There are some stories that are important enough to pause the news cycle and linger on them, to explore not just what happened, but why. And so it is with Fox News’s role in the events leading up to Jan. 6, 2021. Thanks to a recent filing by Dominion Voting Systems in its defamation lawsuit against Fox, there is now compelling evidence that America’s most-watched cable news network presented information it knew to be false as part of an effort to placate an angry audience. It knowingly sacrificed its integrity to maintain its market share.
Why? There are the obvious reasons: Money. Power. Fame. These are universal human temptations. But the answer goes deeper. Fox News became a juggernaut not simply by being “Republican,” or “conservative,” but by offering its audience something it craved even more deeply: representation. And journalism centered on representation ultimately isn’t journalism at all.
To understand the Fox News phenomenon, one has to understand the place it occupies in Red America. It’s no mere source of news. It’s the place where Red America goes to feel seen and heard. If there’s an important good news story in Red America, the first call is to Fox. If conservative Christians face a threat to their civil liberties, the first call is to Fox. If you’re a conservative celebrity and you need to sell a book, the first call is to Fox.
And Fox takes those calls. In the time before Donald Trump, I spent my share of moments in Fox green rooms and pitching stories to Fox producers. I knew they were more interested in stories about, say, religious liberty than most mainstream media outlets were. I knew they loved human-interest stories about virtuous veterans and cops. Sometimes this was good — we need more coverage of religion in America, for example — but over time Fox morphed into something well beyond a news network.
Fox isn’t just the news hub of right-wing America, it’s a cultural cornerstone, and its business model is so successful that it’s more accurate to think of the rest of the right-wing media universe not as a collection of competitors to Fox, but rather as imitators. From television channels to news sites, right-wing personalities aren’t so much competing with Fox as auditioning for it.
Take, for example, the online space. Fox News is so dominant that, according to data from December, you could take the total traffic of the next 19 conservative websites combined, and still not reach half of Fox’s audience.
But that kind of loyalty is built around a social compact, the profound and powerful sense in Red America that Fox is for us. It’s our megaphone to the culture. Yet when Fox created this compact, it placed the audience in charge of its content.
During the Trump years, Fox faithfully upheld its end of the bargain. If you were Republican and felt embattled for supporting Donald Trump, a quick visit to Fox (especially in prime time) would calm your mind and soothe your soul. There you’d be reminded that the Democrats are the real radicals. That the Democrats are the true threat to America. And if you voted for Trump even though you were uncomfortable with some of his conduct, it was only because “they” forced your hand.
As the Trump years wore on, the prime-time messaging became more blatant. Supporting Trump became a marker not just of patriotism, but also of courage. And what of conservatives, like myself, who opposed Trump? We were “cowards” or “grifters” who sold our souls for 30 pieces of silver and airtime on MSNBC.
Our disagreement was cast as an act of outright betrayal. People like me had allegedly turned our backs on our own community. We had failed in our obligation to be their voice.
So you can start to understand the shock when, on Election Day in 2020, Fox News accurately, if arguably prematurely, called Arizona for Joe Biden. It broke the social compact. By presuming the fairness of the election and by declaring Joe Biden the winner of a previously red state, Fox sent a message to its own audience — an audience that had been primed to mistrust election results by Trump and by reports on Fox News — that it did not hear them. It did not see them.
In the emails and texts highlighted in the Dominion filing, you see Fox News figures, including Sean Hannity and Suzanne Scott and Lachlan Murdoch, referring to the need to “respect” the audience. To be clear, by “respect” they didn’t mean “tell the truth” — an act of genuine respect. Instead they meant “represent.”
Representation can have its place. Fox’s deep connection with its conservative audience means that it can be ahead of the rest of the media on stories that affect red states and red culture.
But there is a difference between coming from a community and speaking for a community. In journalism, the former can be valuable, but the latter can be corrupt. It can result in audience capture (writing to please your audience, not challenge it) and in fear and timidity in reporting facts that contradict popular narratives. And in extreme instances — such as what we witnessed from Fox News after the 2020 presidential election — it can result in almost cartoonish villainy.
There are courageous reporters at Fox. We learned some of their names in the Dominion filing. They were the people who had the courage to tell the truth. But then there are the leaders, and the prime-time stars. Tough? Courageous? Hardly. When push comes to shove, they embody the possibly apocryphal remark of the French revolutionary Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” And follow them they did, straight into a morass of lies and conspiracy theories that should undermine Fox’s credibility for years to come.
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