When Chris Wallace resigned from Fox News last December, media observers correctly diagnosed the move’s real meaning: This stripped away one of the last fig leaves disguising Fox’s increasing role as a propaganda operation on Donald Trump’s behalf.
We should be clear on what this means. Wallace seems to have decided he could no longer credibly practice journalism on Fox in part because, increasingly, the only acceptable narrative at Fox about Trump’s effort to overturn U.S. democracy to remain in power illegitimately is one that falsifies it entirely.
Wallace’s new comments came in an interview with the New York Times. Wallace declared that he “no longer felt comfortable with the programming at Fox.” In that regard, the key revelation concerns Wallace’s conclusion about the meaning of Carlson’s dominance:
He confirmed reports that he was so alarmed by Mr. Carlson’s documentary “Patriot Purge” — which falsely suggested the Jan. 6 Capitol riot was a “false flag” operation intended to demonize conservatives — that he complained directly to Fox News management.“Before, I found it was an environment in which I could do my job and feel good about my involvement at Fox,” Mr. Wallace said of his time at the network. “And since November of 2020, that just became unsustainable, increasingly unsustainable as time went on.”
That is a stark admission: Carlson’s wholesale rewriting of Jan. 6 is a key reason Wallace decided his continued presence at Fox was unsustainable. This seems to confirm the suspicion of some media critics — such as Eric Boehlert and Dan Froomkin — that Wallace had decided Fox was becoming fundamentally irredeemable as a news organization.
But the key to this, I submit, is not simply that Wallace grew alienated by the network’s Jan. 6 propaganda. It’s also that Wallace decided his own journalistic treatment of Jan. 6 could no longer credibly emanate from Fox’s platform.
Indeed, to appreciate this moment, we should remember that some of Wallace’s highest-profile recent moments concerned his efforts to cross-examine Republican lawmakers about their role in covering up the insurrection attempt.
As you’ll recall, Wallace mercilessly grilled House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) about Jan. 6 last April, pressing McCarthy to detail the phone call in which McCarthy screamed at Trump to call off the rioters. When McCarthy responded by hemming and hawing that Trump did issue a video appeal, Wallace denounced that as “weak.”
In so doing, Wallace put his finger on the beating heart of the GOP coverup for Trump. He pressed the top House Republican on his whitewashing of extraordinarily corrupt malfeasance: Trump allowed the violence to unfold, potentially as a weapon to disrupt the conclusion of the election in Congress and the peaceful transfer of power, to disastrous and deadly effect.
Wallace also grilled another House GOP leader — Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana — over his support for that vile Texas lawsuit aiming to invalidate millions of votes against Trump. Banks defended this, absurdly claiming there are still “serious concerns” about the voting.
In short, Wallace has tried to hold Republicans accountable for feeding Trump’s lies about the election’s outcome, validation that likely helped inspire the Jan. 6 violence, and for helping cover up Trump’s seeming relishing of the violence as a potential tool to carry out his coup.
This is the sort of journalistic conduct that doesn’t have a future home at Fox, apparently: The Republican coverup for Trump must not be scrutinized. That’s what Wallace’s actions seem to suggest, even as Carlson’s propagandizing about Jan. 6 is seen as a smashing ratings success.
By the way, this isn’t confined to Wallace: As CNN media reporters Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy point out, other Fox sources have voiced similar dissatisfaction about Fox’s propagandizing for Trump, a dynamic that grew worse after Trump’s loss.
Nicole Hemmer, the author of an excellent history of conservative media, notes the larger context: After Jan. 6, Fox appears to have felt serious pressure from more extreme right-wing news sources, such as Newsmax, which offered even more egregious whitewashing of the insurrection.
“Fox News has to compete with those other right-wing sources,” Hemmer told me. She added that when Fox got “too far out to the left, like when they acknowledged Joe Biden won the 2020 election, they found their audience was beginning to revolt.”
In the weeks after the 2020 election, Hemmer noted, right-wing protests that attacked the “liberal media” for its coverage of the election’s aftermath also attacked Fox. As Hemmer put it, a key driver of Fox’s support for Carlson’s Jan. 6 propaganda is the network’s need to “shore up and continue to do maintenance on its reputation with MAGA people.”
What that says about Fox as a journalistic organization is bad enough. What it says about Fox’s low opinion of its audience’s incapacity for exposure to the truth might be even worse.