants traveling north together. “How many people who listen to Hannity or Carlson or Dobbs talking about the ‘invaders’ in the caravan cross-check this sentiment stuff on other shows?”
Though some of the media rubes still rushing to Fox’s defense this week at least acknowledge that Trump’s reign has brought out an extra bug-eyed approach from the network, it’s a mistake to think that things were tolerable in the past just because they’ve gotten worse in the present. Mayer’s latest expose on just how intimately Fox executives have been involved in helping and shaping the administration over the past two years isn’t some grand break from a once-credible and independent journalistic enterprise.
In 2009 alone, Fox’s daytime block of supposedly straight news programs broadcast stories claiming that Democrats were seeking to protect pedophiles; it ran a Republican National Committee press release, typos and all, without acknowledging the source of the statistics; it claimed a six-month-old clip of Joe Biden talking about the economy was from “recent interviews this weekend” in order to ding the Obama administration as out of touch; and asserted that the Department of Justice “thinks it’s okay to intimidate white people, not okay to intimidate black people.”
Ten years later, there’s no excuse for pretending Fox knows how to stay sober — or that it even wants to try.