Fox News finished out the year as 2017’s most-watched basic cable channel for the second year in a row. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Actually, only one worst time: In April, Fox had to get rid of its biggest on-camera star, Bill O’Reilly, after multiple allegations of sexual harassment came to light. But just about everything else has gone its way. Fox easily survived the departure of its second-biggest star, as Megyn Kelly moved over to NBC, debuting to poor reviews, while the O’Reilly-Kelly replacements on Fox — Tucker Carlson Tonight at 8 p.m. and the shift of Hannity to 9 — have settled in as major ratings successes. The channel has its biggest fan in the president of the United States, with Donald Trump tweeting effusively about the Fox & Friends morning show. And not just tweeting about it — taking some of his policymaking cues from stories featured on Fox.
It’s a depressing info loop. In primetime, Fox’s opinion shows present a hard-right interpretation of the news, twisting facts to push for a desired outcome, as you can see currently in the campaign Carlson, Hannity, and 10 p.m. host Laura Ingraham have launched to discredit Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Every night, Hannity yells angrily; Carlson invites a guest on who’ll disagree with him, so they can then yell at each other — when the dust settles, more conservative talking points have been planted. In the morning, the three chuckling Fox & Friends hosts, doing their dank parody of the network morning shows, pick up the dirt their primetime colleagues dropped the night before, and polish it up with gleaming smiles, serving it to millions. Donald Trump is among those being spoon-fed this guff, and it colors his view on issues.
Fox has more influence on our political life than any other media organization. You know that absurd congressional hearing that occurred on Wednesday, in which the most right-wing guys (all guys) in Congress “investigated” a few hundred text messages between yanked FBI agent Peter Strzok and an FBI lawyer he was dating as proof that the entire Mueller probe is corrupt? That was primarily Fox News’ doing. As the perpetually angry former Trump White House flunky Sebastian Gorka put it on Hannity on Wednesday night: “I doubt we would have had today’s hearing without you, Sean.” He’s right about Hannity: Our government is now conducting hearings (wasting taxpayer money, as Fox likes to say) based on the wacky conspiracy theories of a Fox News opinionator. What’s that, you say you don’t think Trump is going to shut down Mueller’s investigation in 2018? You just haven’t been watching as much Fox News as the president has. Fox News wants Mueller’s probe collapsed; it will come to pass. I have no crystal ball — I just watch Hannity.
During the recent campaign in Alabama, one crucial way Roy Moore withstood his sex scandal for as long as he did was via Fox News’ relentless undermining of the press, its now-constant insistence that institutions such as the Washington Post and the New York Times cannot be believed — not just not trusted, but never believed at all, under any circumstance. Once you’re successful at that level of brainwashing, it’s not difficult to convince lots of impressionable minds that any terrible thing ascribed to Moore must be a cruel lie. It was Fox’s influence that doubtless persuaded Trump to finally endorse Moore, and typical of Fox’s instant historical revisionism that as soon as Moore lost, Hannity started saying this wasn’t a loss for Trump, but rather for Mitch McConnell. (He may as well have said it was the fault of the now-departed Omarosa — for Hannity, when it comes to blame, it’s always Anybody But Trump.)
Fox programming operates as anti-entertainment. Shows like Hannity and The Ingraham Angle are nonstop gripe sessions, mean-minded and downbeat. Tucker Carlson is profoundly decadent, saying things on the air he cannot possibly believe. Talking about the Mueller investigation and the exceedingly remote possibility of a Trump impeachment, he said on Dec. 6, “If we come away from this with half the country believing this was a coup staged by the ruling class against a president they didn’t pick, that’s a disaster.” Do I think that Carlson — by any measure, a member of America’s ruling class — actually believes the citizens who are convinced Russia interfered in our election are trying to stage a coup against Trump? Of course he doesn’t — he’s too smart to think that. But he’ll do his Fox News part to rile up millions of viewers, and may gull enough of them (including, perhaps, the president himself) into thinking it’s fact.
The mirthless irony in all this is that Fox, the outlet quickest to embrace Trump’s bogus concept of “fake news” as a legitimate criticism of the media, is itself the media’s most influential purveyor of fake news. I watch it night after night, shaking my head in disbelief, while its huge audience watches it night after night, shaking its collective head in enthusiastic agreement. Merry Christmas!
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