Watching Fox

How Fox News Turned an Innocuous Comment by Jimmy Kimmel Into an Entire Day of Coverage

For all that President Trump likes to blast the mainstream media for propagating “fake news,” his favorite network is itself fantastic at manufacturing specious garbage. One of the hallmarks of Fox News is how on slow news days—and busy news days, and standard news days, and honestly every kind of day—the network will generate stories to cover by recycling irrelevant items across multiple shows until, through sheer repetition, those stories start to sound important. It’s a very effective tactic.

All 24-hour news networks do this to an extent, of course. But this is a Fox News blog, and when Fox does it, it is as a means of igniting or stoking existing resentments against the people the network wants its viewers to hate. Fox will seize on an interview that one of its frequent targets gave to another outlet, edit the interview down to sound-bite form, and distribute the clip to its hosts for endless debate and discussion. The point of this game, for Fox, is threefold: 1) to generate material that its hosts can discuss from emotional rather than cerebral standpoints; 2) to camouflage right-wing hypocrisies by spotlighting liberal ones; and 3) to shore up its viewers’ faith in and reliance on Fox News by attacking the credibility of opposing pundits. By these tactics a viewer can begin his day having no opinion whatsoever on late-night host Jimmy Kimmel and end it convinced that Jimmy Kimmel is a disingenuous liberal monster.

As my colleague Willa Paskin writes in her cover story on the comedian this week, Kimmel is no one’s idea of a politically correct liberal. But lately he has used his platform to criticize conservative efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and stonewall gun control. Speaking to CBS Sunday Morning last weekend, Kimmel revealed that while his favorability ratings among conservative viewers have plummeted since he began speaking out, he nevertheless does not regret his decision to do so—much to Fox’s delight.

“So you don’t mind if Republicans turn off your show?” asked CBS Sunday Morning’s Tracy Smith.

“I don’t say I don’t mind,” said Kimmel. “I want everyone with a television to watch the show, but if they’re so turned off by my opinion on health care and gun violence then … [raises his right hand as if to wave farewell] I don’t know, I probably wouldn’t want to have a conversation with them anyway.”

“Good riddance?”

“Not good riddance,” Kimmel responded. “But … riddance.”

No news was made in this interview. “Late Night Host Stands By His Monologue” is not stop-the-presses material. But that didn’t stop Fox News from delivering wall-to-wall Kimmel coverage on Monday, October 16. No fewer than four separate Fox News shows devoted time to parsing Kimmel’s remarks; in every instance, the segment began by playing the clip I transcribed above. What do you say about a story about which there is nothing to say? You turn it into yet another opportunity to bash Hollywood liberals for not being Hollywood conservatives.

The Kimmel deluge began with Fox & Friends, naturally, when at 6:08 a.m. the show’s three hosts aired and commented on Kimmel’s remarks. “Now you turn on late nights and late night certainly does tilt to the left. Alienating half the country,” observed Steve Doocy. Ainsley Earhardt briefly attempted to give Kimmel the benefit of the doubt but was quickly interrupted by guest host Pete Hegseth: “But it’s not bold or courageous to speak the groupthink. To be in Hollywood and say exactly what everyone else thinks. To spew Democratic talking points. They want to preach at America because they look down at America.”

If you think that, having characterized Kimmel as a preachy Democratic groupthinker, Fox & Friends might move on to more pressing news, then you clearly haven’t spent much time watching Fox & Friends. Two hours later, Fox & Friends returned to the Kimmel story, playing the same clip from earlier and asking guest Laura Ingraham for her thoughts. “I know a lot of people who are really close friends of his. They really like him. I think, Jimmy, you’re making a huge mistake,” Ingraham advised. “Politics and comedy—yeah, they do intersect every now and then, but when people tune in in general, at the end of the day, late-night shows, they wanna laugh, they don’t want to feel like they’re under attack, they don’t want to feel like the guy they voted for, you think is just a horrible awful, rotten person. It doesn’t work.” (Ingraham’s own Fox News show, The Ingraham Angle, will debut at the end of this month.)

The Kimmel story re-emerged a few hours later during Your World With Neil Cavuto, when Cavuto played the same CBS Sunday Morning clip and invited guest Ben Stein—who used to work with Kimmel on Win Ben Stein’s Money—to comment. “So Ben, what do you think of his position? ‘Don’t want to lose ‘em, but … so be it,’ ” asked Cavuto. Stein, a smart man, did not try to hide the fact that he found the topic very stupid. “I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t think he wants to lose anyone. And I think his jokes are incredibly funny,” said Stein, noting that Trump is a tempting target for comedians and saying that Kimmel “is a genius comedian.”

So much for Kimmel. But did Stein think it was appropriate for other, nongenius late-night hosts to go after Trump? “I do not watch any other late-night shows,” said Stein. “I only watch Kimmel, and I watch him every night, and almost every time I watch him, I send him texts or emails, rather, about it. He writes right back to me. He’s an incredibly good correspondent.” Cavuto soon changed the subject to health care.

Immediately after Cavuto, The Five jumped on the Kimmel story. “Jimmy Kimmel has lost a solid chunk of his audience with his frequent political rants on health care and gun control. But he doesn’t regret turning off conservative viewers,” said Jesse Watters, setting up the CBS clip. “Wow,” Watters continued, at the end of the decidedly non-“wow” clip. “I like Kimmel, I’m not going to badmouth him, but … ”

“He used to be my favorite,” said Kimberly Guilfoyle. “I’m breaking up with him.”

“I dunno. You don’t want to be the Jemele Hill of late night and alienate half your audience,” continued Watters. “Does he run a risk of doing that?”

“I usually find him to be a person of good humor, and I just felt like it was sort of a little bit unsportsmanlike,” said Guilfoyle. “You should be like, ‘You know what, let people have their opinions, we welcome everyone, you know, to express diversity of ideas and thoughts and jokes, and hope you, like, give my show a chance.’ Something nice. [That’s what] I would have preferred.”

Watters threw the discussion to Juan Williams, the program’s designated liberal voice. “He speaks out on health care and he speaks about it in a very emotive way, and then the critics, especially the conservative critics, say ‘Oh, he’s too emotional, he’s not anything to do with substance,’ ” said Williams, noting that Kimmel faced similar criticisms when he monologued on gun control. “ ‘This shouldn’t be stuff that a late-night comedian has any input on.’ Well, then, who? The conservatives just want people to shut up? I don’t get it.”

“No, well, I think the point,” insisted Watters, “was that he was called the conscience of the nation when he spoke out on guns and health care, and then Weinstein came around, and he said nothing, and got hammered for that. You know, they’re saying ‘Where are you now, Jimmy?’ That was the criticism.” It might not have been an accurate criticism—Kimmel mentioned Weinstein in his monologue on Monday, Oct. 9—but, still: Liberal hypocrisy? Liberal hypocrisy!

No one at Fox calls out perceived liberal hypocrisies with more vigor or volume than Sean Hannity who, predictably, wove the Kimmel clip into his manic opening monologue. “Let’s talk about late-night host Jimmy Kimmel,” said Hannity, his voice filled with contempt. “This weekend, he doubled down on stupid. Let’s watch stupid.” After playing the clip, Hannity noted that “it’s clear Kimmel is going down the same road as Stephen Colbert—wants to be a left-wing comedian only” and angrily referenced a lewd The Man Show segment from 15 years ago. “All right, Jim,” Hannity seethed, “let’s engage over you being a creepy old man trying to get 18-year-old young girls to guess what’s in your pants and grab what’s in your pants with two hands and ask them to kiss it. Jim, you look like a creepy old man, and we’ll show that tape in a second.” If you watched Hannity last Friday, you had already seen the clip, when he showed it after bashing Kimmel for failing “to shed a tear for the victims of Harvey Weinstein.” You’ll probably see it Tuesday night, too. Hannity seems to truly hate Jimmy Kimmel.

Hannity, as the host of the last major show in Fox News’ broadcast day, is great at putting a button on the network’s ongoing storylines, at distilling them down to the essential message that Fox wants its viewers to take to bed. With the Kimmel saga, as with most of the network’s manufactured stories, the message is this: Viewers should assume bad faith from everyone with whom they disagree. The only reason to endlessly dissect Jimmy Kimmel’s banal interview—on a day when hundreds died in a truck bombing in Somalia, a story which Fox News barely covered—is to throw his credibility into question; to undermine his commentary by labeling it “groupthink,” or inappropriate, or unfunny, or blatantly hypocritical. Why do this? Well, Kimmel is now a critic of Trump’s agenda, and many Fox programs—Fox & Friends and Hannity for sure, others not quite as much—are rabidly committed to that agenda. By turning Kimmel into a focal point, the network hopes to deflect and delay scrutiny of itself and the president whom so much of its programming serves.