Fox News Is the Tarp on the MAGA Van

All afternoon, the network strained to avoid the pro-Trump fanaticism of the man arrested in connection with the pipe bomb story.

Fox News coverage of Cesar Sayoc.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Fox News.

This article is part of Watching Fox, a Slate series about Fox News.

Around 12:20 on Friday afternoon, in the middle of Fox News’ Outnumbered, the tarp came off the van.

The van in question reportedly belongs to 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc, who was arrested that morning in connection with the pipe bomb incidents that have roiled the country all week. The vehicle’s windows were covered, front to back, with conspiratorial right-wing bumper stickers that lauded the president and criticized his enemies. The authorities had draped Sayoc’s van in a blue sheet and loaded it onto a flatbed truck, and the images of the convoy had been playing on Fox News all hour, like b-roll from a very boring car-chase scene.

And then, some action. “I just want to stop you for a second here,” said Outnumbered co-host Melissa Francis as we watched the tow truck come to a stop. “They’ve pulled over because the tarp has come off the van and has flown onto the side of the road, uncovering it. And so everybody can see some of the things that are on the side of the van there, and stickers everywhere.”

Stickers everywhere was underselling it. For a minute, the van was revealed to Fox viewers in all its crazed glory, a clear glimpse into the obsessions and vendettas of the man charged with targeting more than a dozen prominent Democrats and critics of President Donald Trump around the country. And then it was over. “Oh, they got it back on,” said Francis, as the tarp was resecured, and the convoy resumed its course. You couldn’t have asked for a better metaphor to characterize Fox News’ disappointing Friday afternoon coverage of the Sayoc arrest.

Since Wednesday, the nation has been speculating as to the identity and motives of the unsuccessful mail bomber. On Friday, to paraphrase Dennis Green, we learned that the bomber most likely is who we thought he is—a creepy MAGA fanatic with a nasty grudge against Democrats. There is still a lot that we don’t know about Sayoc and the incident. Why didn’t any of the bombs explode? If he did it, did he have any help? What specifically drove him to take these terroristic actions? Why now?

But there’s also a lot that we do know, thanks to his prolific social media presence and his ostentatious ride. According to photos published on the website of the Sun Sentinel, the stickers on Sayoc’s van were the exact sorts of things you’d buy from peddlers outside of Trump rallies: a large replica of Trump’s presidential seal; images of Hillary Clinton, Michael Moore, and others with their faces in rifle crosshairs; the words “DISHONEST MEDIA CNN SUCKS”; a drawing of Trump holding a rifle and standing atop a Trump-branded tank. The van’s dashboard contained several “Make America Great Again” caps. The passenger-side window bore the message “ZERO TOLERANCE KILL YOUR ENEMY AND THOSE WHO ROB YOU THEN TAKE THEM TO THE EVERGLADE [sic] FOR GATORS.” As my colleague Molly Olmstead has been reporting all day for Slate, Sayoc used his Twitter account to bash Democrats and the liberal media, lashing out at frequent Fox News targets like Barack Obama, Eric Holder, and David Hogg. By all appearances, the man is a Trumper to his bones, a proud member of a political movement that has at its core a philosophy of sneering, violent disdain for the other.

But Fox News spent several hours Friday afternoon working to throw a tarp on this data, to obscure or ignore relevant and obvious information about Sayoc’s professed beliefs and possible intentions. Whether from an excess of reportorial caution or, um, other motives, the network avoided reporting specific information that might have tied Sayoc to Trumpism.
Instead, it leaned hard on general observations and periodic cheers for the cops and federal agents who had worked together to make the arrest. All afternoon, the network refrained from drawing direct connections between rhetoric and action—refrained not just from connecting the dots, but from even acknowledging that these dots existed to begin with.

“This is now going to be a factually, evidence-based investigation, and let the police figure out what the motive was,” Outnumbered guest Steve Rogers said around 12:25 p.m. “We’ve learned in law enforcement that it’s best to complete an investigation with all the facts before we start pointing fingers”—a fair point, I suppose, but also a way of deflecting any discussion of the most likely motive: irrational fear and hatred of Democrats. At the top of Outnumbered Overtime, referring to Sayoc’s opinionated van, correspondent Phil Keating noted that “a lot of cars do that around the country, a lot of drivers do that, because they are so passionate about what they believe in and they hope to influence others.” Keating was speaking elliptically in order to avoid mentioning exactly what Sayoc believed in and how he ended up trying to influence others. Near the end of the two o’clock hour, correspondent Catherine Herridge told Dana Perino that “based on what we’ve seen analyzing his social media, Facebook page, also what we could just visibly see on that van, he seemed to be very, sort of, politically engaged, in his own way.” Politically engaged in his own way. Sure, you could certainly say that!

Covering a breaking story on broadcast media is a difficult task, and in the early stages of these stories, reporters are trained, quite rightly, to be circumspect. Irresponsible speculation is the death knell of reliable and trustworthy breaking-news journalism. But there is a difference between irresponsible speculation and reasonable inference, and in conflating one with the other Friday afternoon—in consistently euphemizing Sayoc’s right-wing rantings and eliding relevant details about his apparent beliefs—Fox News was clearly trying to avoid any discussion of its own role in fanning the flames of violent political discontent.

Fox News as an entity clearly has a vested interest in disclaiming any causal links between political rhetoric and political violence. This desire is why the network spends so much time bemoaning the generalized decline of “civility” in American life. If both sides are to blame for the state of political discourse, then neither side can be said to be truly responsible. “We’re at a point where these two parties, these two warring factions inside our polity, owe each other an apology,” Fox News political editor Chris Stirewalt told Dana Perino. “They have both wronged each other. They have both said bad things. We could spend all day, we could spend day upon day talking about who said the wrong thing worst, who said it first, who said the most despicable thing.”

That logic is flawed and despicable. The president is both the leader of the federal government and the de facto moral leader of the nation—the person whose public pronouncements and comportment give his constituents something to strive for. Every other president in recent memory has accepted this responsibility and tried, in their ways, to meet it. Though their actions and policies may have deviated from their words, all of Trump’s recent predecessors at least recognized the importance of paying public lip service to noble ideals.

But the defining message of the Trump presidency is one of resentment and revenge. His candidacy and presidency have been embraced by voters eager to stick it to the elites who have purportedly kept them down for so long, to the minority groups that have purportedly imperiled white Christian hegemony, to the media, to the rest of the world, to everyone who questions the MAGA message. It is not a betrayal of civility for CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, or any other network to acknowledge that Trumpism is built on a foundation of “divide and conquer” or to criticize the president for his charged rhetoric (and show the ways that it connects to his policies). Rather, spotlighting these facts is a bid to maintain civility—to call attention to the daily erosion of moral norms by a nihilistic narcissist who recognizes no authority but his own.

Fox News has stood alone among major television networks in encouraging and buttressing Trump’s divisive message. When Sean Hannity assures his audience that all Democrats—all Democrats!—are lying to them, when Tucker Carlson insists that “our elites inflame those divisions in order to rule,” when Fox & Friends depicts the Honduran migrant caravan as something to be feared rather than pitied, they are all playing the politics of resentment and revenge. The reason why Fox News on Friday refrained from acknowledging the specifics of Cesar Sayoc’s politics is to avoid having to grapple with the implications and consequences of that strategy.

Shepard Smith, as usual, was the only Fox host Friday afternoon to acknowledge the obvious—that Sayoc’s van was “plastered in pro-Trump and anti-Democrat stickers,” including “images of American flags, logos of the Republican National Committee, pictures of President Trump… at least one sticker that reads ‘CNN sucks.’… [According to the New York Times,] one sticker has Hillary Clinton’s face in the crosshairs of a rifle scope.” As he gave Fox viewers their first sustained close-up look at the van and its stickers—all previous footage of the van had been provided in wide shots where you couldn’t see any specific stickers—Smith acknowledged that “all of the targets are high profile Democrats and/or frequent critics of the president and many are frequent rhetorical targets of the president himself.”

That information matters, and Smith, at least, knew it, even as all the rest of his Fox colleagues flailed about trying to deny the obvious. Later in his program, Smith’s conversation with the usually tolerable Chris Wallace devolved into a full-fledged argument on this very topic—an exchange that’s worth quoting at length:

Smith: When you talk like this, the concern is that that one crazy one might then get empowered. We don’t know what happened in this case. But overall—

Wallace: We do know what happened.

 Smith: No, we don’t know if he goes, “Oh, President Trump hates him, so I’m gonna go target him.” We don’t know any of that kind of stuff.

 Wallace: But what difference does it make, Shep?

Smith: The rhetoric from the podium: the “CNN sucks” chants, the “lock her up” chants, all the rest, it doesn’t bring unity—

Wallace: I agree it doesn’t bring unity, but it also doesn’t—

Smith: I don’t know what we’re fighting about, Chris—

Wallace: But it also doesn’t bring explosive devices.

Smith: No one said it does! But to ignore the elephant in the room is just, you know, it’s a fool’s folly.

For more than 20 years, Fox News has seen great profit in selling folly to fools, and Smith knows this as well as anyone. If history is any guide, the network will soon unite in an attempt to depict Sayoc as a lone wolf motivated solely by mania, and will vehemently deny and refute any attempts to connect Sayoc’s apparent beliefs with the politicians and personalities who have preached those beliefs the loudest. Over the next few days, Fox News will do its very best to get the tarp back on the van. It’s up to the rest of us to never forget what lies underneath.