The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Never forget Fox News’s promotion of the ‘Big Lie’

President Trump greets Sean Hannity at a rally in Cape Girardeau, Mo., on Nov. 5, 2018. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

First in a series on the ability of Fox News to resist accountability.

When Fox News gets busted for doing awful things, it often addresses the ensuing crisis with a statement or internal memo from management. That’s what it did after it ran an anti-Semitic segment on Fox Business Network right after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, after the publication of a story promoting the Seth Rich conspiracy theory, after CNN exposed hateful postings by Tucker Carlson’s top writer, after it was revealed that host Sean Hannity shared a lawyer with President Trump and so on.

Those are all serious situations, yet none of them compares to the latest crisis at Fox News Media: Hosts on Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network propagandized the lie that Democrats had stolen the election from President Trump — the same lie that animated the Capitol rioters on Jan. 6.

And yet Fox News apparently isn’t looking inward. The Erik Wemple Blog — and certainly many others — have asked the network to comment on its own role in spreading ideas that undermine the same democracy that its hosts commonly laud on air. Nothing comes back.

Follow Erik Wemple's opinionsFollow

It’s possible that there’s just too much to apologize for. Conspiratorial pronouncements from the network’s Trump shills bombarded the airwaves between the Nov. 3 election and the Capitol riot:

  • “You have a group of corrupt people who have absolute contempt for the American people, who believe that we are so spineless, so cowardly, so unwilling to stand up for ourselves that they can steal the presidency,” said Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich on Nov. 5.
  • “It is a national disgrace how some states have handled this election,” said host Sean Hannity on Nov. 9.
  • “We cannot allow America’s election to be corrupted. We cannot,” said Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo in an infamous Nov. 29 interview with President Trump.
  • “Stop letting people tell you that we don’t have the evidence, because we do. And this is only going to continue. This fraud will continue and America will be doomed for the next 20 years,” said Fox News host Jeanine Pirro on the Dec. 1 edition of “Hannity.”
  • “We can’t have two standards. One party, you know, is lying. … And [Trump] was warning everybody from this summer on, early this summer about mail-in balloting and the fraud that the Democrats would carry out against the American people,” said Fox Business host Lou Dobbs on Dec. 16.
  • “The senators who are refusing to stand up for a free, fair and impartial election are also bowing to the demands of the radical left and of course, the business establishment,” said Dobbs on Jan. 5, referring to lawmakers who opposed blocking Joe Biden’s election.

In the two weeks after Fox News called the election for Biden, the network’s hosts and guests cast doubt on the results at least 774 times, according to a count by Media Matters for America.

On Jan. 6, “news-side” Fox network hosts got a look at where all this false and destructive rhetoric led: A mob of MAGA rioters broke into the Capitol building, ransacked it, roamed the halls in search of “traitors” and did a fair bit of “milling around.” All this, they did in the belief that the election had been stolen from Trump — the same falsehood peddled over and over by prominent Fox News voices.

Early on Jan. 6, The Post's Kate Woodsome saw signs of violence hours before thousands of President Trump's loyalists besieged the Capitol. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: John Minchillo/AP/The Washington Post)

In the interest of clarity, we are not alleging here that Fox News incited an insurrection — a legal term that requires proving at least a direct call to action. It did, however, provide enough disinformation to feed a community of like-minded Trump followers inclined to believe the worst about the electoral process.

Fox News has been pumping noxious ideas into the public discourse for decades. Now it had to find a way to analyze the situation without implicating itself. “You know, look, the president incited this,” said Fox News contributor Andrew McCarthy as the horror of the riot settled in that afternoon. “It’s his obligation to try to mitigate it to the extent that at this point it can be mitigated, which means it’s not enough to say stay peaceful. He needs to tell people to go home and stand down.”

That remark, though true, was incomplete: Fox News and other outlets including hardened election-conspiracy-theory promoters Newsmax and One America News amplified Trump’s dangerous rhetoric. That’s because what Trump was saying, Fox News hosts were saying. Along the way, the network managed to slime two companies in the voting-technology business — Dominion and Smartmatic, both of which have sent letters warning of litigation down the road. Some Fox News Media shows have run a segment walking back claims about Smartmatic after a legal threat from the company.

How does Fox News get through this crisis? The calculation is clear and time-tested: Wait it out. Asked whether the company had issued a statement about its promotion of this lie, CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter told the Erik Wemple Blog, “No statement. But I can imagine a few possible versions. ‘We presented all sides.’ ‘We don’t tell our opinion hosts what to say.’ ‘Newsmax was a lot worse.’”

The all-sides explanation, indeed, appears to enjoy some favor in Fox News corridors. When the Erik Wemple Blog asked the network to respond to Dominion’s claims about its coverage, a Fox News spokesperson pointed us to two segments on the company — one from Fox News anchor/senior correspondent Eric Shawn and another in which host Tucker Carlson famously attacked claims from lawyer Sidney Powell about alleged voting irregularities.

But real journalism one moment doesn’t neutralize harmful lies the next moment. For instance: Anchor Bret Baier did an excellent job of cross-examining election-denying Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) two days before the Capitol riot. Yet just a couple of hours later, Hannity said, “Sen. Josh Hawley, at least 10 other senators, joining now over 140 House lawmakers demanding what would be a 10-day emergency election audit from states with serious voting irregularities. This is an important, this is a critical, this is a necessary step in an election that is clearly wrought with serious issues, although we have major institutional failures with no curiosity whatsoever.”

Fox News mustn’t be allowed to move on from this historic outrage. In a monologue on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, host Jake Tapper kept the issue alive: “It was a joint effort between the Trump team and MAGA media,” said Tapper, who played multiple clips of election-theft conspiracy theorizing on Fox News Media. “Multiple dead bodies later, no contrition, no apologies, no acknowledgment of what they did.”

It might be even worse than all that: Fox News has announced that Bartiromo will be among those trying out for its open 7 p.m. opinion slot. And the blame goes higher than just the talking heads. Suzanne Scott is the chief executive of Fox News Media; Jay Wallace is its executive editor; Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch run Fox Corp., its parent company. They form the most privileged cabal in all of American media, as they preside over the country’s most toxic news organization without having to answer for its abuses. How is that possible?