You would be forgiven for thinking — hoping — that Fox News Channel would improve after the ouster of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, its late founding CEO and biggest star, respectively, in a massive sexual harassment scandal. It’s true that Fox now takes such allegations more seriously — host Eric Bolling was just suspended after being accused of emailing pictures of his penis to female colleagues.
So perhaps Fox is becoming a less hostile environment for women. But its programming is, if anything, more egregious than ever.
Fox is ever more firmly entrenched in the official echo chamber of Trump Nation — and ever more divorced from reality. The National Enquirer, owned by Trump friend David Pecker, is Trump’s Pravda (its recent cover story: “Hillary Framed Trump Family! How she set up Donald’s son with dirt file emails!”). Breitbart, once chaired by Trump aide Stephen Bannon, is his Sputnik. Fox is the jewel in the crown — Trump’s own version of RT. “A lot of people wish President Trump was a dictator,” Fox host Jesse Watters said on July 27. Perhaps at Fox “News.”
In fairness, there are solid, straight-down-the-middle reporters at Fox such as Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, and Shepherd Smith, and a few, increasingly marginalized, commentators such as Charles Krauthammer, Ralph Peters, and Steve Hayes who are critical of Trump. But their work is drowned out by the screeching chorus of Trump toadies that dominates Fox’s evening and morning schedule.
While other networks are covering Trump’s myriad setbacks and scandals, Fox presents an alternative reality in which the bumbling president is close to infallible (except when he splits with fellow populist Jeff Sessions), his critics are “snowflakes,” and the biggest threat facing America is, depending on the day of the week, either the Hillary Clinton email scandal, “the war on Christmas,” or “political correctness.” It’s all too reminiscent of the Soviet-era TV stations that ran stories about record grain harvests even as grocery shelves were bare.
Bill O’Reilly’s 8 p.m. time slot has been taken by Tucker Carlson, a smirking preppy with a perpetual look of befuddlement on his face as if he had just misplaced his bowtie. He is even more unpleasant than his blowhard predecessor, as I discovered when I appeared on his show July 12. It was, as I later wrote, like having “a barrel of raw sewage dumped on my head.”
Just before I came on, Carlson and his guest, Mark Steyn, had been chortling over the news that Donald Trump Jr. had eagerly met with Russian representatives promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. Collusion with a foreign power to fix a U.S. election? What a hoot! When I tried to argue that Russia is actually a major threat to America, Carlson replied that it’s not even in the top five. I never did get to find out what he considers a bigger menace than a country with 7,300 nuclear weapons under the command of an anti-American dictator, because Carlson was too busy spewing ad hominem insults against me. I could barely get in a word edgewise. This is Carlson’s standard shtick and it gets ratings, but it makes his show utterly unwatchable for anyone who has not drank the Trump Kool-Aid.
It scarcely seems possible, but Carlson is exceeded in his devotion to Trump by the host of Fox’s 10 p.m. hour: Sean Hannity, the president’s de facto minister of information. Every night Hannity will peddle whatever line serves Dear Leader’s interests, no matter how risible or odious. Lately, for example, he has been accusing Robert Mueller — a decorated Marine combat veteran who is universally revered for his service as a prosecutor and FBI director — of committing crimes that would justify his ouster as the Kremlingate special counsel. Mueller’s biggest sin? Hiring a few prosecutors who donated to Democratic campaigns — even though Trump himself has given four times as much to Democrats as all of Mueller’s lawyers combined.
The official party line, enunciated every night by Comrade Hannity, is faithfully echoed and extended every morning by the blow-dried apparatchiks on Fox and Friends, the president’s favorite morning show.
A vicious feedback loop has developed. Fox airs implausible claims, e.g., speculating that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that was guilty of interference in the U.S. election, or asserting that Russia was really rooting for Hillary Clinton to win. (So Putin helped Trump because he secretly wanted him to lose? Got it!) An inveterate TV watcher, Trump echoes Fox’s fantasies in his own tweets and remarks. Fox, in turn, cites the president as confirmation for its made-up stories. As Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan notes, it’s a “perpetual motion machine of bullshit.”
One of the most offensive stories ginned up by this propaganda apparatus concerned a Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich who was murdered in Washington last summer. His case remains unsolved; D.C. police believe that he was the victim of a street robbery. Without an iota of evidence, Hannity and his fellow-travelers at Fox — including business anchor Lou Dobbs and commentator Newt Gingrich — suggested that Rich was bumped off by a DNC hit squad because he, rather than Russian hackers, was the source of leaked DNC emails. These cruel claims inflicted pain and suffering on Rich’s family, and were eventually retracted by Fox. But the purveyors of this fake news suffered no consequences.
Hannity simply moved on to fingering a different fall guy for the DNC leaks: Imran Awan, a Pakistani-American information technology specialist who worked for various members of Congress, including former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. After Awan was arrested on bank fraud charges while trying to flee the country on July 24, Hannity speculated, along with Fox colleagues Geraldo Rivera and Jesse Watters, that he was responsible for stealing and leaking DNC emails. Naturally, Trump then promoted the story on his Twitter feed. The whole world waits with bated breath to find out who Fox’s crack gumshoes will accuse next in their frantic efforts to exonerate Trump and Putin of any wrongdoing.
A window into how FNC (the Fake News Channel) works was provided last week in a lawsuit filed by Rod Wheeler, Fox’s top source for the Seth Rich story. A private investigator, Wheeler was hired to look into the case by a Republican donor and Trump supporter named Ed Butowsky. Now Wheeler has filed a lawsuit contending that the whole scam was cooked up by Fox in collaboration with the White House. According to NPR, which broke the story, “the lawsuit quotes a voicemail and text from Butowsky boasting that Trump himself had reviewed drafts of the Fox News story just before it went to air and was published.”
There is no proof yet of Trump’s personal involvement, but former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer admitted meeting with Butowsky and Wheeler to discuss the case on April 20, a month before the Seth Rich story ran. Yet on May 16, Spicer told reporters that he was unaware of the case. So, Spicer was lying. It’s not far-fetched to assume that the president — who has worked with Fox to spread previous hoaxes such as the claims that Barack Obama wiretapped him and that he wasn’t born in the United States — was also involved.
You know who else was pushing the Seth Rich story? Andrew Feinberg, a former reporter for the Kremlin’s Sputnik news agency, said he was pressured to promote this conspiracy theory by his Russian bosses.
This is far from an isolated occurrence. The media messages emanating from Trumpkins and Putinists has been running in uncanny parallel ever since Trump declared his candidacy. In an Aug. 4 tweet, for example, Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks (a conduit for Russian leaks), rhetorically asked if that Robert Mueller is a “dirty cop” — a slander that echoes what Fox and Trump are saying. So, too, the Kremlin’s propaganda machinery is agitating along with the populists, ranging from Alex Jones to Sean Hannity, for the removal of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. The general has offended the far-right by removing several of their champions from the NSC staff and the Russians by urging a stronger line against their aggression.
This is how bad it’s gotten: Fox, a TV network that purports to offer “fair and balanced” reporting, has become a flagrantly unfair and mentally unbalanced mouthpiece for a populist demagogue in the White House and his best friend in the Kremlin. One can only hope that its ratings diminish along with Trump’s popular support, but, sadly, it doesn’t take many dupes to keep this con game afloat.