It stood. Trump lost. And Fox ended up paying a price.
The day before Biden became president, Fox News gave an indicator of how it would respond to the competition, firing a number of staffers including Chris Stirewalt, the political editor who had been an part of the team which made the Arizona call. Coupled with dropping its 7 p.m. news program in favor of a new opinion-based show, the network seemed to be leaning into a shift further to the right.
In an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, Stirewalt indirectly criticized his former network and its embrace of Trump’s post-election claims that the contest had been marred by fraud. This was part of a hyperactive focus on ratings, he argued, in which “the competitive advantage belongs to those who can best habituate consumers, which in the stunted, data-obsessed thinking of our time, means avoiding at almost any cost impinging on the reality so painstakingly built around them.”
“While there is still a lucrative market for a balanced offering of news and opinion at high-end outlets, much of the mainstream is increasingly bent toward flattery and fluff,” he wrote of cable news generally. “Most stories are morally complicated and don’t have white hats and black hats. Defeats have many causes and victories are never complete. Reporting these stories requires skill and dispassion. But hearing them requires something of consumers, too: Enough humility to be open to learning something new.”
The idea that challenging viewers might trade ratings for value isn’t new or specific to cable news.
It is broadly and demonstrably true.
It is also incomplete in its criticisms.
Since the Biden inauguration, Fox News has repeatedly been beaten by its competitors in the target demographic of 18-to-49-year-old viewers. Fox’s audience has long skewed older, to some extent reflecting the demographics of the conservative viewers who have historically identified the network as their most trusted. But even among viewers overall, the network is often losing, as ratings data for primetime programming shows.
The network’s best performer in the still-young Biden era is Tucker Carlson’s 8 p.m. show. Carlson has generally earned more viewers than the shows that precede and follow him, as well as getting higher shares of the key sales demographic. (Beating the show that precedes him was made easier with the network trying out various hosts as it figures out what to do with the hour.) As he promised after the election, clips of his show have increasingly been picked up and covered by the non-opinion side of Fox News’s programming.
So what are Carlson viewers seeing? A lot of reinforcement of their existing beliefs, certainly, as well as a surfeit of black-versus-white analyses of the day’s news. But Carlson has also elevated another line of argument, a relatively novel one, which couples misinformation with fear.
During his inaugural speech, Biden declared that there was a “rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism” which the country “must confront and we will defeat.” That line was singled out by several prominent conservatives, including Carlson, who argued that Biden was necessarily looping all Trump supporters and conservatives into the group to be targeted.
“The question is,” Carlson said on his show that evening, “what does it mean to wage war on white supremacists? Can somebody tell us in very clear language what a white supremacist is?”
“This is not a question of semantics,” he continued. “Joe Biden is the president of the United States, not a high school debate coach. He controls the largest military and law enforcement agencies in the world. He has now declared war, and we have a right to know, specifically and precisely, who exactly he has declared war on. Innocent people could be hurt in this war. They usually are. There could be collateral damage in this war, and the casualties will be Americans.”
He delineated some metrics the U.S. Army uses to identify white supremacists, picking out ones that might apply universally to his viewership.
“Let’s say you’re, for example, White but poor and you have trouble accepting the idea that you’re benefiting from some kind of structural advantage,” Carlson said. “Well, you’d better shut up about it if you know what’s good for you, because according to the United States Army, the ‘denial of White privilege’ is a classic sign of, yes, white supremacy. So no complaining.”
“There’s a new regime in power, and they seem to be planning to accelerate things dramatically,” he warned. “They’re getting the FBI and the Pentagon involved in this hunt for people who may criticize them. That’s a very big change, and you should understand what it’s really about.”
We repeat this understanding that it elevates rhetoric that dishonestly represents Biden’s assertions — he was clearly referring to violent extremism — and that encourages a fraught sense of victimization among Republicans. But this is what one of Fox News’s most-watched hosts is telling his audience of millions of people. It’s a rehash of how the right responded to Hillary Clinton’s ill-advised description of half of Trump supporters as “deplorable,” a phrase that was embraced as a near-universal point of pride. The difference now, though, is that Carlson is suggesting that Trump supporters and conservatives will face legal repercussions.
Or, as he’s claimed this week, military repercussions.
On Tuesday, he played a snippet of Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) saying that the government should devote robust resources to domestic terrorism and white nationalism “just as we did after 9/11 to the threat from international terrorism.”
“Got that? Vote the wrong way, and you are a jihadi,” Carlson said. “You thought you were an American citizen with rights and just a different view, but no, you’re a jihadi, and we’re going to treat you the way we treated those radicals after 9/11, the way we treated bin Laden. Get in line, pal. This is a war on terror.
“Keep in mind, as you listen to people talk like this — and Adam Schiff is far from the only one — they’re talking about American citizens,” he continued. “They’re talking about you, but nobody seems to notice or care.”
Again, Schiff was obviously only talking about the viewer if that viewer was a white nationalist planning violence. It’s certainly possible that a few Carlson viewers fit that description, given how white nationalists have in the past cheered his programming. But what Schiff was talking about was the threat posed by violent actors associated with fringe white nationalist movements — a threat detailed by the Department of Homeland Security last year, during the Trump administration.
“Among [domestic violent extremists], racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists — specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs) — will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland,” that assessment read. “Spikes in other DVE threats probably will depend on political or social issues that often mobilize other ideological actors to violence, such as immigration, environmental, and police-related policy issues.”
On Wednesday, the department released a security bulletin warning about the ongoing threat posed by domestic violent extremists, including those driven by “long-standing racial and ethnic tension.”
Later that evening, Carlson again broached the issue. He played a clip of Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) describing the sort of “persistent threats” that prompted the DHS bulletin and that he argued necessitated the ongoing presence of National Guard troops in D.C.
“So long as Donald Trump is empowered by Senate Republicans,” Murphy said, “there is still the chance that he is going to incite another attempt at the Capitol.”
“So as long as there are people in this country who persist in disagreeing with Chris Murphy, explains Chris Murphy, we’re going to need to keep thousands of heavily armed soldiers on the scene,” Carlson said after the clip aired.
He then showed Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) similarly defending the Guard presence.
“Rather than answer our questions or improve our lives, you’re bringing in people with guns to remind us that you’re in charge and dissent is illegal,” Carlson said to his viewers about Ryan’s claim. “That’s a big change.”
He hammered the point home.
“You may have thought you were a decent American in good standing,” Carlson said. “Ten years ago, nobody in this country would have called your views extreme, because they weren’t extreme then. You don’t think they’re extreme now. You’ve always considered yourself a pretty moderate person. You live your life and get along with others.”
“But that’s not possible now, because the rules have changed,” he continued. “You are now a dangerous insurgent, no different from a bloodthirsty Pashtun in Helmand Province or an ISIS terrorist in Irbil. You’re part of a guerrilla insurgency.”
It’s certainly not new for a cable-news opinion host to use inflammatory rhetoric to reinforce their points. This was part of Stirewalt’s criticism, too, that there are rewards for firing people up. What’s different here is that Carlson is pushing a line of argument that tells millions of Americans that their government sees them as dangerous racists. He’s pivoting from the very real concern among experts that white nationalists will commit acts of violence in the United States to telling those watching that this is simply a backdoor for the Biden team to target them. He’s pushing his viewers into a corner.
This isn’t just a reinforcing of their existing beliefs. It’s an amplification and an obviously risky one. It’s Carlson — Fox News’s most popular primetime host — seeking to make a point about the perceived policing of points of view but doing so in a way that encourages his viewers to think of themselves as being in direct conflict with the government.
Twenty-two days ago, we saw how dangerous such beliefs can be.
This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Fox News's ratings relative to its competitors on the right.