This article is part of Watching Fox, a Slate series about Fox News.
When the sun rose on Wednesday morning, Steve Doocy was pouring coffee at a diner in Branson, Missouri. The Fox & Friends co-host had been in Springfield the night before, reporting on Missourians’ reactions to the midterm elections results, and he had gone out for some breakfast. Like all morning shows ever, everywhere, Fox & Friends privileges the homespun wisdom of people who hang out in diners, and Doocy was polling patrons on Tuesday night’s events. “You need a little coffee,” Doocy told one woman, Cheryl, as he filled up her cup. “What did you think of the fact that the Republicans lost control of the Congress?”
Cheryl’s eyes widened. “The Republicans lost control of the Cong—“
“The U.S. House,” Doocy clarified, and Cheryl went momentarily silent. “What … what do I think about it?” she said.
“Is this, uh, breaking news for you?” Doocy asked. It clearly was, and after clarifying that this outcome was not a good thing, and verifying that she did not care for Nancy Pelosi, Doocy asked Cheryl if “maybe this is a chance for Republicans and Democrats to work together.”
“Really?” Cheryl replied, sounding incredulous. “Is this Fox News? Are you new here?” And the whole restaurant, Doocy included, fell into gales of laughter. I give you Fox & Friends, where jocular ignorance is always on the menu, and sometimes bad coffee, too.
I have been thinking of this exchange all day, ever since I first watched it. It crystallizes so much about the role Fox News plays and will continue to play in propping up the Trump administration while subverting fact-based discourse. You’ve got a woman who knew enough about Fox News to know that the network would never really support bipartisan congressional cooperation, but who was nevertheless unaware that Republicans had lost the House. Maybe she was just tired and really did need some coffee, but it felt to me like Doocy’s subject had internalized the tone of modern politics while remaining blissfully ignorant of civics and policy. This makes her an avatar for millions of Fox News viewers all across America. Fox is a network for low-information, high-dudgeon viewers, people who don’t know what they don’t know and have little interest in filling that knowledge gap.
Though Fox News did not create modern dogmatic sound-bite conservatism, the network has been its primary exponent since taking the air back in 1996. Far from seeking to educate its audience, or even to apprise it of the state of things as they are, Fox News is committed to presenting a picture of the world as the Republican Party would like it to be. Today’s Republican Party is controlled by Donald Trump, and thus Fox News is wholly on board with the president’s divisive and retributive agenda. For the past two years, the network has advanced this agenda by withholding relevant information on the president’s flaws and failures from viewers, twisting the words and actions of the president’s political opponents, and distracting its audience with endless reporting on irrelevancies like the Uranium One story, the migrant caravan, and NFL players’ purported lack of patriotism.
We can expect much more of these tactics in the coming weeks and months, as the newly Democratic House is sworn in and Trump inevitably responds by acting badly. Fox will give its viewers nothing relevant about the inevitable Democratic House investigations of Trumpworld, instead framing them as obstructionist persecutions from lying liberals out to destroy a successful and popular president. The network will increase its alarmist coverage of liberal boogeymen such as Maxine Waters, Adam Schiff, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Hillary Clinton, distorting their words and actions as a means of distracting from the president’s personality defects. It will continue to tout the horrors of illegal immigration as the biggest problem facing America and will find a new “caravan” to misrepresent as soon as the current one dissipates. Most critically, the network will do its utmost to aid the president’s efforts to question the credibility of the Mueller investigation. The present of Fox is also the future of Fox.
A major caveat: Though Fox News is, on balance, a de facto appendage of the Republican Party, it’s important to realize that the network is not a monolithic entity. There are plenty of people at Fox who are basically fine. Neil Cavuto is fine. Bret Baier is fine. Shep Smith is better than fine; he’s actually very good. Chris Wallace, Melissa Francis, Bill Hemmer, Sandra Smith, many of the network’s reporters and correspondents—all basically fine. Though they might hold conservative opinions, none is actively working to undermine American democracy. They are fine. They are also largely irrelevant to the network’s aims. Even though they are fine, they can still be used as tools of the Trump agenda.
Fox News is comprised of many parts, each of which plays a different, propagandistic role. The Fox & Friends dimwits get America off on the wrong foot each morning with a chipper dose of lightweight fascism. Fox’s marquee opinion hosts—Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham—work to corrode their viewers’ trust in liberal democracy and inflame their resentment of the so-called elite through a glib embrace of conspiracy, sophistry, and contempt.
Others on the network—even some of the personalities who are fine—mislead by omission, and it is very hard, when you’re in the middle of watching Fox News, to recognize all the things that you are not being told. This happened to me Tuesday night, while I was watching the network’s coverage of the midterm elections returns. The prognostications of certain idiot panelists notwithstanding, I thought that Fox News did a pretty good and straightforward job of reporting the election. It wasn’t until this morning that I realized how, though the network made clear that a Democratic House would likely open numerous investigations into the Trump administration, it said little about the substance of those investigations, or why they were important, or what the president is said to have done wrong. By simply leaving it at “the Democrats will investigate the president,” the network empowers people like Diner Cheryl to presume that the Democrats are persecuting him for no reason.
This strategy will continue into the immediate future—and probably become even more pronounced with time. The network’s coverage of Wednesday’s midday, forced resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and the subsequent announcement that Justice Department staffer Matt Whitaker would serve as Sessions’ interim replacement, is a good example of the game plan.
As luck would have it, the Sessions-Whitaker announcement landed right as Shepard Smith was about to begin his daily, best-in-class Fox News program. For an hour, Smith and his guests did a conscientious job with the story. Former Judge Andrew Napolitano, who was on all hour with Smith, made very clear his opinion that the dismissal of Sessions and appointment of Whitaker—going by previous statements Whitaker had made—was likely an attempt by Trump to subvert the Mueller investigation and thus was grounds for potential obstruction-of-justice charges against Trump.
Then Smith’s show ended, and Fox began its daily long, slow slide back toward partisan idiocy. “Stop and think,” historian and former GOP operative Doug Wead told Neil Cavuto during Your World With Neil Cavuto. “You’re president of the United States, and you don’t have a Justice Department. How you gonna run the country without a Justice Department? They’re accountable to CNN. That’s not in the Constitution.” (Cavuto did not push back on this stupid point. He did, however, end the segment soon thereafter.) Later on the show, Cavuto welcomed outgoing Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who noted that “incoming Chairman [of the House Judiciary Committee] Jerry Nadler has a long-standing grudge with the president. He’s made it clear that impeachment is a goal. And that makes his investigations very suspect.” As for the Mueller investigation, Issa argued, “the reality is that if Mueller cannot come up with a single indictable event that went on in this administration during the campaign by any of its high-ranking people in the next few months, then his campaign to look for it should end. Two years is a long time to look for a crime you can’t prove.”
I am finishing this column around 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday night, long before Carlson, Hannity, and Ingraham will go on air, but I can already predict roughly what they are going to say. It is the same thing they’ve been saying for a while and will continue to say long after Donald Trump leaves office. They’ll call the Sessions resignation a nonstory and argue that Trump was well within his rights to ask for it. They’ll say that the president acted decisively and note the historical precedent for presidents firing Cabinet members after midterm losses. They’ll pick up Darrell Issa’s line of argument about how long the Mueller investigation has lasted, how fruitless it has been, and how it should end very soon for the good of the country. They’ll blame Democrats for persecuting the president. They’ll argue that liberal hypocrisy is the real crime. They will say whatever is most expedient to the goals of the Republican Party at the time. They will work to keep their viewers angry and uninformed. They’ll cloud the issue until the cloud becomes the issue. And then tomorrow they’ll do it all over again.
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