For those watching Fox News on Tuesday night, the furor over FBI Director James Comey’s firing must have seemed inexplicable. Throughout the evening, on one show after another, the conservative network botched, misdirected, and obfuscated the story, to such a degree that one could have watched for a solid hour without learning why Trump’s critics found the move disturbing.
The falsehoods began flying from the get-go, when the network’s breaking news chyron informed viewers that Comey had “resigned.” “I think it was a good idea for him to resign,” opined Fox News guest Peter Schweizer, an editor at Breitbart. In fact, according to the Los Angeles Times, Comey was so blindsided that he learned of his firing only when he saw the news on TV, and even then he thought at first it was a prank. Fox News corrected the error about a minute into its coverage.
No one familiar with the network’s popular prime-time opinion shows will be surprised to know that they responded to the news unanimously with full-throated Trump boosterism. But even a jaded Sean Hannity viewer might have been brought up short by just how hard he spun the Comey firing throughout the course of his 10 p.m. show. The FBI director had been blasted by Hillary Clinton supporters for publicizing the agency’s investigation into her emails at the height of the presidential campaign—a criticism echoed in the memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that Trump used to justify Comey’s dismissal. Yet Hannity suggested that Comey’s real failing was that he let Clinton off the hook. The host called him “a national embarrassment” who “has failed you, the American people, on a spectacular level” by not going after Trump’s election rival more aggressively. Hannity closed his show with what he called “the most important question of the night”: With Comey gone, will Clinton finally face the criminal prosecution she deserves? All three members of his expert panel proceeded to agree that she was a felon who should be indicted, though they differed on whether that would actually happen.
Fanatical as that take might sound, Hannity wasn’t even the first Fox News talker to advance it. Andrew Napolitano suggested on Martha MacCallum’s 7 p.m. show that Comey may have been fired so that Clinton could be “indicted for espionage.” And Jesse Watters on The Five at 9 p.m. called Comey “corrupt” for, among other things, not pursuing the “Clinton Foundation scandals.”
Even the network’s newsier shows found ways to muddle the story beyond recognition Tuesday night. Bret Baier spent more than 20 minutes discussing the “controversial” firing without bothering to explain what made it controversial: the fact that Trump had publicly backed Comey until he reportedly grew angry over the director’s recent handling of the Russia investigation. Baier alluded to questions about the “timing” of Comey’s dismissal, but did not address what those questions were until guest Charles Krauthammer brought them up unbidden later in the show. And when a former FBI assistant director seemed to imply that he thought Trump was lying in Comey’s dismissal letter—specifically, that Comey didn’t really tell him three times that he wasn’t under investigation—Baier declined to follow up, ending the interview for a commercial break.
Fox News has always filtered the day’s events through a different lens than that of other major media outlets. But on this night, when the nation’s political press was frantically pursuing a story about Trump’s real motivations and drawing comparisons to Watergate, it was as though Fox News was covering an alternate reality—one in which Comey’s firing was obviously justified, long overdue, and a richly deserved comeuppance for his failure to supply the evidence needed to put Hillary Clinton behind bars, where she belongs.
The parallels to Watergate are indeed striking, right down to the part about conservatives blaming the “liberal media” for cooking up a scandal out of bitterness at a lost election. But here’s one difference that could prove important: Richard Nixon lacked the benefit of a Fox News–like entity determined to support him through thick and thin.
Fox News can’t fully control the narrative in this fragmented media age, of course, even as the country’s most-watched cable news network. But surveys have found that Trump supporters trust it over any other political news source by a 5-to-1 margin. Some of the GOP’s more moderate and principled members were quick to voice qualms about authoritarian overreach. But they’ll be under enormous pressure from their conservative colleagues not to stir up too much trouble, and Fox News clearly stands ready to provide cover to anyone who toes the party line.
Sen. John McCain said Wednesday that he expects “more shoes to drop” in the Russia investigation. But I wonder: If a shoe drops in Trump’s White House and you’re relying on Fox News to cover it—does it make a sound?