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A ride on Fox News’s roller coaster of emotions during the Kavanaugh hearing

Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh adamantly denied Christine Blasey Ford's allegation of sexual assault before the Senate Judicary Committee on Sept. 27. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

If President Trump is truly an audience of one, as the saying goes, then for him there’s only one stage that matters: Fox News.

Like every other cable news network, the conservative-leaning Fox News covered the hearing with Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh all day on Thursday, interspersing the lengthy and emotional proceeding with commentary. If politics is a sport, then this was covered like the Super Bowl, with every small moment analyzed for significance. Hosts dubbed the break between the two witnesses' testimonies in the afternoon as “halftime.”

The biggest question hanging over the hearing was how the credibility of Ford and her detailed allegation of sexual assault would stand up against Kavanaugh’s denial. But if the reaction of Fox News hosts were any indication of how conservatives were reacting at large, their shifting tones showed the wild swing in Kavanaugh’s fortunes over the course of the day and evinced a strange synergy with the proceedings in the hearing room.

The day began on Fox News with some notable empathy for Ford and her testimony.

Fox News anchor Chris Wallace said that two of his daughters shared with him stories of “things that happened in high school," and called Ford’s testimony “extremely emotional, extremely raw, and extremely credible."

“This is a disaster for the Republicans,” he said.

How cable news networks are covering the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing

If it was a game, it wasn’t looking good for the home team, Fox hosts admitted during the break. Network analysts chimed in to share the opinion, apparently one held by many of the Republican establishment, that the Arizona prosecutor that Republicans had brought in to question Ford had been ineffective.

“I think the Republicans made a grave error not necessarily in choosing Ms. Mitchell, but having her craft her questioning as she did,” a network judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano said after Ford’s testimony.

The network’s chief White House correspondent John Roberts continued to report the White House angle, pointing to “inconsistencies,” and “gaps" in her recollection and questioning whether Ford had presented any evidence.

But by the second half, the network’s coverage seemed to evolve in a weird synergy with the hearing. Kavanaugh’s angry and partisan-inflected opening statement, with its strange whiff of conspiracies and a Clinton-orchestrated impropriety, seemed tailor-made for a Fox audience accustomed to such rhetoric from its most popular anchors such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity.

And the network hosts responded with applause.

“It was exactly what a lot of people were hoping for, wondering, waiting for,” Wallace said during one of the breaks in Kavanaugh’s testimony.

“This is raw,” Brit Hume chimed in. “His family has been under attack....I don’t think the emotion destroys his credibility, in fact it enhances it."

Martha MacCullum, the Fox News anchor who interviewed Kavanaugh earlier this week, said that it feels like the “cork got pulled out.”

Napolitano had wished earlier for Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to do the questioning instead of Mitchell, a call that was echoed by Fox host Laura Ingraham on Twitter. And by midway through Kavanaugh’s hearing, the wish was granted. Graham was the first Republican senator to dispense with Mitchell and ask his own questions, delivering a red-faced rant in which he referred to the proceedings an “unethical sham,” and accused Democrats of conspiring to “destroy” Kavanaugh’s life.

And by the afternoon, Roberts was calling Kavanaugh’s testimony a “game changer.”

“The West Wing is energized,” he said. “The president is very happy with the way that Kavanaugh is comporting himself.... One official did tell me that since then they think he is a little hot at some points, maybe needs to dial it back a little bit but the president is very happy with how things are going so far.”

Kavanaugh did eventually tone down the open hostility he displayed for much of his hearing.

At points, Republican talking points seemed to slip into the Fox News hosts mouths.

“This explosion of emotion from Judge Kavanaugh, very much acting, behaving like a man who has been unjustly accused,” Wallace noted during one of the last breaks in the hearing.

“I think where they stand is in part stated by Lindsey Graham,” Brett Baier said. “This process is damaged….This is the most egregious example of it that I’ve ever seen. Judge Kavanaugh is damaged.”

By the end of the day, most of the hosts believed that Kavanaugh had significantly increased his chances significantly to the point of a likely confirmation.

“He has dug himself out of the hole,” Napolitano said. “He has come out swinging as effectively as any human could.”

“I think the bottom line, these allegations were uncorroborated,” Hume said. “Those charges remain uncorroborated. I think that probably leaves room for wavering Republicans to vote high.”

Graham continued to defend himself in an interview aired later on the network.

By the evening, Fox’s coverage had turned further to the right. Tucker Carlson aired a segment taking aim at reporters and commentators who had noted that all the Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee were white.

“Why are these morons pushing race conflict on the country when again the story has nothing to do with race?” Tucker asked.

Sean Hannity aired long snippets of Kavanaugh’s defenses at the top of his show along with text cards like “Zero corroboration," and “The left’s smear machine.”

“This has not been about protecting victims or finding the truth...this has all been political,” Hannity said. “Did anybody hear the pain in Brett Kavanaugh’s voice today?"

Earlier in the day, Fox News fired contributor Kevin Jackson after he called the women who have accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct “skanks."

Read more:

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