Last Thursday, CNN’s “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter inventoried the reasons Fox News had experienced its “worst week”: There was the abrupt departure of anchor Chris Wallace from “Fox News Sunday,” the disclosure of text messages in which Fox News hosts counseled then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Jan. 6, the removal of an antisemitic cartoon from the network’s social media and a judge’s ruling against Fox News in a lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems.
A turnabout came on Sunday, when “Fox News Sunday,” under new management, upended Washington’s lumbering approach to the holidays. “If I can’t go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia, I can’t vote for it,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to anchor Bret Baier, who scored a primo booking as the network seeks a permanent successor for Wallace. “And I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation.”
Boom — news! “This piece of legislation” is President Biden’s signature roughly $2 trillion Build Back Better bundle of social and climate change initiatives. It’s something that the White House, Congress and the media have been obsessing over for months, with Manchin, a conservative Democrat in a Senate with a 50-50 split, as a must-get vote.
In other words: On the week after Wallace exited, a “Fox News Sunday” guest touched off what will surely be weeks of Democratic infighting and finger-pointing. The White House blasted Manchin with a sharp statement the size of a New York Times op-ed. The Fox News digital team was there to capture all of the misery, with posts on the congressional implications, attacks on Manchin, more attacks on Manchin, Manchin’s criticism of White House staff, the reaction of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and even an opinion piece from Karl Rove on the consequences of the White House attacks on Manchin.
The Associated Press reported that a Manchin staffer had given the White House a 20-minute heads-up on his announcement. Yet the word didn’t spread fast enough for everyone. “Not only to find out that he’s backing out, but he didn’t even have the decency to call us, to announce this on Fox News,” Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) told Politico. “We thought he was better than that.”
Sneering at Fox News is a policy position of the Democratic establishment. In 2019, the Democratic National Committee sidelined Fox News from hosting any of its primary debates, as Chairman Thomas Perez argued that the network was “not in a position to host a fair and neutral debate for our candidates.” In response, Fox News cited Wallace, Baier and Martha MacCallum as anchors who “offer candidates an important opportunity to make their case to the largest TV news audience in America, which includes many persuadable voters.”
Indeed, Fox News likes to tout its appeal to people across the political spectrum. “We have viewers that are Democrats, independents, Republicans — and there are lots of them,” said Baier in 2019. Perhaps that’s what Manchin was going for when he chose “Fox News Sunday” for his announcement on the Build Back Better bill. A representative for Manchin declined to comment.
Given his position at the fulcrum of American power, Manchin has been a sought-after voice on TV, print and elsewhere. He has appeared a handful of times on “Fox News Sunday” over the past decade, including a March 2021 appearance when he was flexing his Biden-era muscles. “You held up this covid relief package for the better part of 10 hours over a dispute on unemployment benefits,” noted Wallace. “Were you really prepared to tank this bill, President Biden’s top legislative priority, if you didn’t get what you wanted?”
“Absolutely not. That’s not how negotiations should go and that should never be the intent of anybody,” responded Manchin. The appearance earned Manchin write-ups by the Daily Beast, the Guardian, The Post, Politico, etc.
As we wrote this past week, Wallace left after expressing frustration with the work of Tucker Carlson, a genuine Jan. 6 conspiracist. He was forced to share the network, furthermore, with colleagues who helped promote falsehoods about the 2020 election — falsehoods that have gotten Fox News tied up in two of the most promising defamation suits in recent memory. In a polity governed by logic and fact, all that programming would shred the Fox News audience and reduce it to a shrieking voice on the national sidelines. In the world that we actually inhabit, however, Fox News pummels all comers in its category. In November, for instance, it had 71 of the top 100 shows in cable.
So long as Fox News can hold on to its audience, it can attract politicians such as Manchin, break some news and follow its “worst week” with a much better week. The formula is so durable that the network will surely continue thriving long after the democracy that it’s undermining has collapsed. There’ll still be TV ratings, after all, in an autocracy.