The only surprising thing about Sarah Sanders joining Fox News was that it took this long. The former Trump press secretary is a perfect fit for the network, a faithful and shameless propagandist for the right. It would have been shocking if she’d ended up anywhere other than “Trump’s personal YouTube channel”. It is, however, perhaps the most explicit confirmation we have that Fox now functions as the kind of “state television” apparatus that Americans think is peculiar to countries like Russia and Iran.
No network interested in airing journalism or reliable commentary would ever go near Sarah Huckabee Sanders. As the White House press secretary, she became infamous for the brazenness of her duplicity. Press secretaries are meant to be spin artists, and a good portion of the job consists of finding ways to excuse or downplay presidential misconduct, but Sanders took things to a new level. For example, here she is claiming Trump would never incite or condone violence:
“I certainly don’t think that the president, at any point, has done anything but condemn violence against journalists or anyone else… In fact, every single time something like this happens, the president is typically one of the first people to condemn the violence, and the media is the first people to blame the president.”
And here is Trump himself, inciting and condoning violence against protesters:
“If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, OK? Just knock the hell ... I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise, I promise.”
That comment reflected Trump’s attitude to protests generally, saying “we need a little more” of the audience “hit[ting] back” against dissenters. As for attacks on journalists specifically, when the soon-to-be-elected Montana congressman Greg Gianforte assaulted a Guardian reporter, Trump’s response was: “Any guy that can do a body slam, he is my type!” (Gianforte was convicted of assault.) Perhaps worst of all, Trump told police that they should stop being “too nice” with arrested suspects, and should perhaps stop protecting suspects’ heads from hitting the doorframe as they were being loaded into the back of police cars.
It’s difficult to find a way to twist “I’m serious, I want you to hit people” into “condemning violence” but Sanders didn’t even bother to try to spin the existing facts. And the violence comment is just one among many. According to the Mueller report, Sanders even acknowledged to investigators that she had fed the press a claim that was “not founded on anything”, when she said the administration had “heard from countless members of the FBI” who had lost faith in James Comey. Sanders even smeared the many women who have accused Trump of sexual assault as being liars themselves.
Actually, the press were almost lucky when they got lies out of Sanders, because most of the time they got nothing at all. Sanders barely did her job. Daily press briefings “all but vanished” during her tenure and she didn’t respond to media inquiries. This might have been for the best – the daily press briefings serve the government more than they serve the cause of truth and transparency, by giving an opportunity for state official to massage facts to fit their narrative. The almost refreshing aspect of the Trump presidency is the frankness of its dishonesty. Other presidents pretended to care about the truth, but didn’t. The Trump administration doesn’t pretend.
Thus Sanders and Fox are a match made in heaven (or perhaps somewhere else). Fox has become as much of a state propaganda outlet as RT is for Russia or PressTV is for Iran. There is a revolving door between the White House and Fox: Hope Hicks went from the administration to Fox News’ parent corporation, Bill Shine from Fox News to the White House. Sean Hannity, who speaks regularly with the president, initially vowed to simply “cover” him as a member of the press but then began actively campaigning for Trump. Jane Mayer’s exhaustive reporting in the New Yorker has showed that Fox and the White House have a symbiotic relationship, both collaborating to push a far-right agenda. Fox has realized that Trump is lucrative, and Trump has realized that Fox will say anything he wants them to say.
The hiring of Sarah Sanders is just confirmation of what was already plain. But it shows just how insidious the Fox operation is: we are essentially living in a country where the president has a TV network, and can manipulate public perception at will. That makes it all the more critical for us to build independent media outlets that can serve as an effective counterweight. We are struggling against the combined forces of the state and the most popular cable news channel. What hope is there for the truth when the press and the state are one and the same?
Nathan Robinson is the editor of Current Affairs and a Guardian US columnist