The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In stiff-arming Fox News, Democrats get one big thing right

Sean Hannity speaks as President Trump listens. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

In this week’s New Yorker magazine, Jane Mayer amassed an impressive array of newly reported details demonstrating that Fox News has, at its core, ceased to be anything resembling a right-leaning news network and instead has basically merged with President Trump’s reelection operation.

The piece reported on various things Fox News may have done on Trump’s behalf, such as kill unflattering stories (which was disputed). It reported that numerous Fox hosts, such as Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, regularly offer private advice to the president (which, to my knowledge, is not disputed). And multiple Fox employees have cycled into the White House.

But the real scandal is in the day-to-day messaging that blares forth from Fox, which has become akin to what one observer describes to Mayer as “state TV."

“As the President has been beset by scandals, congressional hearings, and even talk of impeachment, Fox has been both his shield and his sword,” Mayer writes. "In the past two years many people who watch the network closely, including some Fox alumni, say that it has evolved into something that hasn’t existed before in the United States.”

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Trump spends his morning “executive time" tweeting out messaging (as we know thanks to Matthew Gertz’s Twitter feed) that is lifted straight from programs like “Fox & Friends.” As Mayer puts it: “The White House and Fox interact so seamlessly that it can be hard to determine, during a particular news cycle, which one is following the other’s lead."

All of which has led the Democratic Party to nix the possibility of any Democratic primary debates hosted by Fox News:

The Democratic National Committee has decided to exclude Fox News Channel from televising any of its candidate debates during the 2019-2020 cycle as a result of published revelations detailing the cable network’s close ties to the Trump administration.
In a statement Wednesday, DNC Chairman Tom Perez cited a story in the New Yorker magazine this week that detailed how Fox has promoted President Trump’s agenda.

In that statement, Perez said:

Recent reporting in the New Yorker on the inappropriate relationship between President Trump, his administration and Fox News has led me to conclude that the network is not in a position to host a fair and neutral debate for our candidates. Therefore, Fox News will not serve as a media partner for the 2020 Democratic primary debates.

I confess to being a bit agnostic about this. It’s true that the Fox reporters who would have served as moderators, such as Chris Wallace, have a history of being tough on Republicans as well (see his crucifying of Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller). It’s possible they would have been reasonably fair to the Democratic candidates (though the risks of bad-faith efforts to sabotage the Democratic candidates are obvious, particularly after Mayer’s report).

But a key part of the motivation behind this decision is a recognition that Fox News is fundamentally in the business of spreading disinformation, as opposed to conservative reportage. And the recognition that as such, Fox is at the throbbing core of something that has become a major blight on American political life is correct and important.

Some reporters are complaining that Democrats are passing up a chance to reach voters they might otherwise not reach. One supposes this is at least a possibility. But this complaint, I think, also betrays an unwillingness on the part of many neutral journalists to acknowledge just how bad the disinformation asymmetry of this particular moment has gotten, and just how pernicious Fox’s particular contribution to it has grown.

Indeed, some of the most important revelations in the New Yorker go to this point. Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg recounts that he quit appearing on Fox, after a run-in with a host persuaded him that the network had mostly given up on treating Democratic surrogates as legitimate debate opponents, in part because such conduct pleased the White House. Rosenberg noted that the White House has become one of Fox’s “masters,” adding: “Fox is no longer conservative — it’s anti-democratic.”

Even worse, as Mayer reported, a good deal of Fox content has become all about shoring up Trump’s political support against intensifying scandals and Democratic oversight. As Nicole Hemmer, a historian of conservative media, told Mayer, Fox isn’t merely the preferred network of the Trump/GOP base, but is actively trying to intensify Trump’s hold on it.

“Fox is not just taking the temperature of the base -- it’s raising the temperature,” Hemmer said. “It’s a radicalization model.”

This has become only more inescapably true, now that Democrats are stepping up their oversight efforts. Some of the messaging from Fox personalities in response no longer has anything in common with good faith conservative opinion. It no longer resembles anything approaching good faith argumentation to the effect that Trump’s extensive and already-documented misconduct and corruption do not merit the criticism and oversight they’re receiving. It sounds nothing like healthy skepticism, from a conservative perspective, of the conduct of congressional Democrats or intelligence and Justice Department officials.

Instead, much of it is plainly about deceiving millions of voters into believing that core functionings of our government -- whether it is law enforcement or congressional oversight -- no longer have any legitimacy. It’s rank propaganda, pure and simple, directed at insulating Trump from any measure of accountability, and at fortifying the ranks of the base in preparation for the wars over Trump’s intensifying oversight and legal travails to come, in advance of his reelection campaign.

I don’t know whether boycotting Fox successfully sends a larger message to the country about what the network has become, or whether there are downsides to doing this. While scuttling any debates on Fox seems rooted in a reasonable reading of their downside risks, I don’t feel strongly, as others do, that Democrats should as a rule refuse to appear as guests across the board. That seems like a choice individual Democrats ought to make.

But, to the degree that Democrats are standing for the proposition that Fox has become an irredeemably malevolent and destructive force in our discourse and politics, they are getting a big and very important thing right.