Politics

Fox News Didn’t Know How to Politicize the Pipe Bomb Story

The network was set for a day of fear-stoking caravan coverage—until breaking news disrupted its efficient propaganda machine.

Sean Hannity discussing the pipe bomb scare on Fox News.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image via Fox News.

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

Viewers of the country’s most popular and least credible cable-news morning show woke up Wednesday morning to breaking news of America in crisis. “This is a Fox News alert,” announced Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy at 6:02 a.m. “[The] Wall Street Journal is talking about a new caravan—”

“Ugh,” interjected Brian Kilmeade, the program’s foremost interjector of grunts.

“It’s a second caravan. It is currently in Guatemala. There are 2,500 people,” Doocy continued. He was referring to the mass of Honduran migrants and asylum-seekers that is currently making its way through Mexico toward the United States. Though the group is more than 1,000 miles away from the U.S. border and might take several months to reach it, its progress has nevertheless become a top story on Fox News as the midterm elections approach.

“Well, the president was saying that there are Middle Easterns in this group,” Ainsley Earhardt said. “The vice president doubled down and said that it’s inconceivable that criminals are not part of the 7,000 in that original caravan. And now, the DHS secretary, he is confirming this.”

“If you want to know who’s funding this and who’s behind this, there’s a lawmaker out of office that’s leading it,” claimed Kilmeade. “He reportedly is being funded by Venezuela. They’re looking to create corruption and create chaos here in America leading up to the election.”

A migrant incursion, camouflaged criminals, a meddling foreign leader, a domestic crisis. Blame the Democrats. Build the wall. It was nearing 6:04 a.m., and Fox’s gormless Friends had already set the network’s daily news agenda.

Fox News has been covering the caravan story nonstop all week, and Wednesday was lined up for more of the same. But things didn’t go quite how Fox had planned. The network was forced to pivot away from the caravan when news broke midmorning that several unexploded pipe bombs had been mailed to prominent Democrats including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rep. Maxine Waters, and former CIA director and MSNBC contributor John Brennan (the package meant for Brennan was sent to CNN’s studios in New York City). For most of Wednesday morning and afternoon, Fox set the ostensible caravan crisis aside and did a credible job covering these attempted domestic terror attacks. The network fields a competent breaking news team, and its capacious roster of ex-cop and ex-military commentators can make the network an insightful choice in the early stages of news events involving police investigations and homemade weaponry.

The network’s late-morning and early-afternoon hosts—Bill Hemmer and Sandra Smith, Harris Faulkner, and Dana Perino—all did a solid job of shepherding the story as it developed. They brought on relevant guests, carried live press conferences, and stuck to the facts that had been verifiably established. These are best practices for broadcast reporters in the throes of a breaking crisis. They are also the exact opposite of how the caravan story has played out on the network.

Last year, I immersed myself in Fox News for a Slate series. Wednesday was my first day watching the network for a sequel, in order to process the final two weeks before the midterm elections through the lens provided by America’s most influential news network. Seeing Fox pivot from the caravan story (which fits so many of its usual scripts) to the mail bomb story (which doesn’t) was jarring. The former is an attempt to leverage a striking visual into a misleading immigration narrative for political purposes. The latter is actual news. The first story fits Fox News’ ongoing efforts to villainize the other, whether the other is Central American asylum-seekers or Democratic politicians. The second story does not—and is especially confounding for the network because the bomb targets are mostly Democrats. The gap between the real threat posed by the mail bombs and the ostensible threat posed by Honduran migrants illustrates the difference between bilious right-wing agitprop and actual threats to American safety—and how an excess of the former risks precipitating the latter.

We are now almost halfway through Donald Trump’s presidential term, and it is fair to say that Fox News is worse than ever. The channel is engaged in an all-out campaign to run interference for Trump by condemning all who oppose him. It has done this by manufacturing scandals and crises that serve to either validate Trump’s tantrums or undermine his political opponents—preferably both at once. The network also did this sort of thing in the Obama years and before. The difference now is a president willing to engage in outright nastiness and prejudice—and a Fox that’s willing to journey to those new lows.

Fox does not typically invent things out of thin air. Rather, the network identifies objectively minor stories that hold propagandistic potential, exaggerates their importance to extremes, and covers them incessantly until they begin to seem relevant by dint of sheer repetition. It does this in concert with other conservative media and politicians, either by setting the pace or following their lead. The obsession over Hillary Clinton’s emails, the Uranium One story (remember that?)—Fox repeats irrelevancies until viewers take them as gospel, and then watches as those viewers get angry that the rest of the world refuses to believe.

The migrant-caravan fixation is the apotheosis of this strategy. The image of a parade of bedraggled foreign nationals, moving slowly toward the American border like a zombie horde, is meant to activate the same fear and anger reflexes that helped drive Trump voters to the polls in 2016. “This story is catnip,” Fox’s Chris Stirewalt told Bret Baier on Monday’s Special Report. “It is perfect because it plays on all of the fears that they can count on to drive persuadable voters in these suburbs toward Republican candidates.”

The network’s opinion hosts have eagerly helped the story along. The Fox & Friends nincompoops have deployed their Evil Al Roker vibes to xenophobic effect, juxtaposing hard-right talking points with morning-show superficiality in order to make hating and fearing the caravan seem as normal as planning your Halloween costume—just two things that regular Americans do! Tousle-haired sophist Tucker Carlson, the network’s reigning bard of NIMBY bigotry, shouts dark warnings about the impending migrant disaster while hotly belittling those who dare to correlate such rantings with racism. “The law is irrelevant here. So are any of your stupid, selfish concerns about the effect of impoverished foreigners moving into your neighborhood or your school district,” Carlson said on Tuesday, mimicking one of the “social justice warrior” straw men he likes to erect just to topple.

Sean Hannity, as ever, exists in a liminal space between objective reality and paranoid delusion. On Tuesday, he issued a characteristically byzantine opening monologue that began with the image of “thousands upon thousands of illegal immigrants” who are “now marching through Mexico toward our southern border to demand entry into this country” and worked its way around to his emphatic contention that “all Democrats are lying. They are literally lying to you.”

“We are facing an unprecedented migrant invasion” and “all Democrats are lying to you” are two sides of the same rhetorical coin. The goal of both statements is the same, and it is the same goal that Fox News has sought since the network was founded, but especially since Trump took office: to create reliable Republican voters by stoking fear and distrust of Democrats and the wider world—and then profit off their loyalty. It’s hard to see the caravan coverage as anything other than political propaganda, intended to inspire viewers to outrage and, subsequently, to action.

This action is supposed to take place at the ballot box. But political outrage cannot always be so easily contained. “What, are you going to shoot [the members of the caravan], Sean? Are you going to shoot them?” Geraldo Rivera asked Hannity on Monday night, in response to Hannity’s insistence that the migrants were not to be admitted to the United States at any cost. “What are you going to do with the army there? Bayonet them?” (“This is really beneath you, Geraldo,” clucked former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka, who was also on the show that night.)

Rivera, as he often does, had a valid point. Violence against the other is the inevitable result of hardcore othering—of the powerful using their positions to consistently malign and denigrate distinct groups of less powerful people. History shows this to be true. Even when violence is not directly called for, it tends to push its way to the fore. So when several manila-enveloped pipe bombs—as of this writing, authorities have intercepted at least 10 suspicious packages—showed up at the homes and offices of some of Fox News’ most frequent targets of outrage, it was difficult not to draw a correlation between outrage and action. The people targeted by these bombs, after all, are some of the exact same people whom Trump and his toadies malign on a daily basis as un-American.

Of course there is a lot left to learn, since we don’t know who perpetrated these acts and what motivated them. But some kind of connection between rhetoric and action did not escape even Fox News: “Of all of the addressees, all of them: regular targets of the political right. Which tells us nothing about the sender. It’s just one of the facts that’s along the way,” Fox anchor Shepard Smith said at 3:10 p.m. on Wednesday. (All students of Fox News know that you watch Shepard Smith Reporting to get a sense for what the rest of the hosts at the network are trying very hard not to say.) At 3:27 p.m., Smith reiterated that “they’re all Democrats. CIA director, you know, not really a political position, but all Democrats, all targets of the political right in the middle of this polarized world in which we live. Not to say that someone who is against those people is the perpetrator of this, but I guess those are items to which you pay attention.” (“That would be one of the clues,” agreed Smith’s guest, former FBI agent Jeffrey Ringel.)

It’s one of the clues, but it’s not necessarily the whole story. After all, anyone could have sent these packages. But it’s entirely sensible to ask: Is there some link between the network’s constant depiction of Democrats as America-hating liars and this attempted bomb attack against prominent Democrats? At the very least, is it reasonable to draw connections between strongman rhetoric and politically motivated violence?

“At times [Trump] uses fear to stir his base,” Fox contributor Juan Williams observed on The Five Wednesday afternoon. “That is the environment that we live in today, and I think it’s one that paints our political opponents as not patriots, not Americans, not worthy—and then I think it invites the kind of lone actor, someone who might be deranged, to engage in this very destructive behavior.” Asking these questions is not an irresponsible thing to do. (It is also not always a fruitful thing to do; Williams’ concerns were immediately dismissed by his co-panelists.) But these questions were not on the table in the early stages of Wednesday’s breaking news alert. And they receded entirely as Wednesday night’s opinion programming got started in earnest.

Carlson and Hannity seemed resentful and disgruntled that actual news had displaced, for a day, their nativist-paranoiac fantasies. Their coverage of the pipe bombs was churlish and begrudging. “The pipe bombs, of course, are one of but many examples of attempted and actual political violence we’ve seen over the past few years. One of the most notable was an attempted massacre at a congressional baseball practice in the summer of 2017,” said Carlson at the top of his Wednesday night show, before introducing his guest, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who almost died after being shot at that baseball practice. “So the president condemned these acts and was immediately rebuked by the Democratic Party for not condemning the acts quite enough. What do you make of that?” Carlson asked Scalise, before eventually turning the show back to the migrant caravan and his favorite topic:

You think nations need borders in order to be nations? Did you imagine that as an American citizen you should have some voice in who comes into our country? The cable news geniuses have a message for you: Shut up, racist.

When he finally returned to the pipe bombs near the end of his program, he and guest Mollie Hemingway from the Federalist had begun to imply that they might not have been bombs at all, that they might have been inert objects made to resemble bombs, and anyway some Republicans got ricin in the mail earlier this month, so, whatever, both sides do it. Hannity, for his part, had Eric Trump on his program to discuss how the Trump family often receives nasty things in the mail.

The arc of these coterminous stories—the bombs and the caravan—is the product of an efficient propaganda engine. We began with “beware of the migrant caravan” and proceeded to “Democrats are lying to you.” The story took an unexpected turn with “someone mailed bombs to Democrats,” and then Fox narrowly avoided having to answer the following question: “Did someone mail bombs to Democrats because they thought Democrats were lying to them?” Instead, the network corrected course, noted that sometimes people attack Republicans too, and returned to where it began: “Beware of the migrant caravan. Maybe they weren’t bombs at all. The Democrats are lying to you.”

On Thursday morning, Fox & Friends led with the story of the mail bombs—or, more precisely, the story of how Democratic incivility is responsible for creating a world in which loons feel compelled to target Democratic politicians with mail bombs. “I mean, remember, Steve Scalise was gunned down practicing baseball by a Bernie Sanders supporter. We know about Maxine Waters calling to go after and harass Trump officials. We know about Eric Holder saying ‘when they go high we kick ’em,’ ” noted Brian Kilmeade.

“Hillary Clinton saying you can’t have civility,” interjected Ainsley Earhardt.

“You can’t have civility,” echoed Kilmeade. “So I think it all plays into this.” Before too long, having exhausted their initial supply of whataboutism, the program transitioned back to what it had hoped would be the story of the day. “According to El Universal, which is a Mexican news outlet, there are 14,000 people now in this caravan, although the United Nations is estimating it at 7,200,” said Steve Doocy. Photos of clustered foreigners were displayed on a massive wall in the Fox studios, underneath the words “NEW CARAVAN COMING?”

“They’re still about 1,000 miles away,” said Kilmeade. “They’re doing about 45 miles a day. But they’re starting to eye these trains, where they hop on top and they come barreling into our border.” The train had been brought back up to speed. It was 6:10 a.m., and the day’s news agenda had been set once again.