Politics

High Information, Poor Judgment

Fox Business Network is smarter than Fox News, but it always comes around to the same dumb conclusions.

Various Fox Business hosts, like Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by John Lamparski/Getty Images, Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images, D Dipasupil/Getty Images, Anthony Quintano/Wikipedia, Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia.

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

It was just after 4 p.m. on Tuesday, and as usual, Donald Trump was setting the agenda for the Fox Business Network. “With only one week to go until the midterms, President Trump is tweeting, “The Stock Market is up massively since the Election, but is now taking a little pause,” read Melissa Francis, co-host of After the Bell, as the tweet in question appeared on screen:

After reciting the entire missive, Francis turned to her panel for comment. “Jack, you love that?” she asked guest Jack Hough of Barron’s. “What do you think?”

“I mean, it’s a play for low-information voters,” Hough said. “You don’t have low-information viewers. You have high-information viewers who I hope understand that there is pretty much no dependable relationship between which party you vote for and what the stock market does.”

It was a flash of clarity, and, as you might expect, it was not allowed to stand unblemished. “Jack. Jack. Jack. Jack,” said Francis, aghast that Hough would deny any connection between Trump’s election and the market’s generally dramatic climb.

“I think that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” said fellow panelist Adam Johnson, who writes the investment newsletter Bullseye Brief, and the segment went on like this for a while, with Hough defending his point and Francis and Johnson swatting it down, before cutting to breaking news. Here was a perfect distillation of the Fox Business Network’s M.O.— a high-information version of Fox News that nevertheless always seems to come around to the same old dumb conclusions.

As regular Slate readers may know, I have been writing extensively about Fox News in the final weeks before the midterm elections. But I recently decided to spend a day or so watching Fox Business Network, too. The two networks are kissing cousins, sharing common ownership, production facilities, on-air talent, and conservative political opinions. The main distinction probably comes down to the relative information levels of each network’s core demographic. If Fox News appeals to viewers who might plow their retirement savings into intrinsically worthless commemorative coins, then Fox Business Network is for viewers who’d love the chance to invest in a shady commemorative-coin company. Both networks are for suckers, but they’re each for different sorts of suckers.

Nominally a finance-focused news network in the spirit of CNBC, Fox Business Network merges wonky stock-market chatter with white-collar xenophobia. These days, it is equally obsessed with the daily swings of the stock market and the daily progress of the migrant caravan that Trump and his boosters have attempted to turn into a bogeyman—in the process underscoring the ties between market capitalism and far-right politics. Take, for example, this clip from Tuesday night, in which Lou Dobbs, the avuncular bigot who hosts Lou Dobbs Tonight during the 7 o’clock hour, manages to combine anti-Chinese sentiment and pro-Trump cheerleading into one condescending package:

As troublesome Lou Dobbs clips go, this segment was actually one of the better ones. Still, it’s a representative example of the worldview expounded by the Fox Business Network. It is one in which foreigners are usually trying to cheat us, Trump is always trying to save us, liberals are forever getting in his way, and also there’s some occasional chatter about whether you should buy more Facebook stock. The network is basically Rick Perry in Glasses, boasting a veneer of sophistication that barely hides the proud, hard ignorance that lies beneath.

Fox Business Network launched in 2007 as a competitor to Bloomberg Television and CNBC, perhaps under the logic that there are plenty of conservative investors out there who would prefer to get their financial news from a network that shares their political opinions. The network cross-pollinates with Fox News, and vice versa. Neil Cavuto hosts early afternoons on Fox Business before moving onto the 4 p.m. hour on Fox News. Melissa Francis co-hosts both After the Bell on Fox Business and Outnumbered on Fox News. Guests like Pete Hegseth, Sebastian Gorka, and Jason Chaffetz are common sights on both networks, so much so that they occasionally appear to have mastered the trick of bilocation—on Tuesday morning I watched as Hegseth began the 6 o’clock hour alongside Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business, ended it with a hit on Fox News’ Fox & Friends, and then ran right back to Bartiromo’s program as the clock struck 7. It was a truly athletic feat of punditry: Hegseth gave the impression of being in two places at once while saying nothing of interest in either.

The network airs just under 24 hours of programming per day. (Overnights are reserved for infomercials.) Its programs parallel the ones on the mothership, with similar shows in similar time slots. From 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock each morning Maria Bartiromo hosts Mornings With Maria Bartiromo, a business-themed version of Fox & Friends. The show is the perfect option for those who might welcome some occasional stock tips alongside their morning’s dose of right-wing vitriol.

Bartiromo leads a panel of pundits through three hours’ worth of discussion on topics ranging from credit-card debt to, yes, the caravan. As is de rigueur for Fox hosts these days, Bartiromo is very concerned about undocumented immigration in all its forms. “What do you want to see done to stop these people from thinking they can just jump the line and get in front of those people who’ve been waiting and going through the regular legal structure of getting into America?” she asked retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal on Tuesday morning. “We know that this is a trick that, you know, people do!” Bartiromo lectured retired Gen. Jack Keane later that same day, in reference to the methods by which illegal immigrants allegedly acquire birthright citizenship for their children. (They should really call the program Maria Bartiromo Yells at Generals.) Though the rhetoric is a bit exhausting, Bartiromo’s show is infinitely preferable to Fox & Friends, if only because it does not involve Brian Kilmeade.

Late mornings and middays are spent tracking the ups and downs of the financial markets and covering pertinent news stories of both economic and political import. My problem with Fox Business’s daytime programming is the same problem I have with most financial television: No one with any real insight into the workings and futures of the financial markets would ever bother to share their secrets on television. The network is less a destination for investment advice than for financial chatter, and of that chatter the best that can be said is that it works well as white noise.

The daytime political conversation on Fox Business is civil enough, with the rightward slant manifesting itself in the topics the show chooses to cover and the guests brought on to discuss them. There’s been a lot of immigration and birthright-citizenship talk this week, as you’d expect. But there’s also some more interesting stuff on occasion. Fox Business features fewer know-nothing Congressmembers and leathery military men as guests than does its counterpart, which gives its guest interviews a slightly different flavor. I enjoyed a panel on Tuesday’s Making Money With Charles Payne in which Reason’s Matt Welch and two other guys substantively debated the notion of regulating speech on the internet. (Welch was, convincingly, against it.) Daytime Fox Business is by far the least objectionable part of Fox News and Fox Business’ combined broadcast schedule.

Things heat up at night, when Fox Business abandons any pretense to being the high-information alternative to Fox News. The network’s evening shows offer a similar mix of caustic commentary and uninformed opinion to Fox News’ primetime lineup. “High information, poor judgment” is the gist of it, though if you didn’t know what channel you were on, you could easily confuse a Fox Business evening opinion show for a Fox News one. The best of them is Kennedy, hosted by the former MTV VJ, but watching Kennedy is still less entertaining than, say, not watching television at all.

Familiar guests recur across both networks’ nighttime shows—hello, Matt Schlapp, how have you been in the 13 minutes since we last saw you?—as do the same buzzwords and talking points: Migrants are violent, the “left-wing media” are dishonest, Trump can’t be anti-Semitic because his son-in-law and daughter are Jewish. “TRISH: THE HYPOCRISY ON THE LEFT IS PATHETIC,” read one graphic on Monday night’s Trish Regan Primetime, although that line could apply to Regan’s show most evenings.

Regan’s show is very bad, as is the show that precedes it, Lou Dobbs Tonight, whose host is basically the Wall Street Journal editorial page in corporeal form. Both programs give loud voice to white privilege and right-wing resentment. I was struck by an exchange on Tuesday night’s Trish Regan Primetime between Regan, former Trump campaign aide Katrina Pierson, and attorney and former Democratic party official Scott Bolden. The discussion was about immigration, and Bolden made the valid albeit uncomfortable point that the recent anti-immigrant furor was a product of Trumpists’ reluctance to let “black and brown and poor people” into the United States, and that the right’s fixation on the legalities of entry was merely camouflaging an underlying racism. When pressed, Bolden cited Trump’s own statement against immigrants from “shithole countries,” and the discussion devolved from there:

I watched, mouth agape, as a white anchor and her guest shouted down a black man as a means of defending their position and their president’s sincerity.* (As I watched, I remembered that, on Monday night’s program, Regan had also ended a segment by cutting off a black man, Shamann Walton, midsentence.) I watched again as Regan shook her finger and scolded Bolden, like a mother disciplining a profane child, before literally putting him in time out by cutting to commercial. Regan’s position was clear: Bolden’s “garbage” viewpoint is both immature and unworthy of consideration, and Trish Regan Primetime will under no circumstances countenance the president and his supporters being called out as racist.

Compare that exchange to a Monday clip from Lou Dobbs Tonight, in which Dobbs’ guest, former federal prosecutor Sidney Powell, rattled the host by implying that the “foreign invasion” of America is responsible for “diseases spreading that cause polio-like paralysis”:

Dobbs was clearly discomfited by Powell’s nutty claims. But note the difference between how Dobbs treated Powell and how Regan treated Scott Bolden. Whereas Regan shouted Bolden off of her program for even suggesting that Trump’s immigration policies and opinions were informed by racism, Dobbs gracefully parried Powell’s insane assertion that foreign immigrants are responsible for the spread of “polio-like” diseases. Dobbs thanked her for coming onto the show. He asserted that she was very well-informed. And then he segued into a new segment bashing Joe Scarborough.

The difference, of course, is that Dobbs, a white man, was not personally implicated by Powell’s unverifiable assertion that Central American migrants are spreading disease, whereas Regan, a white woman and Fox personality, was directly implicated by Bolden’s points, and that could not be allowed to stand. Dobbs was civil to Powell because, even though she went too far on Monday night, Powell is on the team. Regan was under no such responsibility to be civil to Bolden, because Bolden was only ever brought on the show in order to be shouted down. Fox News and Fox Business, superficially different though they may be, are at base both safe spaces for Trumpists to spout bad ideas, to demonize the other, and to never have to confront the fruits of their own divisive rhetoric. High-information, perhaps. Low-value, for sure.

Correction, Nov. 1, 2018: This article originally misidentified Katrina Pierson as one of two white women; she is biracial.