It was just a coincidence, but a telling one, that Roger Ailes died on May 18 just as the television powerhouse that he created, the Fox News Channel, was propagating a conspiracy theory involving a Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich, whose murder in Washington, D.C., last summer remains unsolved.
If you don’t watch Fox News, read Breitbart or the Drudge Report, or listen to Rush Limbaugh, you likely don’t have any idea who Seth Rich was. If, however, you are a devotee of those dubious news sources, you have been fed a grab bag of unsubstantiated allegations designed to make you think that Rich was murdered by some kind of Democratic Party cabal for having revealed the party’s secrets to WikiLeaks.
These spurious insinuations have been put forward (before being largely recanted) by a sometime Fox News contributor named Rod Wheeler. Never mind that Rich’s family, the Washington police force, CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, among others, have debunked these conspiracy theories, showing there is no evidence that Rich was a WikiLeaks source, much less that his murder has anything to do with the stolen Democratic Party emails. Sean Hannity, one of the last of the old guard hired by Ailes to rule prime time, nevertheless devoted three separate segments of his show last week to the “DNC murder mystery.” On Sunday morning, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was pushing the same allegation about Rich’s “assassination” on Fox & Friends. Lou Dobbs has spouted these theories on Fox Business Network, too.
Fox’s tasteless conspiracy-mongering has been denounced by the Rich family, which wants the far-right to stop exploiting their son’s tragic death, but it has found support in an unlikely quarter. Ever happy to play the troll, the Russian Embassy in London tweeted: “#WikiLeaks informer Seth Rich murdered in US but MSM was so busy accusing Russian hackers to take notice.”
The Russians have tipped their hand — and Fox’s as well. Hannity, Gingrich, and Dobbs are in overdrive selling the phony Seth Rich scandal because they think it will distract attention from the real scandals of Donald Trump. The president faces a special counsel investigation and the prospect of impeachment, in part because he keeps bragging about obstructing justice. Trump is reported to have told the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador to the United States in an Oval Office meeting, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job.… I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” adding, “I’m not under investigation.” Unable to defend Trump on the merits, the Fox crew wants to absolve him — and his helpers in the Kremlin — by concocting an elaborate fantasy. Hannity had the temerity to tweet: “If Seth was wiki source, no Trump/Russia collusion.”
Although Ailes had been pushed out of Fox News by the time of his death due to a raft of sexual harassment scandals and had no hand in the latest Seth Rich hoax, this is nevertheless the unfortunate culmination of his efforts to create an alternative news source. It was an ambition that I and many other conservatives sympathized with when Fox News went on the air in 1996. We had long chafed under what we viewed as the stifling liberal orthodoxy propagated by the major broadcast and print outlets. While not exactly “fair and balanced” — Ailes always meant the channel’s slogan to be taken with a wink and a nod — Fox was supposed to provide some ideological balance within the larger media universe.
That was a laudable ambition, but what Fox has become is far from laudable. Not only is it a toxic workplace where the harassment of women is rampant; it is also a no-fact zone.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact found that nearly 60 percent of the statements it checked on Fox News were either mostly or entirely false. Another 19 percent were only half true. Only Fox News viewers are likely to believe that climate change is a hoax, that there is a “war on Christmas,” that Obamacare would create “death panels,” that there is an epidemic of crime committed by immigrants (they actually have a lower crime rate than native-born Americans), that President Barack Obama forged his birth certificate and wiretapped Trump with the aid of Britain’s signals intelligence agency, and that the accusations bedeviling Trump are a product of “Russophobia.” FNC might as well stand for Fake News Channel, and its myths have had a pernicious, indeed debilitating, effect on U.S. politics.
I saw for myself an example of Fox News’s influence recently when I was talking to an elderly Republican voter about why she voted for Trump in spite of her distaste for his crassness and ignorance. I couldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, she explained, because of Benghazi.
Huh? The terrorist attack in Benghazi in 2012, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, was no more Clinton’s fault than the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, which claimed exponentially more victims, were the fault of then-Secretary of State George Shultz. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives created a select committee that spent two years and $6.8 million probing Benghazi without finding any real evidence of wrongdoing on Clinton’s part. Yet the way Fox News covered Benghazi left viewers with the distinct impression that Clinton was in some way complicit in the murders of the four Americans.
The Benghazi story was, of course, only a small part of the sludge that Fox dumped on Clinton’s head last year. When it wasn’t suggesting that Clinton belonged in prison for using a private email server, Fox was taking the lead in publicizing Democratic Party emails that were stolen and then released by Russian intelligence with the intention of hurting Clinton’s campaign. This is a long way from the kind of high-minded arguments that conservative pundits such as George Will and William F. Buckley, whom I grew up revering, specialized in — and that Will still makes, though no longer on Fox. (After years at ABC and a brief stint at Fox, he has just moved to MSNBC.)
There is now a conveyer belt spreading Russian disinformation that originates with RT and Sputnik — the former being Kremlin-funded and the latter an official Kremlin organ — and then makes it way to our shores via extremist websites such as Breitbart and InfoWars, before being presented to middle America by Fox. The irony is rich: Roger Ailes, who got his start in politics working for the old Red-hunter, Richard Nixon, created a news channel that now serves as a de facto information weapon for the Kremlin.
Twenty-one years after the creation of Fox News, America is more in need than ever of a principled conservative TV channel — one that will be loyal to conservative ideals rather than to populist demagogues and that will rely on actual facts instead of alternative ones. Maybe, just maybe, this is the role that Fox can finally play if it is radically revamped by Rupert Murdoch’s sons. Otherwise, there will be no cure for what “ails” the American right.