'We went crazy': How Fox News' audience finally pushed it to the journalistic abyss
Fox News surprised everyone—including their own Donald Trump-loving viewers—on Election Night last November by calling the race in Arizona for Joe Biden before the other networks, who waited several days to do the same. It seemed the longtime wellspring of right-wing disinformation might actually be displaying some journalistic integrity, at last.
It didn't last long. The Trump WhiteHouse erupted in fury, as did millions of Trump fans, who popularized a #BoycottFoxNews hashtag on social media. Its ratings briefly plummeted. In the months since, the executives behind the decision were given the boot.
Moreover, as Brian Stelter reveals in an excerpt from his new book on the Trump-Fox connection, Fox has subsequently completed its utter radicalization as a Trumpian right-wing disinformation outlet, embracing and broadcasting a nonstop parade of outright lies, as well as the authoritarian and racist politics that have now similarly subsumed the Republican Party: "We turned so far right we went crazy," one anonymous source told him.
The slide from being a partisan news source into an outright font of extremist disinformation came about, as Stelter suggests, as a result of pressure from the same authoritarian, fake-news-loving audience that Fox had created during Trump's tenure. The beast that they had created turned out to have an insatiable appetite for extremism.
"Fox is a really different place than it was pre-election," one of Stelter's Fox insiders told him after Biden was inaugurated.
"Fox News has always walked a fine line between trying to look like an independent news organization and supporting conservative politics," observed TV critic Eric Deggans to The Guardian. "There have to be moments where they act like an actual news organization in order to maintain their veneer of being an independent news organization."
The wrath of Trump's followers descended on Fox immediately after its election-night call. Trump himself went on Fox and Friends and complained about the network: "What's the biggest difference between this and four years ago," he asked rhetorically. "I say Fox. It's much different now."
Fox's main problem, as Stelter recounts, was that it now had competition to its right in the form of the far-right Newsmax and One America News networks, which unabashedly feature right-wing conspiracy theories and false information about the election and other political topics.
Newsmax refused to initially call Biden the president-elect. One of its hosts, Greg Kelly, repeatedly claimed that Trump could remain in office another four years. "IT ISN'T OVER YET," Newsmax's website banners read.
"We're bleeding eyeballs," one Fox producer told him in December. "And we're scared."
On Facebook, the dismay among longtime Fox fans was furious. "Time to switch to Newsmax or One America News," one post read. "Fox News has officially joined the corrupt media."
Another declared simply: "F FOX News," adding: "They have sold their souls and lost the respect of millions of loyal viewers , [thinking emoji] [crying emoji].Boycott and show them the power of the almighty [money bag emoji] dollar."
Fox executives decided to fix the problem, as Stelter says, by running "even further to the right." News Media CEO Suzanne Scott decided to lure viewers back by giving them, as he notes, what they wanted: "False hope."
On Fox, Trump was treated as a political genius, not a lame duck who failed to win reelection. Some of the network's key shows waded deeper into the voter fraud depths, eventually spurring massive defamation lawsuits by voting machine companies Dominion and Smartmatic.
"It's really emotionally taxing," a dissident Fox contributor told me as the Covid-19 case count exploded and Trump's legal challenges imploded. "We denied the pandemic and now we're denying the election outcome."
Media Matters' Matt Gertz assembled a laundry list of Fox News' post-election embrace of Trumpian disinformation:
Fox and its associates did everything they could to support Trump's autocratic maneuvers. In the two weeks after media outlets called the race for Biden, Fox personalities questioned the results of the election or pushed conspiracy theories about it nearly 800 times. They put the credibility of the network behind deranged lies about fraud plucked from the internet fever swamps, beaming batshit fantasies out to a huge national audience. It worked—polls following the election showed a majority of Republicans believed that the election was stolen from Trump.
But hosts, contributors, and guests went further than simply lying to their viewers—they pushed for action. They attacked Republican state officials for being insufficiently committed to Trump's scheme; called for the arrests of election workers; suggested that Republican state legislators in states Trump lost should "appoint a clean slate of electors" who support him; promoted fake Trump electoral slates for supposedly keeping Trump's "legal options open"; suggested a "do-over" election as "the only remedy"; called for congressional investigations; endorsed a lawsuit by Republican state attorneys general asking the Supreme Court to throw out results in four states Biden won; urged Republican governors not to certify unfavorable results; and denounced Republican members of Congress for "destroying the Constitution" by voting to count the electoral votes.
Recently, Fox has gone so far as to embrace right-wing extremist ideology, particularly the strange flavor of white nationalism that has been getting airtime on Tucker Carlson's evening program, which is Fox's top-rated program. Carlson has promoted eco-fascist themes related to immigration; endorsed the idea that Republicans are being forced to abandon democracy and eventually embrace fascism because of liberal hegemony; defended the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrectionists as being ordinary conservatives and decried their prosecutions; and spouted white-nationalist "replacement theory" in claiming that immigration is an attack on democracy itself.
Carlson's most disturbing recent episode, however, came last week when he attacked Biden's speech in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre. Biden had decried the continuing existence of violent racist hatred, saying:
I didn't realize hate is never defeated; it only hides. It hides. And given a little bit of oxygen—just a little bit oxygen—by its leaders, it comes out of there from under the rock like it was happening again, as if it never went away.
And so, folks, we can't—we must not give hate a safe harbor.
As I said in my address to the joint session of Congress: According to the intelligence community, terrorism from white supremacy is the most lethal threat to the homeland today. Not ISIS, not al Qaeda — white supremacists. (Applause.) That's not me; that's the intelligence community under both Trump and under my administration.
This set off Carlson, who insisted on his program that evening that this meant Biden intended to target ordinary Republicans:
Yeah, you're not surprised. It's always the same people, isn't it? Those white Republican men—the very ones that just today Joe Biden warned us are more dangerous than ISIS. These are the people who have been beating up elderly Asian women in our cities, you've seen that plague unfold. These are the ones who don't believe in science, who have no decency, they're the problem.
The next night, he insisted—despite abundant evidence to the contrary—that white nationalist violence is not the most lethal threat to the American public: "There is no credible way to argue that white supremacy is the most lethal threat that we face. That's not an argument. It's its own form of racial attack."
Carlson has been diving headfirst into this abyss, as Gertz has reported, with the blessing of Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch, who even tried to claim that a review of Carlson's remarks show "that Mr. Carlson decried and rejected replacement theory."
However, Carlson also let the curtain slip a bit this week in an interview with right-wing pundit Mollie Hemingway about election misinformation. While introducing Hemingway—whose new book, titled Fixed, offers a wholly Trumpian take—the Fox host asserted that "so many people are lying at such high volume about the 2020 election, it's hard to know exactly what happened."
That, in fact, is the point of how the right now deals with reality: Just throw so much misinformation out there that the public becomes unable to discern fact from fiction—at which point right-wing authoritarians will naturally embrace their lying propaganda.
As Deggans told the Guardian, Fox encouraged this kind of extremism for many years while working to maintain a veneer of journalistic credibility—and has now been finally dragged into the abyss, forced to abandon any such pretenses, by the monster it created.
"What's happening now is the Republican party is getting more strained, and there's more and more of a sense among Fox News viewership that anything that contradicts a worldview that is supportive of conservatives is wrong," Deggans said. "I think it's getting harder and harder for Fox News to ride that balance."
At this point, it's clear they no longer are even trying.