Theoretically, the news is whatever those documents, described by Carlson as “damning,” contains. But that was not the news that Carlson chose to present on Wednesday evening.
“There’s always a lot going on that we don’t have time to get to on the air. But there’s something specific going on behind the scenes right now that we did feel we should tell you about,” Carlson said. He explained that his show had received the aforementioned documents and that someone on his staff had given them to UPS to send to California where Carlson was at the time. But they didn’t arrive, and UPS couldn’t find them.
“Those documents have vanished,” Carlson later added. “As of tonight, the company has no idea — and no working theory, even — about what happened to this trove of materials, documents that are directly relevant to the presidential campaign just six days from now.”
UPS has since found them, meaning that we can presumably expect Carlson to mention them on-air soon.
Notice, though, that everything Carlson presented on Wednesday was insinuation. He didn’t say what the documents were or how they purportedly incriminated Biden. He didn’t say that he’d uncovered a plot by UPS to purloin the material or an effort by Biden’s team to intercept them. He didn’t say anything, in fact, other than that something was lost in the mail — an occurrence regular enough that it rarely rises to the level of occupying two minutes of prime-time cable news coverage.
What Carlson was doing, in essence, was leveraging the news-ish appearance of his show to level vague allegations at a shadowy group of political opponents. He and the network’s other opinion hosts do this a lot, leveraging the network’s name — Fox News — to imply that their offerings constitute objective news coverage. While newspapers are often criticized after readers mistake opinion articles for news reports, Fox’s prime time lineup is built around blurring that line.
The effect? A large, loyal, conservative audience — and one that is energized on behalf of President Trump in a way that Trump’s reelection campaign would be hard-pressed to match.
That’s apparent from a national Suffolk University-USA Today poll released on Wednesday. Suffolk’s polls include a helpful question about respondents’ news consumption habits. In the most recent iteration, it listed a number of news channels or networks and asked which the respondent trusted the most. Fox News was the most mentioned network — because nearly 6-in-10 Republicans identified it as their most trusted station. This remains a key reason that Fox wins ratings fights: It holds the attention of a significant chunk of one of the two major political parties.
This datapoint on network trust allows us to compare presumed Fox News viewers with respondents overall and, more interestingly, Republicans. Both Republicans and Fox News viewers, for example, support Trump over Biden in the presidential race. (Overall, Biden has a seven-point lead in this poll, one of Trump’s better recent outcomes.)
Asked their views of the candidates, 94 percent of Fox News viewers said they viewed Trump favorably, compared to 88 percent of Republicans overall.
Fox News viewers are also nine points more likely than Republicans to think that Trump will win the election. (Overall, a plurality thinks Biden will win.)
This same pattern occurs over and over. Seventy-two percent of Fox News watchers think the country is headed in the right direction, compared with 65 percent of Republicans.
While Republicans and Fox News watchers are about equivalently likely to say they approve of Trump, 7 in 10 Fox News viewers say they approve of him strongly, compared with 6 in 10 Republicans.
Given the size of these populations, these are subtle distinctions, just within the bounds of the margins of sampling error. But they correlate with what we’d expect of viewers of a network that’s been laser-focused on amplifying the president’s campaign rhetoric.
Consider Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son. Trump’s campaign has been trying for more than a year to imply that Hunter Biden’s business relationships impugn his father. It tried to get the Wall Street Journal to bite on a story about a former business partner of Hunter Biden’s named Tony Bobulinski. Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, shopped an odd set of documents he claimed were from Hunter Biden to the New York Post. He rejected other outlets, he told the New York Times, because if other outlets obtained the material, “they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out,” a process known in the trade as “reporting.”
Eventually it was revealed that Giuliani had shopped the documents to Fox News, which wanted to vet them. But any concerns the network had quickly faded; over the past two weeks, Hunter Biden has been mentioned repeatedly both on Fox News and on its sister network, Fox Business. This week, Bobulinski was granted a prime time interview — by Carlson.
Never mind that Bobulinski didn’t offer evidence that he’d discussed Hunter Biden’s business activity with the former vice president. (Instead, Bobulinski implied such knowledge based on a few brief interactions with Joe Biden and on various insinuations and messages from third parties.) The interview ran on Fox News and was accepted by viewers in the way that Carlson presented it.
The Suffolk poll asked about a few issues which have been staples of Fox’s recent coverage. Fox viewers were seven points more likely than Republicans overall to say that Joe Biden benefited from Hunter Biden’s business, an assertion made regularly on the network but one which lacks evidentiary basis. They are also seven points more likely to blame Democrats for the failure to pass a coronavirus relief bill. (On Oct. 6, Trump tweeted that he was rejecting the Democrats’ request for a spending bill.)
While Fox News viewers aren’t much more likely than Republicans overall to say that they’re worried about the threat of fraud posed by mail-in ballots, they are — as with Trump’s approval rating — more fervent in holding that view. (It does not pose a significant risk of fraud.)
While the differences above are at times subtle, this poll doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Other polls, including one earlier this month from PRRI, show how much more fervent Fox News viewers are than Republicans in general about supporting Trump.
Again, this isn’t an accident. Some Fox hosts, like Sean Hannity, are overt in their efforts to boost Trump politically. Carlson hasn’t always been a stalwart acolyte of the president, but he does share Trump’s affinity for disparaging the left and the establishment media. The enemy of his enemy is Donald Trump, and Carlson’s been comfortable with leveraging his hour of airtime to their mutual benefit.
The result is a network deeply entwined with the president and his supporters and dedicating a great deal of time to amplifying the president’s rhetoric. Trump’s campaign may be short on cash, but having the most-watched cable-news network running the equivalent of hours of get-out-the-vote ads every night helps fill some of the gap.