The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Of course Fox News isn’t airing the Jan. 6 committee hearings

The News Corporation headquarters building and Fox News studios in New York on Aug. 1, 2017. (Richard Drew/AP)
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The Republican Party made a decision early last year that it would rather use the attack at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as a cudgel against Democrats than engage in the sort of self-reflection that an honest assessment of the causes of that riot might demand. It was easier — easy, even — simply to cast any probe of the attack as partisan and let slide Donald Trump’s insistences that the real problem was the 2020 election than to take on the former president and his enthusiastic base of support.

In part, that was easier because of Fox News. From the first hours after the riot, Fox News’s opinion hosts were spinning the riot as something other than it was — although they’d just sent text messages to Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, asking him to get Trump to take a firmer hand against the violence. Over the past 17 months, Fox News’s hosts (particularly Tucker Carlson) have been at the forefront of casting doubt on the riot and depicting efforts to investigate what happened as partisan. There is a news side at Fox, but it sits under the shadow of the late-night hosts. The effect is that Fox News has unique power to influence Republican politics and the Republican electorate.

So of course the network is not going to carry hearings run by the House select committee probing the Jan. 6 attack.

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On Monday, I looked at the way in which two diverging narratives have emerged around the aftermath of the 2020 election. In reality, Trump’s self-serving insistence that he could have lost only because of fraud, combined with his desire to retain power, led to his demanding that fervent supporters show up in Washington on Jan. 6, all of which created a demand economy that Trump’s allies and Fox News sought to leverage. But many on the right see Trump as unfairly targeted as he simply sought to question a flawed electoral system — a narrative that itself got sympathetic treatment on Trump’s favorite cable-news network.

The result is that Fox News has been distinctly less likely to cover Jan. 6-related stories than its two competitors, CNN and MSNBC. It is, of course, not the case that Fox News should have to cover what its competitors do — which we’ll come back to — but it is nonetheless revealing about how Fox considers the subject.

For example, here’s how often each network mentioned “January 6” during any week since the attack at the Capitol. Each network’s weekly mentions of the date are shown in overlap; notice that Fox News’s columns are regularly lower than its competitors’. At right is the average over the entire period. It shows that Fox News mentioned the date less often.

More dramatic is the comparison of mentions of the House select committee itself. CNN has mentioned the committee more than four times as often as has Fox News on average; MSNBC has mentioned it five times as much on average.

A similar pattern emerges for mentions of the attack at the Capitol itself. Fox News simply doesn’t talk about it that much.

Earlier this year, a team of researchers published a study showing the way in which Fox News influences its viewers’ perceptions through what it chooses to cover. Participants were paid to watch CNN instead of Fox News and, at the end of a month, were less likely to agree with political framing that was amplified by Fox’s coverage. In other words, there was a demonstrable effect from Fox News’s coverage.

So consider what it means that Fox News has spent almost no time covering either the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers, two of the extremist groups that took leading roles in storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, and members of both, who have faced charges of seditious conspiracy. CNN mentioned the Proud Boys seven times as often as Fox News on average over this period; they mentioned the Oath Keepers 34 times as often.

There have been subjects on which other networks have been outliers, as with MSNBC’s focus on the alternative slates of electors submitted by Trump allies before Jan. 6 in hopes that they might disrupt the electoral-vote-counting process that day.

But on subjects like those text messages sent to Mark Meadows — messages that depict not only who had access to the White House on Jan. 6 but which have also broadened our understanding of the effort to subvert President Biden’s election — Fox News has again been an outlier. (No average for the period is shown since the messages emerged only late last year.)

Where Fox News did stand out was in its mentions of “antifa” in the weeks after the attack. You’ll recall that hours after the attack occurred, network hosts raised the idea that antifa, a loose-knit group of far-left activists, was involved in the riot.

This all speaks to a pattern: Fox News has not been interested in covering new developments in the investigation into the Capitol riot. For that reason alone, it is not surprising that the network won’t carrying the hearings.

There’s another pattern at play, too. Fox News aired hearings during the first impeachment of Donald Trump, but often simply showed the proceedings silently while its hosts engaged in discussions. During the second impeachment, the one focused on the Jan. 6 attack, the network cut away at key points.

This has not always been its approach to investigations. Media Matters determined that the network had run 1,100 segments on the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 by the time a select committee was formed to probe those events — and to question presumptive 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. When Clinton herself testified, though, Fox News did cut away from the hearing, something that The Post’s media columnist speculated might have been because the network was “hesitant to expose its viewers to the live-on-the-spot unraveling of many Benghazi themes that it has pushed on air.”

In fairness, there is one more reason that Fox News might not want to air the Jan. 6 committee hearings. After all, imagine if one of the speakers casually mention Meadows’s text messages or the role of the Oath Keepers. Those Fox News viewers would be left trying to play catch up, wondering what was meant by these bizarre references to things that their preferred network had mentioned only occasionally or only in passing.