Politics

How Fox & Friends Warps the News for Its Most Powerful Viewer

The hosts don’t want to talk about the consequences of Trump’s rhetoric—only the rudeness of liberals who criticize Trump’s rhetoric.

Fox & Friends
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Fox News.

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

For five or six minutes Monday morning, Fox & Friends got it right. The show began its broadcast with an accurate and concise recap of the Saturday murder of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the subsequent arrest of the shooter, 46-year-old Robert Bowers. Co-host Brian Kilmeade noted that Bowers had been “posting a lot of this anti-Semitic, uh, his beliefs” online prior to Saturday, as the chyron “ANTI-SEMITIC KILLER DUE IN COURT TODAY” appeared on screen.

Back in 2015, after Dylann Roof killed nine people at a historically African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, I criticized Fox News for failing to explicitly deem the shooting an act of violent racism—so I have to give the network a measure of credit here. Bowers is an anti-Semite, and Fox & Friends acknowledged this fact, unequivocally. It was perhaps one of the proudest moments in the show’s long and embarrassing history.

This aberrant triumph soon faded. Within minutes, the three hosts of Fox & Friends had pivoted back to their two favorite pastimes: reassuring President Trump that he bears no responsibility for anything other than those things that he chooses to take credit for, and criticizing those people who would posit a link between Trump’s policies, alliances, and comportment and the rise of violent political extremism in America. “While so many people are trying to figure out, you know, what is going on, who is to blame for something like that—a lot of people on television yesterday knew exactly who to blame,” said Steve Doocy.

“To think that the president could somehow be linked to this, you have to suspend disbelief, especially when he has great links to the Jewish community at home and abroad,” said Kilmeade.

“How about blaming the guy who did this?” asked Ainsley Earhardt.

“This shooter hated Donald Trump. Thought he was a globalist. Didn’t vote for him. And never apparently ever owned a MAGA cap,” said Doocy. It was 6:07 a.m., and a morning’s worth of toxic irrelevance was just getting started.

Fox & Friends isn’t so much a news program as it is a daily televised support group for early-rising xenophobes. Foremost among these is, of course, Trump himself. Fox & Friends enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the president, who watches the show regularly and often tweets in response to its segments. The Fox & Friends hosts know very well that Trump is tuning in, and it is clear that they are often speaking to him directly, praising his actions and belittling his critics, like courtiers flattering a patron or indulgent parents coddling an insecure child.

One of their favorite tactics is to shift the terms of debate by endlessly rebutting claims that have not been made, as a means of making Trump’s critics look unreasonable. The exchange between Earhardt, Kilmeade, and Doocy, in which they suggest that Democrats are literally blaming Trump for murdering 11 people in Pittsburgh, is a great example of this tactic. No one credible has said that Donald Trump is directly culpable for the Pittsburgh shooting. He isn’t. Of course the direct blame for the shooting lies with the shooter. The argument that people are making is that Trump is responsible for fostering and amplifying an atmosphere of partisan resentment—one in which bigots feel empowered to air their hateful grievances, one in which grievances can more easily curdle into violence.

But this argument is not one with which Fox & Friends is willing to engage. Rather, the show takes pains to not just deny any link between Trump’s divisive rhetoric and the concurrent acts of violence, but to deny that Trump’s rhetoric is divisive at all. Day after day, segment after segment, guest after guest, the objective remains the same: to gaslight the audience while flattering its most prominent member.

Monday morning was more of the same. Around 6:35 a.m., the show welcomed guest Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent and failed congressional candidate who, according to a recent Daily Beast story, has been effectively blackballed from appearing on Fox’s “hard news” programming. He’s still more than welcome on the opinion shows, though, and on Monday, the Fox & Friends hosts showed Bongino a clip of protesters interrupting a moment of silence at a Sunday campaign rally for Tennessee Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn. Democratic incivility in action!

Bongino responded with appropriate smarm. “Is there footage you’re gonna see today that’s any more gross than this?” Bongino asked. “A moment of silence for the victims killed in this savage, horrific attack and you are screaming, ‘Marsha Blackburn is a white supremacist?’ And the insane part of this whole thing is, again, we’re supposed to take civility lessons from this radical far left?” Why be civil? The left started it. It’s the same old song. When covering news events that might imply unflattering things about Trump, or might prompt uncomfortable conclusions about the consequences of Trumpism, Fox & Friends will always retreat into a sanctimonious metastory about civility, decorum, or tone. “I was just stunned to see how quick everyone was blaming the president and his tone for what happened,” said Kilmeade at the top of the 7 o’clock hour. “It’s just crazy to make that leap and get politics into this.”

A little bit later, Kilmeade and his colleagues welcomed Kellyanne Conway, who bemoaned “the kind of rhetoric that is said day in and day out about this White House, the people who work here, the president, the vice president, their families—it’s got to stop.” On Fox & Friends, the greatest crime of all is not loving our president, or being rude to people who do love our president. Conversely, the exploits of people who do love the president are always worth a segment or two. On Monday, Fox & Friends also devoted several brief segments to lauding the election, in Brazil, of new President-elect Jair Bolsonaro: a racist, homophobic, misogynistic, illiberal strongman who has openly pined for a dictatorship and whose candidacy has riven the nation. Fox & Friends did not mention any of that, of course. “Thousands flood the streets of Brazil overnight to celebrate the ‘Trump of the tropics,’ ” Steve Doocy enthusiastically reported during the 8 o’clock hour. The Trump of the tropics.

How about that! Fox & Friends got it right twice in one day.