Monday’s split-screen drama, as the House Judiciary Committee weighed impeachment charges against President Trump and as the Justice Department’s inspector general released a 476-page report on the FBI’s handling of its 2016 investigation into Trump’s campaign, made one truth of the modern world inescapable: The lies and obfuscations forwarded ad infinitum on Fox News pose a dangerous threat to the national security of the United States.
The facts of both dramas were clear to objective viewers: In the one instance, there’s conclusive and surprisingly consistent evidence that President Trump pushed Ukraine to concoct dirt on a domestic political rival to affect the 2020 presidential election, and in the other, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found that the FBI was proper to investigate Trump’s dealings with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign.
But that set of facts is not what anyone who was watching Fox News heard. Instead, Fox spent the night describing an upside-down world where the president’s enemies had spun a web of lies about Trump and Ukraine, even as Horowitz blew open the base corruption that has driven every attack on the president since 2016.
Sean Hannity, who had long trumpeted the forthcoming inspector general report and expected a thorough indictment of the behavior of former FBI director James Comey and other members of the “deep state,” had a simple message for his viewers during Fox’s Monday night prime time: “Everything we said, everything we reported, everything we told you was dead-on-center accurate,” he said. “It is all there in black and white, it’s all there.”
Except they weren’t right and it wasn’t there. But Fox News’ viewers evidently were not to be told those hard truths—they were to be kept thinking that everything in their self-selected filter bubble was just peachy keen.
Over on Fox Business, Lou Dobbs said the mere fact that the IG found no political bias in the FBI’s investigation of Trump and Russia in 2016 was de facto proof of the power of the deep state.
John Harwood, long one of Washington’s most respected conservative voices in journalism, summed up Fox’s approach Monday night simply: “Lunacy.”
It’s worse than lunacy, though. Fox’s bubble reality creates a situation where it’s impossible to have the conversations and debate necessary to function as a democracy. Facts that are inconvenient to President Trump simply disappear down Fox News’ “memory hole,” as thoroughly as George Orwell could have imagined in 1984.
The idea that Fox News represents a literal threat to our national security, on par with Russia’s Internet Research Agency or China’s Ministry of State Security, may seem like a dramatic overstatement of its own—and I, a paid contributor to its competitor CNN, may appear a biased voice anyway—but this week has made clear that, as we get deeper into the impeachment process and as the 2020 election approaches, Fox News is prepared to destroy America’s democratic traditions if it will help its most important and most dedicated daily viewer.
The threat posed to our democracy by Fox News is multifaceted: First and most simply, it’s clearly advancing and giving voice to narratives and smears backed and imagined by our foreign adversaries. Second, its overheated and bombastic rhetoric is undermining America’s foundational ideals and the sense of fair play in politics. Third, its unique combination of lies and half-truths has built a virtual reality so complete that it leaves its viewers too misinformed to fulfill their most basic responsibilities as citizens to make informed choices about the direction of the country.
In the impeachment hearings, former National Security Council official Fiona Hill and other witnesses made clear how those who, like Fox News hosts and the president, advance the false narrative that Ukraine meddled in the US election are serving the Kremlin’s interests. Russia is playing a weak hand geopolitically—its economy is sputtering along and its population shrinking—and so its greatest hope is to stoke internal discord in the West. Robert Mueller warned of this; James Clapper has warned of it; and now Fiona Hill has done the same. “Our nation is being torn apart,” she said. “Truth is questioned.” Yet Fox, and the GOP more broadly, has warmly embraced almost every twist of Kremlin propaganda, up to and including the idea that Russia never meddled in the 2016 election to begin with.
Fox’s clear willingness to parry the wingnuttiest ideas in service of the president, long-term implications to the United States be damned, should worry all concerned about the state of the United States. The Ukraine myth is hardly the only example; for years, it has repeated false conspiracies about the murder of Democratic staffer Seth Rich, a conspiracy literally cooked up by Russian intelligence and fed into the US media. (To say nothing of Fox’s long-term commitment to undermining and questioning climate science, leaving the US both behind in mitigating the worst effects of climate change and also ill-equipped to face the myriad security consequences of a warming planet.)
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It’s possible to paint Fox with too broad of a brush—Chris Wallace remains one of the toughest and best interviewers on television and has repeatedly stood up to vapid GOP talking points, and Bret Baier is a talented journalist and historian—but it’s clear from this year that something fundamental and meaningful has tipped inside the network.
While propagandizing has long been a key facet of Fox’s business (Stephen Colbert debuted his own Fox News host alter ego, in dedicated pursuit of “truthiness,” all the way back in 2005), the situation is clearly getting worse: the lies deeper, its always-tenuous commitment to “Fair and Balanced” unraveling further. Whatever loose adherence to a reality-based world the Fox worldview once possessed, whatever guardrails on truth the network might have once installed, are now gone. Shep Smith, long one of the network’s biggest names and best reporters, literally walked out of the Fox building this fall, departing abruptly after apparently deciding that he couldn’t in good conscience be part of a “news” operation that treated facts so fungibly.
Indeed, as the year has unfolded, Fox’s evening talk shows and its presidentially endorsed morning show have proven to be a particularly egregious and odious swamp of fetid, metastasizing lies and bad faith feedback loops that leave its viewers—and, notably, its Presidential Audience of One—foaming at the mouth with outrage and bile.
It’s hard not to think that the increasingly odd behavior and untethered-to-reality pronouncements of the president’s two top lawyers—Attorney General Bill Barr and personal defender Rudy Giuliani—have not been deeply influenced by the filter bubble on the right created, fostered, and fertilized by Fox News. As Lawfare’s Susan Hennessey tweeted after Barr set out on his Quixotic quest to prove the deep state was behind the FBI’s 2016 investigation, “The Attorney General is a fully-committed Fox News conspiracy theorist.”
The network’s pantheon of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Lou Dobbs, and the rotating couch-cast of Fox & Friends’ morning show dunces-by-choice together represent a level of ill-informed demagoguery that would make Father Coughlin and Huey Long wince.
More than simply embarrassing themselves by spouting obvious falsehoods, though, Fox News’ incendiary, fanatical rants serve to delegitimize to its viewers the very idea of a political opposition. Every Democrat is evil. Every person who disagrees with President Trump is an enemy of the state. Every career federal employee is a member of a deep state opposition.
As writer Gabe Sherman, who authored a history of Fox News, tweeted over the weekend, “Been thinking a lot about why Trump will survive impeachment when Nixon didn’t. For 20+ years Fox News (and rightwing talk radio) has told GOP voters that Democrats are evil. As lawless as Trump is, Republicans believe Dems are worse. That’s the power of propaganda.”
These pronouncements—uttered around the clock on weekdays and doubled down on weekends by hosts like the president’s favorite, Jeanine Pirro—are an attack on the very ideals and foundations of the American experiment.
The founders settled on political parties as a mechanism to institutionalize channels for ongoing debate. As historian Joseph Ellis wrote in American Creation, political parties “eventually permitted dissent to be regarded not as a treasonable act, but as a legitimate voice in an endless argument.” It is that willingness to view opponents as legitimate that has long allowed America to hold together even under trying political times and to deal with political disagreements in the political arena, rather than resorting to violence against national leaders. For all of Fox News and President Trump’s daily declaration of coups and attempted coups against the administration, American history has actually been shockingly free of actual coups.
Part of what drives the unique national interest in the rivalry of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr was that their fatal showdown represents the only case of a founder taking another founder’s life. It was one of only a handful of times in our entire national history where we’ve seen political figures fight each other and inflict real wounds. (The caning of Senator Charles Sumner in the pre–Civil War Capitol comes to mind as another such rare instance.)
In the midst of his own presidential run in 2008, John McCain stopped one of his own supporters in her tracks attacking Barack Obama as a Muslim to defend the Democratic nominee: “No ma’am,” McCain said. “He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
That tradition and idea of American politics as an ongoing conversation, an endless argument, is key to preserving our democratic experiment. The idea that you will be in power sometimes, and out of power other times, is what preserves norms and traditions, and curbs the worst abuses and impulses; politicians traditionally understand that actions taken in the majority could serve to bite them if and when they return to the minority.
Donald Trump, who rose to prominence trumpeting the very “birther” falsehood that McCain once batted away, seems bent on undermining that tradition; he has proven he’s perfectly willing to burn down political norms for short-term gain. Fox News seems intent on helping him—and on a daily basis, they’re telling their viewers he’s right and anyone who disagrees with him is less than human. Trump’s lies are the one constant and consistent position of his presidency (13,000 and counting!), and Fox News has gone all in.
We, as a democratic society, cannot survive such consequences-be-damned, winner-take-all, facts-don’t-matter politics. Fox News has upended Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous proclamation that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Its daily programming seems driven by the idea that everyone might be entitled to their own facts, but that there is only one correct opinion: President Trump’s.
In 1984, George Orwell wrote his imagined dystopian regime “told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears,” but Fox News has actually figured out a tactic even more pernicious: Fox News’ own masters of Orwellian doublespeak, its Hannitys, Carlsons, and Doocys, the ones who smugly declare down up and up down, aren’t even bothering to tell their viewers to ignore their eyes and ears, because the truth never even approaches their airtime.
Let’s hope that Fox News today, unlike in Orwell’s world, doesn’t manage to succeed in transforming our country from a functional democracy into an authoritarian cult.
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Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor for WIRED and the coauthor of The Dawn of the Code War: America's Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat. His latest book, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, was published in September. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.