Fox News is getting trounced in the public opinion battle over Trump impeachment — here's why
Shepard Smith's recent, abrupt resignation isn’t the only crisis Fox News is facing these days. Aside from allegations that conservatives simply will not tolerate any dissenting voices amid a chorus that worships Donald Trump, the right-wing cable news outlet is struggling as it tries to fight the public opinion battle over impeachment. The unfolding inquiry in the House is by definition a political fight, not a legal one, which means the messaging wars surrounding it are paramount as both sides try to rally public support. To date, Democrats are clearly winning that battle, as polling consistently shows widening support for impeachment.
"This is war," Laura Ingraham recently declared on her prime-time program, as the impeachment battled heated up. But it's a public opinion war that Fox News is losing, and badly.
It's often been suggested that if President Richard Nixon had a Fox News-type of propaganda outlet during the Watergate scandal, that he could have survived. And the assumption has been that that's the role Fox News would play for Trump during a true crisis. But it's less than a month into the impeachment saga, and I'm not sure Fox News is going to save Trump in the end. Because not even a cable television channel can save a president if he's basically been overseeing a criminal enterprise run out of the Oval Office. (I don't think Senate Republicans would vote to convict Trump after an impeachment trial, but I do think the drawn-out impeachment saga could effectively end Trump's presidency.)
The short answer is Trump has handed Fox News a losing hand to play. It’s a profoundly bad hand that’s making it difficult for the propaganda channel, as well as the right-wing echo chamber, to coalesce around a semi-coherent defense.
Ten months ago I wrote a piece suggesting that in the end, Fox News would not be able to protect Trump from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, and once the damning facts spilled into public view, Rupert Murdoch's cable channel wouldn't be able to control the narrative. And as it turns out, I was wrong. With the help of Attorney General William Barr, who brazenly lied about the contents of the Mueller report, and a press corps that eagerly fell for Barr's lie, the Trump White House and Fox News were able to muddy the waters on Russiagate, and effectively portray Mueller's damning report as a draw.
To date though, Trump and Fox News have had no so such luck duplicating that messaging success with regard to the Ukraine scandal.
In fact, the White House's messaging attempts have been a mess, mostly because the effort is being driven by Trump. He spends his days blatantly contradicting himself on the Ukraine story while engaging in whiny, vindictive outbursts against his perceived enemies.
Ever since news of the Ukraine whistleblower broke approximately four weeks ago, every fact pattern has run counter to the White House spin. Scores of new revelations make it nearly impossible for Trump to maintain a lucid defense. A stunningly clear picture has emerged: "The president’s personal lawyer was paid by crooked businessmen from a foreign country, and then the president gave him authority over American policy toward that country," tweeted Christian Vanderbrouk. "This is precisely what the founders meant by “high crimes and misdemeanors.""
And really, the huge issue—and it's been Fox News' roadblock since the Ukraine scandal broke—is that Trump immediately confessed to the crime of collusion. Unlike the Russia election interference investigation, when the Trump and GOP mantra was, "No collusion" and gave Fox News an obvious rallying cry, Trump has conceded he sought the help of a foreign power for his re-election campaign.
Naturally, Fox News has seamlessly slipped into its role of public defender, insisting there's nothing wrong with presidents trolling the globe in search of campaign opposition research via foreign governments. But that message appears to be faltering, even among Republicans. In a recent Washington Post poll, nearly 30% (!) of Republican voters say they support the House's impeachment inquiry, and almost one-fifth of Republicans say they favor a vote recommending the president’s removal. A new poll out of North Carolina shows Trump's support among Republicans, which usually tops out at 90 percent, has fallen to 75 percent in the Tar Heel state.
Reminder: Fox News was supposed to make sure there were no cracks in the Trump base regarding impeachment. Fox News is supposed to act as Trump's impeachment firewall. So far, that’s not working.
Meanwhile, it's obvious the collusion-is-fine strategy is also not working outside of the Fox News bubble, as impeachment momentum escalates by the week, even before Democrats hold fact-finding hearings. "Americans are more eager to impeach Trump now than they were at similar points in the impeachment sagas of Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon," CNN reports. "At no point during the impeachment proceedings against Clinton did anywhere close to a plurality of Americans want Clinton impeached and removed from office."
Fox News is most effective, and dangerous, when its attacks and messaging overlap with stories the Beltway press also wants to tell, like portraying Hillary Clinton as a conniving, untrustworthy villain during the 2016 campaign. For now, the Beltway press isn't buying what Fox News is selling regarding Ukraine and impeachment, which means Fox News' shaky Trump defense is only playing to the echo chamber.
Also not helping is the fact that Fox News has often been batshit crazy. Recently, former U.S. attorney, conspiracy peddler, and Trump loyalist Joseph E. diGenova appeared on the network to describe the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into President Trump, calling their efforts “regicide,” which is defined as the act of killing a king. “What you’re seeing is regicide,” diGenova told Fox News host Laura Ingraham. "This is regicide by another name, fake impeachment. The Democrats in the House want to destroy the president." He later attacked whistleblowers as "suicide bombers" and accused Democrats of sedition.
That’s just a small taste of the impeachment madness currently filling Fox News’ airwaves. No wonder it’s not working.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.