How Fox News Creates Its Own Insane Reality
Every once in a while a Fox personality says something so outlandish he shocks himself. Such was the case when Fox Business host Charles Payne got amped up over Michael Moore’s American Sniper criticism and unleashed a bizarre reading of America’s overseas military efforts. “We have saved the planet,” he shouted at the camera, to the visible discomfort of his cohosts, “and if we go away as America’s policeman, it will be hell to pay.”
The statement was outrage click-gold, but its virality obscured a crucial quality: even a market-drunk paleocapitalist like Payne doesn’t actually believe the American-produced quagmire in Iraq was the real-world equivalent of the Avengers.
Payne’s outburst followed a solid week of escalating rhetoric against Moore, Seth Rogen and other critics of the film. Fox hosts first mounted defenses of Chris Kyle, then of snipers, then of the military, and finally of the Iraq debacle. By the time Payne was plied with Moore’s quote, the network had made the saintliness of the U.S.’s war effort a precondition of Kyle’s defense. Though it sounded outlandish to the rest of us, it was actually just Payne walking that sentiment one step further.
This is how Fox News tricks itself. What begins as heated claims—a hyperbolic statement to hook a viewer, a vulnerable figure to be elevated to villain—is repeated and amplified until the outrage-inducing nonsense is churned into the network’s observed truth. Call it the revenge of the talking point.
Partisan news is a repetitive business, and a talking point is grown over the course of several days and weeks. An errant comment quoted by one show out of context is then repeated by the next fully devoid of that context, until it becomes a self-referential outrage lever pulled by the evening shows at will. By the next day, the offending comment or subject is reintroduced as a pre-formed scandal which the network hosts respond to as if it were a piece of the discourse that rudely shoved its way into the studio and now must be dealt with.
If you’re a Fox News watcher, this is how your political reality is generated.
A fine example was the “Hobby Lobby Sharia law” talking point that emerged last July following the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. One tweet goofing on the Sharia/Scalia rhyme (“The Supreme Court #HobbyLobby ruling proves once again that Scalia Law is a lot like Sharia Law”) was volleyed between shows until Bill O’Reilly was rolling his eyes at the dissenting justice’s Sharia comparison (one obviously never made in the arguments) and Greg Gutfeld was whining that “They were comparing a narrow ruling to Sharia Law.”
The identity of “they” was purposefully left vague, because nobody had ever actually done it. Primed by hours of outrage bait, the viewer was left to interpret “they” as the entire shadowy cabal known as the left. It took Fox only 24 hours to convert a single jesting tweet into a fully functional and portable talking point.
Just a couple months earlier Fox News manufactured a new Clinton scandal out of whole cloth. When Vanity Fair published Monica Lewinsky’s rehabilitation piece, Fox News set about turning something arguably bad for the Clintons into an example of the Clinton machine at full steam. It was “part of the Clinton plan” a Fox guest said at 2pm that day. At 5pm, several Fox hosts cited “conspiracy theories floating around” about the article, though they were in fact referencing a theory voiced on their own network three hours earlier.
By 8pm, Lynne Cheney was warning Bill O’Reilly to be suspicious. “Would Vanity Fair publish anything of Monica Lewinsky that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t want in Vanity Fair?” she asked.
“Probably not,” Fox morning host Steve Doocy answered 12 hours later, noting that the timing of the piece was “coming under question.” Indeed it was—but only by his own network. Through four shows over 18 hours Fox News had introduced, developed and perfected a piece of zany speculation, and then re-reported it as news. If you were just tuning in to Fox that next morning, you had the impression the whole world was wondering how Hillary Clinton had masterminded a Vanity Fair article by Monica Lewinsky. It was in fact just a handful of people at Fox headquarters.
That’s how Fox News snookers its viewers. The network has gotten so good at the talking point relay race it quite often fools itself.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the network’s battle against what it calls the race hustlers. Fox’s belief that there are Democratic foot soldiers secretly plotting racial division in the streets is omnipresent, but it was given a jumpstart following the turmoil in Ferguson and New York City. For the past few months, Fox has been busy sowing the seeds of racial fear, warning its viewers that the United States is one race riot away from backsliding into the crime-rusted urban hellscapes that haunt its older viewers’ minds.
The catalysts of this always-impending regression vary, but the New Black Panthers are a network favorite. Fox hosts have made a trope of tying the group — a fringe-of-the-fringe organization with infinitesimal impact on even local, let along national, politics — to Attorney General Eric Holder. Deputized by Obama to speak openly on racially charged situations from voting rights to Ferguson, Holder has become one of several racial bÃªte noirs for the network. Fox has repaid Holder’s candor on race by portraying him as a Malcolm X in a bureaucrat’s clothing.
But Fox’s Holder fixation is nothing compared to its mania over Reverend Al Sharpton. For a Fox viewer, Al Sharpton is a man of superhuman time-space-political abilities, capable of inciting a race riot in Ferguson only to teleport to the White House to mastermind Obama’s race-division strategy, from which he magically appears whispering anti-NYPD invective in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ear.
In the last month, Fox News mentioned Al Sharpton almost 400 times, or more than 12 times a day. That was six times the rate of its competitors. The network devoted more time to Sharpton than CNN and MSNBC combined — and Sharpton has a show on the latter.
Once Sharpton and Holder were convenient, accessible villains to prop up segments. But the extent to which the network has covered them seems to have fooled its own talent into believing the men to be more powerful, omnipotent and devious than humanly possible. Enough of this winds you up in some very strange places: it’s how you get people honestly advancing the notion that the Obama administration masterminded Ferguson to foment racial discontent.
Fox News has aggrandized Holder and Sharpton until the two men form an illusion of omnipotent race-hustling puppet masters. Such aggrandizing can sometimes pull the rug out from under the network.
See, for instance, Fox’s love affair with Russian President Vladimir Putin. After months of calling Obama the Ditherer in Chief, or the distracted executive, Fox turned moon-eyed at Putin’s will to power: the foreign leader wanted Crimea, shoved international opinion out of his way, and took it, the end. It was the sort of global antagonism the hawkish bench at Fox News wanted to see from Obama and that Obama, with some notable exceptions (cough, drones), was refusing to give them.
It got to the point that Fox hosts wanted to trade chief executives. "Can I just make a special request in the magic lamp? Can we get Putin in for 48 hours, you know, head of the United States?" asked one Fox News host. “I just want somebody to get in here and get it done right so that Americans don't have to worry and wake up in the morning fearful of a group that's murderous and horrific like ISIS.”
That was then. Putin’s star has plummeted since, as in a virtual replay of the last decades of the Cold War, Russia’s bellicosity was revealed to have been functioning as misdirection for its flailing economy.
Too late: Fox had already worked itself up into a froth over fantasies of geopolitical muscle. “Do something” is a favorite of the Fox News hosts, who often have to improvise on late-breaking geopolitical moves without any expertise. This leads to action bias, the logical fallacy in which any action, even a dunderheaded repeat of past mistakes, is perceived as better than no action at all. Putin acts; Obama doesn’t. Under the “do something” imperative, the former is always better, even if one winds up with a collapsed currency saddled with a whole new province to pay for.
Fox repeated “Do something” to itself so many times it came to believe Putin’s aggression really was better than Obama’s give-'em-enough-rope strategy — to the point that the network had no idea what to do when Putin’s do-somethingism was hollowed out.
This is the revenge of the talking point. The convergence of the right’s ideological insistence and cable news’ structural repetitiveness, it is a trap the network lays for itself, over and over again, until hosts proclaim Mideast wars to be “saving the world” and wonder how they ever came to say such a thing.