Fox News Had a Non-Infuriating Discussion About “Civility”

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Fox News.

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

I have always sort of enjoyed Fox News’ noon show, Outnumbered, at least compared to some of the network’s other panel shows. The conceit is admittedly dicey: There are four female panelists, alongside a different male panelist every day; this fellow is dubbed “One Lucky Guy,” presumably because while he is on the program he does not have to worry about encountering Sebastian Gorka. The show’s host, Harris Faulkner, is decidedly conservative, but she’s also willing to listen to her guests, even those on the political left. On both Outnumbered and the networks’ 1 p.m. show, Outnumbered Overtime, which Faulkner also hosts, the program’s designated liberals or moderates are not only often able to make a full point without being interrupted—they are also occasionally allowed to win an argument.

Something like that happened on Thursday’s Outnumbered, and it struck me as notable in light of the network’s general refusal to acknowledge its own role in stoking ideological polarization in the United States. Midway through Thursday’s program, after segments about the recent pipe bomb threats and the “caravan” of Central-American migrants currently making its way through Mexico toward the United States, Faulkner and her panel turned to the question of civility.

Ah, civility, that weasel word used by those who would have you believe that the problem with fearmongering racism is that it is impolite. Fox News loves talking about civility almost as much as I hate watching Fox News talk about civility. Even if we are willing to accept for the sake of argument that “civility” by itself is an American value worth upholding, the network routinely refuses to acknowledge the outsize role that President Trump, his followers, and indeed Fox News itself have played in stomping all over civility’s face with golf spikes.

Many Fox News guests and anchors insist on maintaining a false equivalence between when the world’s most powerful man repeatedly insults, maligns, and sometimes tacitly encourages violence against his ideological opponents, and when the targets of his rhetoric occasionally respond even somewhat in kind. If a bully taunts you mercilessly for weeks and months and years until one day you snap and decide to fight back, it is not the case that both of you are equally responsible for escalating the tensions. The vast majority of blame lies with the bully.

Fox News, which has long been the No. 1 cable news network for the lunchroom-bully demographic, routinely refuses to acknowledge this obvious point. At first, the Outnumbered segment on civility—the occasion for this topic was, of course, the lingering questions over the role that polarized political discourse may have played in inspiring the as-yet-unknown pipe bomber—seemed to be heading in that same direction: another lame discussion about the alleged role that Democratic politicians and voters play in lowering the standards of discourse. “All right, so the president attacking the media, and the head of a giant media organization, Jeff Zucker, attacking the president. And his press secretary. Isn’t that the opposite of where we want to be on a day like today?” asked Outnumbered panelist and former MTV VJ Kennedy. The program’s designated Lucky Guy, former Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, took Kennedy’s bait.

But then Kennedy turned to Democratic consultant Adrienne Elrod, and she was actually able to get a full thought out. And it was actually sort of interesting! “The president seems to think that any sort of negative media coverage on him is a result of the media being biased, when the media is oftentimes simply covering what he says and what he does,” Elrod began. True fact! She then made an obligatory nod toward both-sidesism before reminding the panel of Trump’s history of pugnacious tweeting. “Jeff Zucker is not going to forget, of course, the fact that that Donald Trump tweeted himself in a wrestling ring, body slamming—not a real CNN reporter, but somebody with a CNN image superimposed,” Elrod continued. “So both sides bear responsibility—but, please, let’s use this as a reset. I hope the president will take this time to do that.”

Though a little hand-wavy, it was a fair point by any standards—but by Fox News’s standards, it should have qualified as apostasy. But Faulkner, to her immense credit, seemed to take Elrod’s words in stride. “We in the media accept the responsibility of what we do,” Faulkner said, going on to note that turning the media into targets of outrage might send the wrong message to “the unhealthy among us.” “But it is on all of us now,” Faulkner continued. We need to stop looking for everybody else to fix our problems. This is our problem. We own it. Actually, we built this.”

We own it. Actually, we built this. I sat up in my chair when I heard these lines. Even though Faulkner was talking about the media in general rather than Fox News specifically, this was as close to a mea culpa as Fox News is ever going to make. The rest of the segment was one of those Fox News rarities: a calm, reasonable discussion in which the panelists listened to each other rather than immediately shouting each other down. Seemingly affected by Faulkner’s monologue, the panel expounded on the virtues of coming together as a nation, and actually acknowledged that it is perhaps unreasonable to expect someone like Jeff Zucker, who has been the target of the president and his followers’ scorn for years now, to respond with immediate equanimity on a day that a pipe bomb was sent to the CNN studios.

It was a good segment, and then it ended. “President Trump slamming Democrats on illegal immigration as his administration prepares to send more troops to our southern border as that massive caravan moved north,” said Kennedy in transition, and the show cut to a clip from Trump’s Wednesday-night rally in Wisconsin. “As we speak, the Democratic Party is openly encouraging caravan after caravan of illegal aliens to violate our laws and break into our country,” Trump said, and the crowd at the rally raised their voices in shock and disgust. The reset sure was nice while it lasted!