Media critic

A header on Brian Stelter’s nightly media newsletter reads, “Fox under pressure,” a reference to the growing concerns that Fox News’s rhetoric is driving conspiracy theories. “Modern Family” co-creator Steve Levitan has signaled that he won’t “do anything for the Fox network ever again as long as Fox News remains such a destructive voice in our society”; Media Matters is highlighting Fox News advertisers, though it says the campaign isn’t a boycott; and a frequent liberal Fox News guest has sworn off the network.

At the same time, Fox News just wrapped up a remarkable month on the ratings front. From TVNewser:

FNC was +25 percent in total prime time viewers, +16 percent in total day viewers, +13 percent in the prime time demo, and +3 percent in the total day demo vs. October 2017. The network actually averaged more viewers across the 24-hour day in Oct. 2018 than it did in Oct. 2016, which was the month before a presidential election.

FNC marked 28 consecutive months as the No. 1 basic cable network in total day with nearly 1.7 million total viewers for the month of October 2018, and the 5th consecutive month as the most-watched basic cable network in prime time with more than 2.8 million total viewers, according to Nielsen data. The No. 1 ranking in prime time is impressive considering how sports-driven the month of October is. But this news cycle is unlike any other we have seen.

One other notable fact is that Fox News programs booted Rachel Maddow’s prime-time MSNBC program from the top five cable-news shows.

All of this is a friendly reminder that in these days, a cable-news network can promote harmful and baseless ideas, all the while vanquishing its competitors. Robert Bowers, who allegedly killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday, echoed a great deal of the anti-immigrant rhetoric on Fox News airwaves, especially as regards the “invasion” of a migrant caravan that has been proceeding north from Central America through Mexico in recent weeks. What’s more, Geraldo Rivera hypothesized that the mail-bomb spree might have been the work of a Democrat (a bit of theorizing for which he later apologized). And hosts have riffed about how the migrants might be bringing diseases with them.

So Forbes asked the board members of 21st Century Fox what they had to say about Fox News/Fox Business programming. All of them either declined to comment or didn’t reply to inquiries. However, Fox News did fashion something of a response to Forbes: “Many of the FNC and FBN programs regularly push back on the Trump narrative — and just this morning, the FOX & Friends co-hosts called out Trump for his ‘enemy of the people’ attacks on the media.”

Well, then, what’s the big deal?

As noted last week in this space, this little PR flourish is an important element of the business model that governs Fox News/Fox Business. It is true that folks like Shepard Smith, an afternoon host, routinely fact-checks President Trump, fillets his policies and so on; it’s also true that “Fox & Friends” this week criticized “enemy of the people” rhetoric; and it’s also true that Fox News has long deployed liberal voices to debate the predominant conservative tilt at the network.

And none of that mitigates or minimizes the baseless, irresponsible and destructive programming that takes place in other Fox News precincts. For instance: Fox Business last Thursday night aired an interview by host Lou Dobbs with Judicial Watch’s Chris Farrell in which the latter referred to the State Department as an entity that had been “occupied” by George Soros. The comment came in a discussion of the caravan, and it delivered the anti-Semitic trope that this Jewish philanthropist was controlling the world.

Nothing that Smith says during his Fox News program — no matter how sick his burns on Trump might be — neutralizes the impact of Dobbs or Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson or dozens of other Fox talking heads. Nothing. Episodic truth-telling about Trump doesn’t excuse fulsome conspiracy-theorizing about Trump. How many people who listen to Hannity or Carlson or Dobbs talking about the “invaders” in the caravan cross-check this sentiment stuff on other shows? Consider that Hannity last week said this about the migrants: “We don’t really know who any of these undocumented migrants are. Where are they from? Who brought them here? Why are they coming here? An obvious major security concern for the country.”

How many “Hannity” viewers also heard Smith’s assurance on Monday that “there is no invasion. No one is coming to get you. There is nothing at all to worry about.” The answer: Not enough. As the country zeros in on the problem of Fox News, leadership is scarce. Not only are the board members cited in the Forbes piece hiding, so is Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott. The Erik Wemple Blog has repeatedly asked for an interview with Scott and renewed the request on Tuesday. No response. We have heard, however, from Gary Schreier, a programming executive of Fox Business, who condemned Farrell’s remarks on Dobbs’s show.

*Correction: That guest, Zac Petkanas, was not a contributor, as originally indicated.