The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The war in Ukraine spills over onto Fox News airwaves

Images of Fox News personalities appear outside News Corp. headquarters in New York on July 31. (Ted Shaffrey/AP)

Since nearly its founding, there has been a tension at play at Fox News. There’s the opinion side, now most obviously manifested in the nightly homilies and hysterics of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. And there’s the news side, the midday hours helmed by faces you recognize with names you can’t place. It has long been clear that the former group carries most of the weight at Fox, both in terms of driving viewership that can be sold to advertisers and in setting the tone for the day’s coverage.

The advent of the war in Ukraine has made that tension explicit, a cold war becoming a hot one. As Hannity and Carlson focus on criticism of the Biden administration and, at times, overt conspiracy theorizing, network reporters have been increasingly vocal in trying to correct the record. The result is a barely submerged back-and-forth.

On Thursday, that meant Carlson explicitly mocking reporters like Fox’s Jennifer Griffin for seeking to cover the conflict objectively instead of through Carlson’s well-established Russia-sympathetic lens.

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

His attack began with a lengthy and heavily cherry-picked presentation evaluating Russia’s claims that the U.S. government is funding bioweapons research in Ukraine. This is something that has been alleged for a long, long time and for which there’s no credible evidence. But as part of his truthteller-combatting-the-status-quo shtick, Carlson simply strung together a few “just asking questions” and then declared that the Biden administration (and past administrations that have similarly rejected the claims) had been “lying” about the Ukrainian work.

“We do know that the Pentagon talking points you saw reported as fact on television today — and last night — were an utter lie,” he said, deploying an accusation that he makes frequently without substantiation. “Did the reporters, who repeated those talking points verbatim, know they were a lie? Maybe they did. On the other hand, how would they know? They didn’t bother to do any reporting whatsoever. They got a text from some Biden administration flack and they just read it on the air like it was true. You shouldn’t be surprised because that’s what they do and it’s possible they’re afraid not to do that.”

Carlson’s very pointed inclusion of “and last night” is an obvious reference to Griffin’s appearance on Hannity’s show on Wednesday. Then, responding to Hannity’s efforts to inject uncertainty about the government’s position, Griffin explicitly rejected the idea that these labs were researching biological weapons.

“It is a long program that has existed where the Pentagon has partnered with these biolabs,” Griffin said. She reminded viewers of the post-Cold War effort to contain former Soviet weaponry. The United States’ work in Ukraine is “part of this effort to try to clean up those Soviet-era labs and make sure that nothing escapes from those labs. And so the U.S. has been very open about its involvement there with that. But what Russia does is they take that information, distort it, turn it around and turn it into disinformation.”

That itself is a thinly veiled criticism of Carlson. He had elevated that specific disinformation on his show on Tuesday. So Carlson promotes the debunked theory, Griffin rejects it and Carlson punches back.

Griffin is correct, of course. As I wrote on Thursday, Russia’s misinformation efforts have found fertile soil in the American information economy precisely because so many people are ready to reward contrarian, anti-establishment viewpoints, even obviously flawed or incomplete ones. Carlson and Hannity have long been in the business of hyping dubious assertions in service to building an audience or aiding the political right. Here, Carlson is adding to his robust body of work aimed at undercutting the American government in favor of authoritarian ones.

Carlson and Hannity are also aided by the imbalance between opinion and news reporting. News reporters like Griffin have to qualify their comments with necessary uncertainties: We can’t say with absolute certainty that there aren’t biological weapons being developed in labs in Ukraine, but there’s no evidence they are, no good reason they would be and lots of reasons to be skeptical of Russia’s claims about anything. But Carlson doesn’t have to admit any of that; he’s an opinion host! So: The Pentagon is lying and Pentagon reporters are dishonest stenographers.

Normally, this same tension at Fox simply leads to the news side rolling over. But in the context of the Ukraine war, Griffin has pushed back. Last month, The Post’s Jeremy Barr noted several occasions on which she had fact-checked guests who had offered false or misleading claims on opinion shows. She was particularly harsh in assessing the credibility of Douglas Macgregor, a retired military officer and former Trump administration official.

On his show a few nights later, Carlson responded, leading his show with an interview with the general.

“Unlike so many of the TV generals you see all day long, Macgregor is not angling for a board seat at Raytheon,” he said. “Unlike so many of the so-called reporters you see on television, he is not acting secretly as a flack for [Defense Secretary] Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon.”

What Griffin has been doing, to some extent, is fighting fire with fire: turning the one-sided opinion panels that are the network’s forte into actual debates, albeit time-shifted ones. Fox’s opinion hosts aren’t generally interested in presenting a balanced picture; Griffin has been trying to force them to do so.

She’s not the only one. When the network’s resident comedian Greg Gutfeld shrugged at the conflict in Ukraine by suggesting that the media was simply trying to generate an “emotional response” in its coverage, reporter Benjamin Hall disagreed — as he stood in Ukraine.

“Speaking as someone on the ground, I want to say that this is not the media trying to drum up some emotional response,” Hall said. “This is absolutely what’s happening.” The situation, he added, was “an absolute catastrophe, and the people caught in the middle are the ones who are really suffering.”

Gutfeld, nonplussed, called Hall’s reply a “cheap attack” — but only after Hall was no longer in the live shot.

The efforts by reporters to constrain the network’s opinion side is noble and, obviously, important for viewers. But it’s also not hard to see it as doomed. Carlson has become Fox News’s leading star, with the network choosing to give him a bigger platform and to inject his interviews and commentary into even its “news” programming.

If the simmering tension between Griffin and Carlson continues, it’s impossible to think that Griffin will emerge victorious. Fox News is a business and, despite the network’s name and despite what it insists to advertisers, it’s not a business that depends on Griffin and her news-side colleagues for success.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.