The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fox News didn’t just ignore the Jan. 6 hearing. It did something worse.

Video still from “Tucker Carlson Tonight” showing Carlson and guest Darren Beattie. (Fox News)
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Fox News didn’t need to announce that it wasn’t going to cover Thursday night’s prime-time hearing from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. The network has been all-but-completely ignoring the subject for 17 months; skipping this hearing was a continuation of a pattern, not a break from one. But it nonetheless announced that coverage would be shunted to Fox Business and the network’s streaming platform, and it shrugged at the various scoldings that followed.

When 8 p.m. Eastern rolled around, though, it became clear that the network wasn’t simply going to not cover the hearing. Instead, it began more than two hours of commercial-free rebuttal. It didn’t simply cover other things, it focused almost entirely on the hearing as though it was former president Donald Trump’s defense team — without, of course, showing its audience the prosecution’s case.

The House select committee held its first prime-time session on June 9 after spending nearly a year investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

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Part of that was probably timing. The hearing began just as Tucker Carlson’s show kicked off, and few people in America have been more energetically engaged than Carlson in casting the Jan. 6 riot as not worthy of discussion. Or as largely innocuous, save for some vandalism. Or maybe it’s a government false flag aimed at casting Republicans as racists or something. Rhetorical consistency is not Carlson’s strength, but that is happily for him not a limitation for his job.

So Carlson began by crowing about Fox’s decision to stand apart from its competitors.

“The whole thing is insulting. In fact, it’s deranged,” Carlson said. “And we’re not playing along. This is the only hour on an American news channel that will not be carrying their propaganda live. They are lying, and we’re not going to help them do it.”

Yes, God forbid that Fox News should air an hour of propaganda or dishonesty. Carlson didn’t articulate the purported lies, which he couldn’t have, because the hearing hadn’t actually begun by that point. But it didn’t matter, because his audience wasn’t hearing the evidence from the hearing anyway. Was it a lie when the hearing showed William P. Barr, Trump’s ever-loyal attorney general, describing Trump’s voter-fraud claims as nonsense? Doesn’t matter, just wave it all away as untrustworthy without actually explaining what was said and why it couldn’t be trusted.

How did Carlson’s show go? He transitioned quickly into his frustration that the committee wasn’t addressing the real questions, in his estimation.

“What did happen, exactly, on Jan. 6? What’s the truth of that day?” Carlson said. “Well, that’s still unknown. From the extensive video we have of Jan. 6, it’s clear that some in the crowd, more than a few, were encouraging protesters to breach the Capitol. To commit felonies.”

And here we go. You may recall that Carlson spent numerous episodes last year claiming that the riot was a function of FBI instigators, people easily identified as such thanks to their appearing as unindicted co-conspirators in federal charging documents. But that was nonsense: Both because FBI embeds wouldn’t be identified in that way and because some of those co-conspirators were easily identifiable. One was obviously the wife of a man charged for his role in the riot; when Carlson later hosted the couple so that they could complain about their persecution, no one mentioned that Carlson had previously called the woman a secret federal agent. Carlson, of course, never corrected his falsehood.

If you’re wondering whether Carlson would have the temerity to reintroduce his most infamous allegation about the insurrection, he did.

“In the case of a man called Ray Epps, we know his name, but they’ve never been charged,” Carlson said of the people in the crowd allegedly instigating violence. Epps didn’t actually do that; he was on video the night before saying that people should go into the Capitol the following day — but he didn’t urge the Capitol breach on Jan. 6 itself. Thanks to an article from a right-wing website run by a former Trump administration official who left his position after being linked to white nationalists, Epps became a target of rabid attacks from Carlson and others that alleged he was a federal agent. He wasn’t. But, months after that became clear, here’s Carlson trying to imply that Epps was some nefarious figure, even comparing Epps — who isn’t known to have broken any laws — with the Michigan gubernatorial candidate arrested this week for his alleged role in the Capitol riot.

Over the course of the hour, there were no commercials, nor were there commercials in Sean Hannity’s hour that began at 9 p.m. No reason was given for this, although Carlson did mention that unusual pattern toward the end of his show. Why not air commercials? Well, one reason would be to keep people glued to Fox News — and therefore not changing the channel to a network that was showing the hearing.

For much of the show, the hearing was shown on-screen as Carlson and his guests spoke over it. Often, the view was not of the committee members, witnesses or the video display at the front of the hearing room. Instead it was often a shot of the audience. One NBC News producer went back after the fact and synced Carlson’s show with what was being shown in the hearing room. During footage showing rioters breaking into the Capitol, Fox switched to the camera showing the audience. When the hearing showed information that didn’t need sound, Fox more than once cut away from it.

Not having commercials meant having more guests. And what a lineup! A who’s who of the Carlsonverse. The Federalist’s Sean Davis. Former Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Fox News’s favorite Democrat. Matt Schlapp, chairman of the Conservative Political Action Coalition, recently back from Hungary. Michael Tracey. And, at the end of the hour, Darren Beattie — the guy booted from the Trump administration who wrote that first Ray Epps story.

Beattie encouraged viewers to have their friends go to his website and read his allegations about a federal false-flag operation.

“Tell them to look you in the eye and say that the feds weren’t involved in this,” Beattie said. “It’s a clear hoax. We know what’s happened, but there’s unfinished business and we need to expose the feds for what they’ve done.”

He and Carlson agreed that there were questions that weren’t being asked. But, Carlson assured his viewers at another point, everyone knew why the riot occurred: because people had simple questions about the election! Like that Joe Biden got 10 million more votes than Barack Obama??? How could that happen??? (Population growth and anger at Trump, but you probably knew that.)

But this is what Fox News spent the hour doing. In a break from simply not informing its audience about the riot and the effort by Trump to block Biden’s election, the network decided instead to actively promote an obviously wrong alternate assessment of what happened at the Capitol that day. It hyped doubt about the election results, promoted debunked conspiracy theories and ironically cast the committee’s work as lies and propaganda.

Fox News didn’t ignore the hearing, as expected. Its audience would have been better served if it had.

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