The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Of course Fox News would rather talk about Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head

Books by Dr. Seuss, including “On Beyond Zebra!” and “And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street,” are offered for loan at the Chinatown Branch of the Chicago Public Library on Tuesday in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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The director of the FBI appeared at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday to discuss the unprecedented attack on that building on Jan. 6. Director Christopher A. Wray spent hours answering questions from senators both about the attack itself and the broader context of violent extremism in the country. He reinforced a central concern from federal law enforcement: that there remained a significant risk of domestic terrorism from groups including self-styled militia groups and white nationalists.

CNN and MSNBC both carried Wray’s testimony as it unfolded. Fox News did not. In fact, over the course of the day, analysis from the research company TVEyes indicates that Wray was mentioned only nine times on Fox News from Tuesday until 9 a.m. on Wednesday. By contrast, Wray was mentioned 102 times on CNN.

What was Fox covering instead? The decision by the estate of children’s book author Dr. Seuss to stop publishing six of his books due to the racist images they included. That story, which Fox News framed as Seuss having been “canceled,” was mentioned by the network more than 60 times.

There’s no reality in which the Dr. Seuss story is more important than the investigation into the Jan. 6 attack and extremist movements in the United States. Even when reframed, as Fox did, into a misleading and inaccurate debate over whether past racism should be excised from the current culture, the imbalance in Fox’s coverage is obvious.

But it’s also obvious why Fox News has been so heavily focused on the story. Since 2015 and particularly since last year, the political right has increasingly given primacy to cultural fights over political ones. The Republican Party declined even to update its policy platform last year, instead simply pointing at President Donald Trump’s agenda and saying “that.” Trump’s agenda itself was absent any significant policy proposals. Instead, Trump just promised more of what won him the Republican nomination four years before: more broad placement of “America first” and more bashing of the left.

Trump won the nomination based on that approach for a variety of reasons, but one was central. Trump voters were consistently more likely to express concern about the diminished status and power of Whites in America. They were more likely to say Whites and Christians were more oppressed than other groups like Blacks or Jews. One study showed that concern about Whites losing out was a much better predictor of Trump support than economic insecurity.

All of this brouhaha about “cancel culture” fits squarely into that concern, as I wrote on Tuesday. An increased awareness of the ways in which racism seeps into everyday American life has led to efforts to draw attention to that racism, which, in turn, reinforces the defensiveness of people who took that racism for granted or who were often not cognizant that it was racist.

There are two reasons this is emerging now. One is the demographic shift the country is undergoing, as America becomes both older and less densely White. Those trends overlap, with younger Americans being much more likely to be non-White. The other reason is the emergence of technology that allows for the documentation of racism (or acts providing evidence for systemic racism) and elevates the voice of those younger people.

Overlay on top of that a political moment in which Democrats control the federal government — and are focused on the broadly popular coronavirus relief bill — and it’s clear why Fox News would rather stay in its culture-war comfort zone. It’s why, for example, it seized on the mini-controversy over Mr. Potato Head dolls last week (again, in a misleading context).

Why discuss a Democratic bill that most Americans support when you can, instead, talk about a change to a toy that boomers enjoyed in their youth? Why parse the details of legislation when you can, instead, reinforce panic about a changing America by implying that the potato toy is the cutting edge of the demasculinization of our culture?

You may be thinking I am presenting an unfair or overly simplified view of how Fox looks at its coverage. If so, I will point out that prime-time host Tucker Carlson has repeatedly tried to pivot from official concern about white nationalist extremism to telling his viewers that Democrats intend to cast them all as dangerous racists.

Or we can simply quote from host Laura Ingraham on Tuesday night, warning her viewers about immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“What’s happening is a purposeful repopulation of America and the exploitation of migrants for cheap labor,” Ingraham said. “As for ordinary citizens of all backgrounds, ethnicities and colors, just trying to make a decent life for themselves and maybe make a decent living? Well, you’re out of luck.”

This is a nifty little pivot by Ingraham, suggesting that all Americans regardless of race should be united in opposing this immigration. It’s an intentional bit of cover-seeking. She then went on to suggest immigration would also make online learning worse, an attempt to latch the thing she wanted people to be mad about to another unpopular thing.

But, of course, you noticed the main thrust of Ingraham’s comments: What’s happening with immigration is “a purposeful repopulation of America.” This is the same rhetoric used by the white nationalists Wray was talking about. It’s the same argument that was used by the man who allegedly shot and killed nearly two dozen people in El Paso in 2019. It is a line that gets at the heart of the racial insecurity that’s more palatably presented as “cancel culture.”

Following the announcement from Fox News on Tuesday that former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany would be joining the network as a contributor, the Daily Beast spoke about the move with Fox employees, including some who asked for anonymity to speak about their employer.

“Post-Trump Fox is quickly becoming a very scary place and quite dangerous for our democracy,” one said. “It’s not even conservative news anymore. They’ve plunged into an alternate reality where extremist propaganda is the only course on the menu.”

That’s not really true. There’s also coverage that reinforces the same set of deep-rooted insecurities indirectly.