Fox News Can Thank Their Own Curious Programming Choices for Allegations of Propaganda
Jane Mayer’s long-form report in this week’s New Yorker that exhaustively documents the symbiotic relationship between Fox News and the Trump White House has caused quite the stir in media circles, and deservedly so.
There are countless breaking news nuggets littered throughout the piece — such as the allegation that President Donald Trump asked the White House Economic Advisor Gary Cohn to kill the merger between AT&T and Time Warner as punishment for CNN’s harsh coverage.
But much of her 11,000+ word piece is a collection of stories previously covered here on Mediaite. When assembled in one essay, however, it creates a broader narrative, one that is damning for the cable news network.
What goes somewhat overlooked in the New Yorker piece, however, is how Fox News is very different today than it was just a few years ago. This is best exemplified by the relatively new cast of contributors viewers now regularly see, and how they are qualitatively different from contributors in the past.
I have been asked numerous times by both conservative friends and employees of Fox News, for whom I have great respect, why Mediaite appears more focused on Fox News than the other networks. Fox News is under a more critical microscope than its competitors — especially in light of Mayer’s New Yorker essay — but much of the increased attention is a result of its very own recent programming decisions.
First of all, the wind always blows a little harder at the top of the totem pole. And as anyone at Fox News will rightly brag, the network has been the cable news ratings kings for roughly 17 years. That’s some streak, and while there are occasional symptoms that its dominance may be abating, there is no question that Fox News still boasts the highest number of weekly viewers by far.
In the last few years, however, this most influential cable news outlet became impossibly more influential, after Trump was elected to the White House. How much the commander-in-chief enjoys watching cable news is a time-honored story, but it’s abundantly clear that the hosts and producers of many of Fox News opinion programs have an outsized influence on White House decision-making.
It is no longer out of the ordinary to see a Fox News opinion host or guest spout an unproven theory (under the guise of “analysis”), which is then parroted by President Trump’s Twitter feed, which is then quickly read on air by a Fox News hard news host. The process avoids scrutiny and fact-checking entirely. It is the most insidious ouroboros of political media and it happens regularly.
So the microscopic coverage that Fox News often receives is warranted, but there is far more at play in this curious dynamic.
First and foremost, though Fox News executives are loathe to ever admit as much, their programming has evolved rather significantly in the past few years. It’s impossible to know if this is primarily a reaction to the departure (then untimely death) of founder Roger Ailes, whose influence is still very much felt at Fox News studios.
Or if it’s a reaction to the rise of Trumpism and the Republican party’s fierce loyalty to his cult of personality.
Maybe it’s enabled by a particularly pernicious assault on journalistic standards that has infected all cable news outlets: the packaging and sharing of opinionated analysis as if it were news. Yes, Ailes invented the form, but the current panel discussion that proliferates on MSNBC and CNN is really no different. The brand of punditry on those networks rarely adheres to the “capital J” standards of journalism.
What appears to have changed at Fox News, however, is that programs are far more comfortable espousing unproven conspiracy theories without fear of being reproved or need to correct the record. One does not need to look hard for examples: the Seth Rich conspiracy theory, the promotion of Infanticide, the “Uranium One” collusion scandal. All of those have been lustily promoted on various Fox News news and opinion programs, despite being thoroughly debunked by experts.
If one needs a better example of the Fox News programming evolution, look at the degradation of regular contributors that appear across Fox News. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the regular contributors, though fiercely proud of their conservative bona fides, were respected thought leaders by even their ideological foes.
Regulars like George Will, Bernard Goldberg, Mary Katharine Ham, and even Kirsten Powers have been replaced by conspiratorial bloggers and YouTube personalities like Dan Bongino, Dana Loesch, Morgan Ortagus, Diamond & Silk, and Seb Gorka (while Gorka still appears on Fox News, he no longer enjoys “paid contributor” status.) Smart and well-respected opinions have been replaced by a clown car of strident talking heads, often armed with conspiracies. And Fox News viewers seem more ill-informed than ever as result.
The Trump-Fox News symbiosis has also created a curious phenomenon in terms of media coverage. The cable news competition finds themselves between a rock and a hard place in how they cover the Leader of the Free World and the media he is consuming and promoting.
Covering Fox News programming is a dangerous game for its rivals, whose viewers can easily tune out. MSNBC seems to mostly take the “just don’t look” approach, while CNN cautiously wades into that territory in a manner that satisfies neither Fox News fans or critics.
The consolidation of media giants has also played into this. There are few outlets out there that can cover a cable news outlet without fear of bias or conflict of interest. In other words, the pool of independent outlets not tied to Turner, NBC Universal and/or News Corp are pretty small. Disney-ABC and CBS-Viacom seem to have little interest in truly covering Fox News, which leaves outlets like The New York Times, New Yorker, Vanity Fair and indie media blogs like Mediaite to carry the burden.
Many Fox News staffers have long exhibited that unique combination of characteristics that mark television personalities: outsized egos that are impossibly paired with remarkably thin skin (isn’t that always the way?) But Fox News has a slightly different take: a loud foot stomp that they are, and forever have been, NUMBER ONE on cable news, combined a proud admission that they are hated by the tony hoi polloi and as a result are underdogs.
It is a weird mix of confidence and neurosis. “We are number one!” but, also the underdog that no one likes and cheers for. An ethos that is equal parts of pride, anger, and grievance that things are not just and should be fixed.
It is a near-perfect metaphor for what eventually led to the “Make America Great Again” trend and our current President.
Edit note: some names have former Fox News regulars on Fox News has been edited since first publishing.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.