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Opinion Finally, Democrats appear ready to wage war on Fox News

Fox News host Tucker Carlson, left, and News Corp. executive chairman Rupert Murdoch. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images) (From left: Jason Koerner; Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
5 min

For years, Democrats have been deeply conflicted about Fox News. At times, they’ve shunned the network as an irredeemable source of disinformation, boycotting it or banning it from covering Democratic presidential primary debates. But such efforts have been temporary: They have tended to resume appearing on the network and have reverted to treating it as more or less a news channel, albeit a hostile one.

Now, however, it’s becoming clear that interacting with Fox News as a news outlet in any sense is no longer an option for Democrats. In light of the news that network personalities knowingly deceived viewers about the 2020 election for cynical pecuniary purposes, Democrats plainly have to take on Fox News in a new way. And some of them know it.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a moment like this, where a major news network has been exposed as deliberately deluding its viewers or readers,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told me. “This is a seminal moment in the history of mass media. And we need to treat it that way.”

But what should that look like?

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This week, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries signaled an aggressive posture in a letter to Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch. The two New York Democrats demanded that the network get star anchor Tucker Carlson and others to recant their lies about the 2020 election on the air. The letter said:

Though you have acknowledged your regret in allowing this grave propaganda to take place, your network hosts continue to promote, spew, and perpetuate election conspiracy theories to this day.

This might be the first time that the Democratic congressional leadership has formally labeled Fox News content “propaganda.”

The term is entirely apt. As newly revealed texts from Carlson and other on-air personalities and executives demonstrate, they feared that telling their audience the truth about the 2020 vote could cost them a disastrously high number of viewers. Instead, Fox News personalities kept lying about it while executives looked the other way.

Carlson even rage-texted that a Fox News reporter who fact-checked President Donald Trump’s lies about Dominion Voting Systems and the ballot count should be fired for “measurably hurting” News Corp.’s “stock price.” The texts, which emerged in Dominion’s defamation lawsuit against Fox, also show that Carlson and host Sean Hannity agreed that the channel’s accurate call of Trump’s loss in Arizona threatened its “brand.”

Murdoch himself admitted in a deposition that Fox News had failed to do enough to prevent its personalities from pushing lies about the election. In short, the network deliberately sought to keep its viewers captive in its propaganda bubble to keep ratings up — and revenue flowing.

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Given these revelations, doesn’t that oblige Democrats to adopt an approach commensurate with the reality that Fox News is systematically and concertedly deceiving millions of people about the most fundamental workings of our governing institutions?

This might start with forcefully conveying to the public what’s been revealed about Fox News’s post-election conduct.

“We need to be in the business of communicating the gravity of what happened,” Murphy told me. He noted that Democrats must be “very clear about how manipulative Fox executives and hosts are,” and that they rely on “deliberate lying as a means to get ratings, and to keep viewers hooked in.”

Should Democrats again refrain from appearing on Fox News? They have long been conflicted about this, with some arguing that Democrats shouldn’t forgo the opportunity to reach right-leaning voters wherever possible. But in light of the new revelations, there might be a better way to think about it.

Dan Pfeiffer, who was senior communications adviser to President Barack Obama, says Democrats should remember that their appearances on Fox News will never reach many conservative voters in unadulterated form. A Democrat’s quotes will inevitably be diced into incriminating bites and fed to a larger conservative audience via high-rated opinion shows and right-wing social media.

However, Pfeiffer says, because a Democrat’s appearance on Fox News will intrinsically generate media interest, party members should appear if they want to — but with eyes wide open, expressly to create viral moments that will reach the Democratic base and independent voters.

“Go on looking for a fight,” Pfeiffer advises. “The press will cover what you say on Fox.” As a result, he says, this will facilitate “reaching people outside of the Fox audience.” Similarly, strategist Simon Rosenberg is urging fellow Democrats to confront Fox News’s mythmaking by “getting loud” themselves, to displace right-wing agitprop with Democrats’ own media-conscious messaging and theater.

Such ideas seem more in tune with the realities of today’s media ecosystem than other tactics Democrats have toyed with. For instance, it has been suggested that Democrats consider steps such as trying to get Fox News expelled from the White House press corps.

Ultimately, that seems trivial and small. Democrats should proceed from an enlarged understanding of the network’s role as a kind of Death Star in the broader universe of right-wing and GOP information warfare. As Brian Beutler notes, when House GOP leaders granted Carlson exclusive access to Capitol riot surveillance footage, this constituted a clear declaration that the party fully endorses Fox News’s efforts to swamp our politics with propaganda, and sees the outlet’s interests as synonymous with its own.

The real lesson from the revelations is that this Fox-GOP synchronization will remain fundamental to Republican and right-wing politics for the foreseeable future. Like it or not, Democrats are in an information war. As they work through their response, specific tactics seem less important than internalizing this baseline realization and allowing it to shape everything they do.