On the morning of Monday, Jan. 11, as the flags over the U.S. Capitol remained at half-mast to honor the police officer killed by right-wing insurrectionists there, the hosts of Fox & Friends brought America’s early-rising crypto-fascists the day’s top story. “88 million Trump Twitter followers are without Donald Trump. Donald Trump loses 35 million Facebook followers, and the Parler [app on which] he was gaining on turbo speed, that is shut down. Because they decided they didn’t like it,” said co-host Brian Kilmeade. “This, to me, is a five-alarm fire for America.”
A five-alarm fire for America. While the roughly concurrent deplatforming of the president of the United States and a microblogging app popular among right-wingers is an important news story under any circumstances, Kilmeade’s assertion seemed more than a little overheated considering the bloody, historic context in which the bans occurred. After all, it was mere days after a mob, convened and incited by Donald Trump, toted the Confederate flag into the U.S. Capitol and erected a gallows near the Capitol Reflecting Pool, while some in the mob chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” This deadly riot was preceded by two months of lies about a “stolen” election, told by Trump and a cross-section of his enablers, as well as literally decades of scaremongering from Kilmeade’s employer about the character and intentions of the Democratic Party and the mainstream media. It’s true that other right-wing outlets have done more than Fox News to promote the stolen-election lie, but that hardly absolves the network; just because Fox hasn’t been the most dishonest network over the past two months doesn’t mean it still hasn’t been consistently dishonest for years and years. The actual five-alarm fire was one that Trump and Fox News had themselves built, stoked, and tended up until the day it nearly consumed the republic.
Obviously, there can be multiple five-alarm fires raging at the same time—for more on this exciting prospect, please see my latest Chicago Fire spec script—but by any reasonable measure of newsworthiness, the siege of the federal legislature is clearly the fire that merits the most attention, especially from a flag-waving, law-and-order cable network such as Fox News. Right?
Wrong! By Monday morning, Fox News had all but moved on from the story of the Capitol riot, so eager was the network to get back to yelling about the suppressive left. Consigning the Capitol story to a series of passing references, for three hours Fox & Friends made a passionate case for the right of extremely online MAGA propagandists to be able to harass, incite, and misinform people free from any and all consequences.
Frequent Fox guest Dan Bongino, an investor in Parler, called the deplatforming of Trump and Parler “an open war on free speech” and railed against “the tech tyrants, the tech totalitarians, the communists at Apple and Amazon and Google.” Fox News weekend host Jeanine Pirro popped in to call it “the kind of censorship that is akin to a Kristallnacht … They are trying to cancel the president and impeach him. This is vicious. This is not America.”
As we all know, America can never be truly great unless conservative pundits are free to whine at all times about their very unfair treatment at the hands of their ideological opponents. And so it went all week on Fox News, as the network’s marquee opinion hosts tried hard to argue that America’s real crisis was one of free speech figuratively under attack by the left, rather than its democratic institutions literally under attack by the right. As investigators spent Monday attempting to identify the rioters who had killed the U.S. Capitol officer, Tucker Carlson hosted Sen. Josh Hawley—who on Jan. 6 had offered a raised fist in solidarity with the protesters who would soon become a mob—so that they could sputter about the injustice of Simon & Schuster canceling Hawley’s book contract. (The reason it was yanked had to do with Hawley’s own role in riling up the insurrectionary crowd by backing and amplifying Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen.)
On Tuesday, as Democratic Rep. Mikie Sherrill mentioned that she had seen certain members of Congress leading soon-to-be rioters on “reconnaissance” tours of the Capitol the day before the insurrection, Laura Ingraham hosted the right-wing provocateur Andy Ngo, who talked about how the Portland, Oregon, bookstore Powell’s had refused to stock on its shelves his upcoming book about “antifa’s radical plan to destroy democracy.” On Wednesday, as Congress convened to impeach President Trump, Katie Pavlich announced on The Five that “the left has proven they are interested in snuffing out any kind of speech that is anti-left.” (In fairness, the Five also talked about Trump’s second impeachment; they were against it.)
On Thursday, as the Washington Post ran a story about how members of Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department had faced “a medieval battle scene” as they tried to repel the angry Capitol mob, Carlson hosted the indie-rock musician Ariel Pink, a Trump supporter, who had recently been dropped from his record label after attending the Stop the Steal protest in Washington the day of the riot. (Pink says he did not participate in the storming of the Capitol.) Carlson depicted Pink, who has also been accused by an ex-girlfriend of abuse, as emblematic of the real victims of Jan. 6. “When reasonable people like you are destroyed, all of us should take notice,” Carlson said.
No sentient observer should be surprised that Fox News has chosen to severely downplay the Capitol riot in order to instead spend hours whining about cancel culture. Choosing to miss the point in favor of another, much dumber point is what Fox News does. Whether reporting hysterically on a series of ginned-up nonscandals involving the Bidens and the Clintons in order to deflect attention away from the scandals engulfing the Trump administration; reporting breathlessly on the northward advance of a purportedly fearsome migrant caravan in the weeks preceding the 2018 midterm elections; pretending that “antifa” is a comprehensive and organized terror organization bent on burning America’s cities; or crying that Twitter plunged us all into some Orwellian thoughtcrime dystopia by deciding to ban the world’s biggest asshole from using its website after he riled up a deadly mob, Fox News has spent Trump’s entire presidency working tirelessly to make him look good by making the left look bad.
These misleading storylines have become articles of faith to many Americans. Since Jan. 6, much reporting has confirmed the pathologies of many of the rioters. The things they claim to believe roughly conform to many of the things people have been saying on Fox News, night after night for years and years: that the left is uniquely violent and hostile to the American way of life; that the left hates “regular” Americans; that the left works in concert with elitist institutions to suppress conservative viewpoints; that Donald Trump has been the target of endless deep-state plans to ruin his presidency. These scary stories have been repeated with such sound and fury that they seem true to people who aren’t really paying attention.
Hey, it’s a free country, and people can say what they want, even if those things are completely, utterly ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean that private publishers and platforms are obliged to disseminate every single illegible theory uttered by America’s least credible ideologues. The prospect of being muzzled by the platforms on which they have come to rely does, indeed, count as a five-alarm fire for the right, which is why the right has made so much of Trump’s Twitter ban over the past week or so. Fox News has spent years railing against Silicon Valley’s ostensible bias against conservative voices, even as Big Tech has long bent over backward to accommodate their bad-faith arguments, even as conservative pundits have consistently been among the most frequently followed and shared figures on Twitter and Facebook. The network’s objective, as far as I understand it, is simple. The free-flowing dissemination of right-wing misinformation has become one of the GOP’s most consistently effective get-out-the-vote apparatuses. The party galvanizes its voters by giving them things to react against; by depicting its ideological opponents as not just wrong, but evil. These arguments are generally misleading, often deliberately inaccurate, and always broadly irresponsible. But they are electorally effective, which is why the right works so hard to ensure uninterrupted access to its various megaphones.
When Fox News argues that it wants speech to be free, what the network really means is that it wants speech to be cheap, to not cost it anything; it wants its pundits and their peers to be free to pollute the public sphere while disclaiming all responsibility for the actions taken by the simps who take their fairy tales to heart. And maybe this is all well and good until a bunch of QAnon maniacs storm the Capitol in order to stop a nonexistent steal. While many of the insurrectionists were directly radicalized by the president’s own statements and a cavalcade of febrile, bigoted internet memes, the conditions were created in part by Fox News. For their decades of cant and nonsense, the president’s reckless enablers in right-wing media share ownership in what happened last Wednesday. And that’s why Fox News has found it so difficult to acknowledge that the siege of the Capitol is even a story.
Fox News would be in a unique position to actually own the coverage of the Capitol siege if it wanted to do so. As the preeminent conservative cable news network, Fox’s reporters and hosts are sourced up in the MAGA community in a way that other reporters are not, and they could bring unique and valuable perspectives to the story. While there are individuals at Fox who have tried to cover the Capitol siege honestly—there always are—the network’s top personalities have covered it as if the real story is that the left even thinks it’s a story. On Thursday night, for instance, Ingraham—so exercised this summer over the “violent radicals” who had purportedly laid waste to Portland, Oregon, and other cities—scoffed at those people who dare to claim that “what happened on Jan. 6 was some sort of dangerous attempt to take down the republic instead of a bunch of desperate people who would have been easily handled by a sufficiently staffed Capitol police.” Later that night, Ingraham hosted pardoned felon Dinesh D’Souza for a segment on how “the hate and vitriol that we’ve seen from the media and Democrats shows that they are the very things they claim to detest.”
What can you do? If Fox News writ large were to admit that something major happened last Wednesday, then it would also have to address its own role in seeding the right with paranoia and hatred. Faced with the consequence of its own dishonesty, the network has chosen to just brush aside the Capitol siege and recommit to the same old cynical bit. In a way, I suppose, Fox’s choice isn’t actually a choice. The network helped to create the Republican Party’s radical, irrational base, and now it is captive to that base, insofar as it will lose their viewership if it stops feeding them the inanities they have come to crave. Since the election, rival cable news networks Newsmax and OANN—which make Fox News look like CSPAN—have been picking off disaffected Fox viewers who think the network betrayed the president by not ceding control of its airwaves to Lin Wood and Sidney Powell. If Fox were to cover the Capitol riot story in a responsible journalistic manner, it’s likely that even more viewers would defect, and then where would the network be? Perhaps trailing CNN and MSNBC in the ratings, as has already begun to happen.
On Friday morning, Fox & Friends made much of a secret recording that had been leaked by Project Veritas, the organization headed by the serially unreliable conservative activist James O’Keefe, of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey allegedly revealing the company’s plans to “censor” conservative voices on its platform in the near future. (Far from being some nefarious plan to stifle right-wing speech, Dorsey seemed simply to be saying that Twitter plans to continue to enforce its terms of service.) “This really goes back to the 75 million people that voted for Trump. And it’s trying to silence the conservative voice,” said co-host Ainsley Earhart. “It’s very scary as to how this is going to affect you, because they’re trying to shut down voices so that you don’t know the full story and you can’t make a decision based on truth.”
The truest thing Donald Trump ever said was his assertion, in January 2016, that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a single voter. At the time, the statement read as a bit of vulgar hyperbole from a novelty presidential candidate who, most pundits agreed, had no path to victory in that year’s general election. Five years later, though, it reads as a canny, cynical, and dead accurate assessment of the true priorities of the replacement-level Republican voter and the media systems that nurture and sustain them. They will justify any right-wing horror in order to avoid reckoning with the consequences of the lies that they’ve told and the world that they’ve made.