The State of the Fake News
And the woman answered him, saying: Of the fruit of the trees that are in paradise we do eat: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of paradise, God hath commanded us that we should not eat; and that we should not touch it, lest perhaps we die. And the serpent said to the woman: No, you shall not die the death.
It’s often said that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. But after this year’s election, we know that isn’t true. The first crime was information warfare, starting right there in the Garden of Eden.
At least that’s true for citizens trying to make sense of who legitimately won the White House this year. Information now takes a backseat to disinformation, as illustrated by the daily gyre of claimed facts about the election, countered by seemingly plausible counterclaims.
In the conventional telling, Disinformazia earned its green card in America when the Kremlin deployed armies of trolls to serve up fake news on social media in 2016. Some were pro-Hillary, others, pro-Trump. It is apparently a well-known strategy of Russia’s spymasters to flood Western democracies with complex and contradictory allegations on the eve of elections, exacerbating hatred, triggering chaos, and causing authorities in targeted nations to turn on each other.
That strategy had been deployed by Russia to roil and confuse voting publics in Poland and at least 26 other countries since 2004, according to the German Marshall Fund. Whether Russia did or did not stir distrust into the pot of public discourse during the last two American elections, the American media certainly did. Donald Trump hadn’t even entered the White House in 2017 before he was painted as a Russian agent by CNN. And it’s a fact that monitoring Trump’s every utterance has kept a legion of fact-checkers employed. Even post-election, The New York Times racks up more than 20 pieces of disinformation linked to the president or his lawyers every four days.
But the iconic example of disinformation groupthink came with The New York Post’s scoop in mid-October about Hunter Biden’s laptop. Only Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, Fox News, and the few other Trump-friendly media outlets aired the story, since the grandees of the mainstream press quickly concluded that the laptop must be a ploy of Russian disinformation.
It was just so obvious! And yet it wasn’t. The Bidens didn’t disavow any of the emails on the laptop. Two weeks later, surveys reported that 51 percent of Americans agreed with that conclusion, notwithstanding the fact that John Ratcliffe, the Director of National Intelligence, said there was no evidence the laptop came from a foreign power.
“Let’s all stop lying. Lying about everything that matters. Every day of our lives,” Tucker Carlson said during his show’s monologue on Fox News on Nov. 9. “That’s what we’re doing now. Let’s repeal our national dishonesty mandate.” Easier said than done, when every outlet employs every scrap of news for the purposes of information warfare.
All of this was a prelude to the jaw-dropping conspiracy theory of Trump’s lawyers that hasn’t been proved but may be true. Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell painted a picture on Nov. 19 of a stolen election involving corrupt vote counters in 10 deep blue cities with roots in international cyber espionage coming from Communist regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, and China. Despite days of ridicule by The New York Times, and attempts to undermine their witnesses and evidence, Powell and Giuliani have doubled down.
“We have more evidence now than half the prison population is imprisoned on,” Powell told Fox Business on Nov. 20.
Even if Powell’s allegations can’t be proven, the statistical anomalies that emerged from the 2020 vote count, including the improbable Biden-slanted ballot loads that appeared at the last minute, raise suspicions of an election stolen on a massive scale. If true, this scandal is bigger than Watergate, and a political watershed in U.S. history.
After the most melodramatic American election in history, voters are riven with confusion and anxiety. The talking heads and Democratic Party mouthpieces on CNN are recoiling in outrage because The Donald refused to concede. “It isn’t just bad for Joe Biden, it’s bad for democracy,” intoned a professorial Barack Obama, sensing the tidal wave of anger from 74 million “feeling-cheated” Trump voters.
Whether Spymaster Putin or some other foreign power had a hand in the 2020 election, the destabilization of America has been achieved. Americans who supported Trump are anxious and the victors are uncertain they have won. The situation portends a deepening age of anxiety in which we don’t know what is true or who to trust, nor whether to act out in denial, resignation, or resistance.
Faith in the implausible was palpable at the extraordinary Million MAGA March of Nov. 14, which flooded downtown Washington with upwards of 20,000 of President Trump’s true believers. Unlike Trump’s massive campaign rallies, this one wasn’t orchestrated by campaign staff. These “Stop the Steal” marchers came from all over the country. Some drove by caravan from Houston; others flew in from the West Coast.
Many marchers had been praying for the president’s reelection daily for four years. In the enthusiasm of their comments made to citizen journalists who covered the protest on social media, they sounded like anything but losers—even though they have been painted that way by the mainstream media, even by the lights of the news division of Fox. Marching with them was Mike Lindell, the most prolific advertiser on Fox, who echoed the position espoused by Sidney Powell that Trump had won by a landslide.
Trump has already begun his campaign for 2024, and for his slogan he may look to heavyweight boxer George Foreman’s refrain after he lost to Muhammad Ali in Zaire: “I got robbed!” Now that we are in the post-fact age of narrative, the Bible-believing Trump partisans are comfortable with theirs, and ready to march through the wilderness of fake news for four more years if needed.
Since Nov. 3, Trump’s partisans have been complaining that Fox News, the nation’s major conservative cable news provider, has turned on their hero. Let’s recall that Fox called Arizona for Biden only a half-hour after polls closed and with only 73 percent of the vote counted. Why exactly did this call evoke so much anger? Possibly the early call might have suppressed potential Trump voters who had not yet gone to the polls in California and Alaska.
Yet, even if the call were unfounded, as Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien believed, this hasty act could have been reversed if the 25 percent of uncounted ballots in Arizona had broken for Trump. It may have been disheartening to learn that a state that Trump won in 2016 had been flipped, but the initial call could have been reversed, just as Florida was in 2000, when it was first wrongly placed in Al Gore’s column.
Fox’s early call ran counter to the Trump team’s hope that Arizona would cement a Trump win. By 2:30 a.m., the president was insisting that the election had been stolen. “This is an embarrassment to our country,” Trump said. “We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win the election.” One was left with the impression that the president’s expected victory had been derailed by Fox’s early Arizona call.
In the weeks that followed, viewership of Fox’s competitor Newsmax climbed as Fox steadily lost fans. Trump tweeted that Fox is heading for “THE GREAT CRASH,” which it presumably deserved. But speculation about whether Fox has been fatally wounded by rupturing its relationship with Trump sometimes misses a more crucial point.
“We have fans,” Fox Vice President for Development John Finley bragged in The New York Times. “Other news organizations simply have viewers.”
He may have a point. The difference between a viewer and a fan is that fans have a personal, emotional investment in a brand. The fans who have been drawn to Fox want their deeply held belief in American moral superiority and American exceptionalism validated. Fox has provided their fans with this confirmation through the stimulating personas of verbally facile, nubile women and articulate, macho, patriotic men.
In other words, Rupert Murdoch’s TV programs have flattered their viewers’ worldview while delivering information packaged as personality and fun, and spectacles of opposing sides duking it out.
Fox’s competitors at CNN perceive its theatrical advantage and are jealous. CNN’s chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter, has railed against the connection between Trump and Fox in his book Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth. In Stelter’s telling, Trump could not have risen to prominence without the assistance of Fox. Stelter was among the first to accuse Fox of belonging to the “cult of Donald Trump,” and warning that “the Trump-Fox Co-dependency is more dangerous than you think.”
Stelter told his own followers in a September podcast that “Fox has subordinated journalistic integrity to President Trump’s political interests, while setting the broader daily agenda for his administration.” Fox’s opinion anchors have fired back, mocking Stelter for pushing the discredited theory of Trump’s collusion with Russia.
Stelter has also chronicled the steady rise of a potential challenger to Fox coming from the right, Newsmax, a webstreaming service set up way back in 1998, just two years after Rupert Murdoch and programming guru Roger Ailes created Fox News. Newsmax distributes its news programming via free, ad-supported streaming internet services, as well as through limited national cable distribution, but it had only attracted a small audience compared to Fox—that is until after the 2020 election. Newsmax TV surged slightly ahead of Fox News TV for the first time on Dec. 7 when its “Greg Kelly Reports” show edged out “The Story with Martha MacCallum” on Fox. Kelly, a former Fox reporter, averaged 229,000 viewers on Dec. 7, compared with 203,000 for MacCallum.
“The margin was narrow but still a milestone in the cable news industry,” wrote Stelter, who seemed to be overwhelmed with schadenfreude as he observed Newsmax surge to third place in primetime news that day.
All the same, Fox is still the top dog, with an audience of 1.36 million viewers in the 24-hour period in which Newsmax briefly surged ahead of it, in contrast to the 316,000 viewers who were then watching Newsmax. But this potential Fox replacement has shown impressive growth in viewership since the Nov. 3 election, which is clearly tied to Fox’s loss of viewers who resented Fox News’s coverage of the election.
The resentment began of course with Fox’s fateful decision to call Arizona for Joe Biden, criticized by Newsmax reporter Brian Trusdell as “extremely premature.” The unfavorable view of Fox among Trump’s base strengthened in the days following the election as Bret Baier, Chris Wallace, John Roberts, and other news anchors and Fox stars expressed scorn for the president’s efforts to investigate electoral fraud. One frequent Fox news commentator, the neoconservative Jonah Goldberg, even insisted that it was actually Trump who was trying to steal the election.
Despite temporary setbacks, Fox remains the raging bull in the cable TV market. Its biggest star, Tucker Carlson, made history in July when his show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” was recognized as the most-watched cable television news show in history. In the second quarter, he and Sean Hannity achieved average viewer ratings above 4.3 million. Even with a decline in viewership somewhere around 40 percent immediately after the election, Newsmax has a tall mountain to climb to challenge Fox.
It would also be wrong not to give Fox its due for boldly reporting the scandals that the Biden media refused to cover, and which Twitter and YouTube suppressed. Whence the explosive revelations about Hunter Biden’s laptop in Murdoch’s New York Post and The Wall Street Journal and then again on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Two months after Carlson’s exclusive interview with former Biden business partner Tony Bobulinski, the FBI finally announced that Hunter was the subject of a criminal probe.
The intentional suppression of the true story of the Hunter Biden scandal by the mainstream media and Silicon Valley tech giants until after the election may account for Biden’s margin of victory in November. Surveys have shown that as many as 10 percent of Biden voters would have chosen Trump if they had known about the laptop’s contents. Fox’s opinion stars also arranged for interviews with attorney Sidney Powell, who has championed the controversial theory that the election was stolen by a massive conspiracy linked to Dominion Voting Systems. Powell fed her theory to Fox’s Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro. On Nov. 19 Carlson told viewers that he had invited Powell to appear on his show to lay out all her evidence, but she refused. Viewers tweeted that Carlson had dissed her and should apologize. For some, this seeming betrayal by Carlson was the last straw in their collapsing relationship with Fox.
Still, it would be a mistake to count Fox out as a voice for conservatives. In the weeks following the election, its opinion commentators have kept the stolen-election story alive, although their focus has been on the mainstream GOP charge that the fault lies with invalid mail-in voting. For example:
- On Saturday, Dec. 5, Jeanine Pirro grinned maliciously as she torched Attorney General William Barr as a reptilian swamp creature for failing to find evidence of fraud.
- Mark Levine told viewers that it would be foolish for Trump to concede this election in the face of widespread irregularities, and then regaled his fans with a rant against Democrats and weak-kneed Republicans.
- On week nights Tucker Carlson still goes after leftwing celebrity journalists; while Sean Hannity takes on the persona of a working-class Joe from Queens fighting for God, country, and those smelly Walmart shoppers.
- Laura Ingraham is still reassuring viewers that “everything they accuse Trump of doing, they are doing.”
- Finally, Steve Hilton unpacks what he calls “positive populism” on Sunday evenings under the banner of “the Next Revolution.”
These are just some of the attractions Fox has on offer to mollify its Trump-supporting Republican fan base. Despite the disappointment and feelings of betrayal, Fox opinion anchors will still be on hand in 2021 and beyond to give their fans the emotional support they crave, delivered in a set of agreeable facts and a feeling of being smarter than the “woke” capitalists and leftist college professors.
By all accounts, Fox has also made politics a form of entertainment. Its viewers watch Fox as a leisure activity as well as a means of hearing their political convictions confirmed. In this spectator mindset, the Trumpists just watched their team lose the championship—but Fox is betting they’ll still tune in next season.
Less-often remarked upon is the fact that Fox has also defined the borders of acceptable conservatism. One may argue that it has achieved the latter by cutting off the serious right—including cutting off some of the voices represented by the Old Right and this magazine—and by making it appear that a constantly left-shifting center-right is the only legitimate form of conservative politics. This function of Fox is exactly what its creators and sponsors want, and their product has done well in selling this boundary-setting authority to its viewers.
Fox has also created a dialogue between its own conservatism and chosen members of the center-left. Remember that these debates are not aimed at policy wonks. They are being targeted at gainfully employed establishment Republicans, and at others who may enjoy the theatrics.
All of this reinforces Fox’s ambitious programming experiment, which it calls Fox Nation. The “super fans” of its Fox Nation programming can obtain a smorgasbord of news features, video clips, and links to editorial blogs from a narrow spectrum of establishment conservatives and left-wing political thinkers, who help render credible the illusory Murdoch motto, “Fair and Balanced.” Fox News plugs its Fox Nation feature as “a new community where all Americans are encouraged to share, discuss, and debate.”
Stelter affects a mock tone of parental concern when he notes: “I understand the business rationale, but I wonder how the people in charge—including, or perhaps especially, the Murdochs—justify actually going through with that business rationale.” Stelter added: “Throwing fuel on a fire might make good business sense for the Murdochs right now; that doesn’t mean they should do it.”
Seen another way, Fox Nation is a psychic refuge for conservatives terrified by the incessant signs that they have lost the culture war: cities burned by protestors, gender transitioning grade schoolers, and lockdowns that never end. Fox Nation presents spiritual journeys, revels in American military exploits, and takes virtual visitors on tours of the nation’s sacred battlegrounds. It also reveals the barbecue recipes of commentator Steve Doocy. The personalities are effervescent, the atmosphere is patriotic, and the escapism is better than therapy, all for only $65 annually.
To Fox’s detractors such as Stelter, this is tribalistic and self-deceiving—all true from the viewpoint of a “woke” media operator on the left who is drooling with envy. Contrast Fox Nation with CNN’s alternative meta-narrative: the United States is a nation on the edge of disaster, founded by racists, systemically infected by white privilege, with forests bursting into flames due to a catastrophically warming globe, and a killer virus threatening billions. Get your dose of daily doom and get your pointer finger ready to aim at Trump and Republicans!
I think that Fox and Fox Nation will likely stay around for the same reason that the Japanese Tea ceremony has endured for 500 years. Both have furnished a calming experience for the anxiety-ridden, whether they be beleaguered conservatives or Japanese samurai.
A week before the election, Murdoch’s eldest son and successor acknowledged to investors that the number of viewers after Nov. 3 will likely take a downward turn. “I would expect that as we enter a more normal news cycle, which will happen eventually, that appetite for news will shift,” said Lachlan Murdoch, in his sixth year as executive chairman. Lachlan assured investors that Fox would “focus on keeping its share of viewership, so that it could continue to maintain leverage in the advertising market and wield influence with its audience and newsmakers,” Variety reported.
But how much influence will Fox still wield with Donald Trump and his faithful supporters after Jan. 20? It remains an open question whether Trump will need Fox more than it needs him as he remains a player in his post-presidency. Just as Fox has assuaged and flattered the emotions of its fans in the past, Trump has done so even more. Will potential Fox fans be content to seek shelter in Fox Nation, or will they prefer instead to march to the sound of Trump’s drum?
Rumors have swirled that Trump may put this question decisively to the test by launching his own TV network, directly challenging the Murdoch family and their talented army of producers.
The Murdochs would certainly adjust with good humor and compete as boldly with this new media rival as they have done with others for nearly 70 years. In a 1983 statement, Rupert Murdoch summed up his attitude toward his work, just after his UK papers suffered mortification by arguing in error for the authenticity of the clumsily forged Hitler Diaries. Murdoch quipped, as told by author Robert Harris in Selling Hitler: “After all, we are in the entertainment business.”