The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The pro-Trump media world peddled the lies that fueled the Capitol mob. Fox News led the way.

Tear gas is fired at the pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol Wednesday. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

“Fair and balanced” was the original Fox News lie, one of the rotten planks that built the foundation for Wednesday’s democratic disaster.

Over decades, with that false promise accepted as gospel by millions of devotees, Fox News radicalized a nation and spawned more extreme successors such as Newsmax and One America News.

Day after day, hour after hour, Fox gave its viewers something that looked like news or commentary but far too often lacked sufficient adherence to a necessary ingredient: truth.

Birtherism. The caravan invasion. Covid denialism. Rampant election fraud. All of these found a comfortable home at Fox.

In the Trump era, the network — now out of favor for not being quite as shameless as the president demands — was his best friend and promoter. So to put it bluntly: The mob that stormed and desecrated the Capitol on Wednesday could not have existed in a country that hadn’t been radicalized by the likes of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, and swayed by biased news coverage.

Right-wing media outlets spent significant time on Jan. 6 suggesting that the pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol weren't actually Trump supporters. (Video: The Washington Post)

Since this is an especially good day for calling out the names of those to blame, here are a few more from the leadership of Fox News: Rupert Murdoch. Lachlan Murdoch. Suzanne Scott.

‘Not all Trump supporters’: Conservative media tries to shift blame, cast doubt on identities of Capitol invaders

What have they wrought? People like Jul Thompson, a right-wing activist who boarded one of the two buses from Western New York to Washington this week, then bragged to the hometown Buffalo News about being “absolutely justified” in egging on those who scaled a Capitol wall to penetrate the complex.

After all, she claimed, there had been rampant fraud, a stolen election and corrupt courts! “We would like all the courts to see the evidence of massive fraud and election interference. . . . If they saw the evidence they would have no choice but to rule for Trump.” That all these allegations have been considered and rejected by the courts and roundly debunked didn’t seem to enter her mind.

Is Fox the only culprit? Of course not. Social media — the president’s corrosive Twitter feed and the conspiracy-coddling hotbed of Parler — have played their necessary role. Facebook and YouTube, too.

Even very serious places like the editorial page of the Murdoch-affiliated Wall Street Journal have helped the cause, fostering dubious claims in op-ed pieces like Vice President Pence’s contribution from June on how there would be no second wave of covid-19 or in editorials that failed to powerfully call out Trump’s falsehoods on any number of issues. As Mona Charen wrote in the Bulwark, the Journal editorial page “has trimmed and hemmed and to-be-sured its way through the most sustained assault on truth and the American political order of our lifetime.”

William Grueskin, Columbia University journalism professor and a former Wall Street Journal editor, pointed the finger Wednesday at his erstwhile employer, among others: “This is the logical conclusion of everything you have tolerated, encouraged and enabled for 5 years.”

In fact, far too much of mainstream media has been less than stellar. Decision-makers took years to allow the words “racist” or “lie” about Trump; eager coverage too often parroted his calumny in headlines or news alerts; and journalists allowed him to play assignment editor by pivoting to magnify his insults or distractions.

But nobody has done it as destructively as Fox.

On Wednesday, as surreal scenes unfolded, some Fox anchors and commentators couldn’t seem to change their tune, even as they tut-tutted about violence.

Martha MacCallum called the invasion of the Capitol “a huge victory” for the rioters (my word choice, not hers) because they “have disrupted the system in an enormous way.” Maybe it was just a gaffe; if so, a bad one. And it was jarring to hear Harris Faulkner echo Trump’s deceptive language with her references to his “Stop the Steal” rally.

Perspective: Sure, Chris Wallace did a tough Trump interview. But it’s a fig leaf for Fox’s usual sycophancy.

Rather than staying with news coverage on Wednesday evening, Fox allowed its usual prime-time hosts, the guiltiest parties, to spew their misleading toxicity — particularly in repeated suggestions that a significant number of rioters weren’t really Trump supporters at all, but perhaps leftist infiltrators.

On Fox Business, Bernard Kerik, the Trump pardon recipient and former New York City police commissioner, offered sympathetic and baseless sentiments, while adding that violence wasn’t justified: “There’s never been anything like this where the election was stolen from a president. And that’s my opinion. But that’s the opinion of probably 75 million other people.”

And even on Thursday morning, as the nation woke up to contemplate the horror of what had unspooled, they were still at it. One of Trump’s most avid cheerleaders, Pete Hegseth, rejected the notion that Trump incited the riot. Rather it was “the result of a frustration that a lot of people feel” about their values and beliefs being dissed in an America leaning toward socialism. “What do folks expect to happen?” he asked rhetorically.

Where on earth, I wonder — on what popular cable network — could so many people have gotten the idea, day after day, that the election was stolen and their values were being systematically denied?

Success has many fathers, goes the aphorism, while failure is an orphan. But Wednesday’s indelible stain on American democracy turns out to be the one with many parents: Trump himself; his lawyer Rudy Giuliani who called Wednesday morning for “trial by combat”; the crazies of Q-Anon; the dark rabbit holes of social media; and the appalling Republican enablers and fomenters, led by Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who was shameless enough to send out a fundraising appeal even as the invasion was underway.

Many fathers. But the pro-Trump media — led by Fox News — has earned its disgraceful place near the top of the list of infamy.

They own this.

READ MORE by Margaret Sullivan:

We must stop calling Trump’s enablers ‘conservative.’ They are the radical right.

There are flickers of hope for local journalism. So far, it’s not nearly enough.

Journalists, it’s time for a cold-turkey breakup with Trump

For more by Margaret Sullivan visit