What Won’t Change on Fox News

No matter who’s president, the network will portray one main villain: the rest of the media.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: Traffic on Sixth Avenue passes by advertisements featuring Fox News personalities, including Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity, adorn the front of the News Corporation building, March 13, 2019 in New York City. On Wednesday the network's sales executives are hosting an event for advertisers to promote Fox News. Fox News personalities Tucker Carlson and Jeanine Pirro have come under criticism in recent weeks for controversial comments and multiple advertisers have pulled away from their shows. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Staying put. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As pro-Trump protesters, some carrying firearms, gathered at vote-counting locations in Michigan and Arizona on Wednesday, Fox News offered a preview of how it will play the coming weeks, months, and years. The network’s election night team had gone home, and Fox had reverted to its regular weeknight schedule. Picking up where they had left off before Election Day, hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham did their best to delegitimize the ongoing vote tabulations, while priming their viewers to fear and distrust an adverse conclusion.

“The outcome of our presidential election was seized from the hands of voters, where of course it rightly belongs, and now resides in the control of lawyers and courts and highly partisan, clearly corrupted city bureaucrats,” Carlson said in his opening monologue. “So no matter what happens next, that is a tragedy. Many Americans will never again accept the results of a presidential election.” He contended that what the Democratic Party really wanted was “total control over everything. No more democracy, no more dissent, permanent obedience from the rest of us.”

Then came Hannity’s show: “Do you trust what happened in this election?” he asked. “You believe these election results are accurate? Do you believe this was a free and fair election? I have a lot of questions.” The graphic on the screen read “Corrupt Institutions.” “Do the Democrats, the media, do they really want an honest election or will they support removing Donald Trump pretty much by any means necessary, as they have for the last four years?”

Ingraham, somehow, took it further. “Is the fix already in?” she asked before issuing a rallying cry to her core audience of irrational right-wing crackpots: “We’re going to stand up to the hard-left ideologues who despise this country and its people. We’re going to resist plutocrats who want to rig the economy in their favor and maybe even the elections. And we’re going to fight for our traditional values and defend our American heritage. We’re an army of tens of millions of Americans, we intend to take our ideas to every state in this country.” With temperatures already rising on the MAGA right, the three hosts augmented their arguments with anecdotes and vitriol to support their skewed, ongoing thesis that the left is the party of lawlessness and disorder. It sounded like tacit encouragement for the right to take any and all necessary steps to stand against a Democratic win. “A white man says ‘all lives matter’ and Black Lives Matter batter him with a bat,” said Ingraham at the end of her program, over footage purportedly depicting the incident she described. “This is Biden’s America.”

And this is Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, a thoroughly reactionary propaganda operation that functions best when it is at its worst. Whenever the network does rise to the moment and show flashes of journalistic and analytical independence, it only ever seems to annoy its core demographic. Take the Fox News decision desk calling Arizona for Joe Biden well before any other outlet had done so on Tuesday night. (The AP did the same early Wednesday morning, while as of this writing many other outlets still haven’t.) The call enraged the president and his surrogates and visibly frustrated several other Fox News on-air personalities. Suddenly the network’s deviation from Trumpist orthodoxy became the story, and that particular story is very bad for business.

So it was predictable to watch the network sink back to its own level on Wednesday night. The Fox News we got on Wednesday is much more representative of the Fox News we’ll be stuck with for the foreseeable future—even with Trump World still seething at its decision desk as the hours tick by. Even as the president of the United States declares victory in an election he has not won; even as his supporters surrounded ballot-counting locations in order to intimidate volunteers out of performing their duties; even as throngs of campaign lawyers file nuisance lawsuits meant to stymie the count of lawful votes …. amid all of this, Fox News is portraying the ongoing situation as one primarily characterized by leftist violence, Democratic chicanery, and elitist disdain for the will of the people.

That’s one story, and it was classic Fox News projection. In the real world, it was the right that was grabbing its weapons and protesting a legitimate vote count—there was no leftist violence to speak of in the election’s aftermath. And it was the president’s campaign that was trying to jam the gears of democracy—the chicanery was all Trump’s, not the Democratic Party’s.

This will be one of the significant tales Fox tells over the next four years should Joe Biden become president—that he is in thrall to a corrupt, bloodthirsty left. But I actually don’t think Biden and the left are the most potent antagonists Fox will portray. They’ll save their real attention for the mainstream media.

On Fox News, almost any coverage can, and usually does, include some kind of meta-commentary on how other organizations are covering or ignoring it. It’s a trick that works in any scenario, under any administration—including the apparent twilight of the current one.

Starting with the first returns on election night, and the first signs that 2020 was not going to be the “blue wave” that some on the left had predicted, several Fox News commentators kept claiming that the real losers of the 2020 presidential election were the rest of the media. “This was going to be a blue wave, this was gonna be an early night,” Carlson said around 8:20 p.m on election night when he joined the news broadcast to share his take. “Why is the demonstrated reality so different from what purportedly smart people said it was going to be?”

Nearly every emerging theme of the night was eventually used to berate Fox’s competitors. “It is really stunning that it is Donald Trump—someone the media have painted as a racist, racial demagogue—managing this transformation of the Republican Party toward a more multiracial, working-class party,” Fox contributor Mollie Hemingway said around 9:30 p.m., as it became clearer that Trump had performed better than expected with Latino voters. More broadly, she said, “there were so many different ways that the media assisted the Joe Biden campaign throughout his entire campaign, once he won the nomination,” including by “hiding negative stories about Joe Biden [and] hiding positive stories about President Donald Trump.” In this telling, the media showed their bias by refusing to disseminate all of the dubious “Biden crime family” stories ginned up by Rudy Giuliani and his inept gang of dirty tricksters.

On Wednesday morning, several contributors to Fox & Friends joined the chorus. “Donald Trump has faced the headwinds of the national media plus the opposition party for four long years. They’ve been blowing it in his face at 200 knots an hour and it’s been stunning,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, feigning shock that the media might report critically on a dishonest and unprepared president. Later, speaking from a diner in Green Bay, Wisconsin, correspondent Will Cain noted that “our media seems to have so little grasp of what’s going on across this country, so out of touch with values and opinions across this country, it’s absolutely amazing. I heard Tucker talking about this last night. You know, deeply, deeply, condescendingly, sneeringly out of touch with Americans.” Unlike, say, TV reporters who pop into swing-state diners every now and then to take the pulse of real America.

This was always, in some variation, going to be how Fox framed the election. If Trump had won big, the story would have been how the media misgauged the race and was wholly out of step with the electorate. If it had been a Biden blowout, the story would have been that the media, in concert with the radical left, intimidated conservative voters out of going to the polls. I’ll allow that it’s a little fitting. Although these particular lines of argument are tainted by partisan motives, the fact is that the story of the 2020 election really is a media story—just not one that Fox News wants to tell.

The story of the 2020 presidential election is, to my mind, one of the defiantly low-information voter. There is literally nothing more that American reporters, bloggers, and columnists could have done to explore, investigate, present, and explain the problems with Donald Trump’s presidency. For 60 million voters—voters voting in a pandemic!—none of it mattered. The cumulative reportage was evidence to them of the media’s deficiencies, not of Trump’s manifest unfitness for office.

How did this happen? Americans’ tribalism has lots of causes, but it is perpetuated in part by the separate information spheres inhabited by the far right and, well, everyone else. Trump’s own repeated insistence that the mainstream media are enemies of the people is the culmination of a 30-year right-wing effort to undermine public confidence in factual, nonpartisan reporting. This operation has been critical, because the facts often do not favor Republican politicians’ public statements. It is demonstrably untrue, for instance, that masks “do not work” to stem the spread of COVID-19, as many, many right-wing figures have claimed over the past year; it is demonstrably untrue that anthropogenic global warming is a Chinese hoax. It is demonstrably untrue that Donald Trump acted swiftly and decisively to curtail the COVID-19 crisis, and that the pandemic is just going away on its own. It is demonstrably untrue that Mitch McConnell initially held up Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court under the justification that justices must not be confirmed in an election year when the opposing party holds the Senate. It is demonstrably untrue that ballot fraud is a persistent problem in the United States. But a large chunk of the country simply does not trust the media that might say so.

The right has waged war against the press because that was one of the easiest ways for it to maintain viability in elections—it needed to do an end run against inconvenient facts. And Republicans have benefited from their own epistemic alternative to the mainstream media: Fox News. For the past 24 years, the channel has led the way in amplifying conservative complaints with the mainstream media. It has trained its audience to not just mistrust, but to violently loathe, any source that does not blindly conform to the GOP line.

Today, approximately five out of 10 sentences spoken on Fox News are constructed to cast aspersions on the mainstream media. The other five sentences inevitably depict the left as the party of irreligious socialist chaos. And so here we are now, two days after Election Day, with the president of the United States and his surrogates actively working, with increasing desperation, to subvert the electoral process and the marquee personalities on Fox News effectively telling their viewers that the death of American democracy is an outcome preferable to the rule of liberal elites and especially their abettors in the media. It doesn’t matter who wins the presidency, really; the media elites–versus–real America story is the story that Fox News will tell for the next four years, and beyond.

“We’re just smelly, irredeemable, deplorable chumps that shop at Walmart and cling to God, our Second Amendment rights, our Bibles, our religion. Make no mistake: They are not your moral superior,” said Hannity on Wednesday. Hannity, of course, makes an estimated $40 million a year to pretend that he is not himself one of the wealthiest members of the so-called media elite. “In the coming days I promise they will do, say everything they can do and think they are doing God’s will to put Joe Biden over the finish line,” he continued, referring to the media and the left. “They lied, they have tried to destroy President Trump for four straight years. No lie too big, no conspiracy theory too bizarre, no lines that they would not cross. This is the rawest of raw power plays. And what happens to the country, the damage that they’ve done over four years? They could care less.” It was the correct conclusion, but the wrong they. More than 48 hours after the first polls closed in this as-yet-still-unresolved presidential election, Fox News will continue to depict America as a country besieged by internal enemies of the network’s own creation, no matter what is lost or destroyed along the way.