Fox News: Putin Propaganda Primetime
For seven months, Russia has waged a vicious war of aggression in Ukraine, killing thousands of civilians. To make matters worse, in the past two weeks, Vladimir Putin has illegally annexed parts of Ukraine and has once again threatened to use nuclear weapons. A principled American conservative TV network might advocate a muscular response to this behavior. At a minimum, it would tell the truth. But Fox News is unconstrained by such principles. In primetime hours, it has become a platform for propaganda that serves Putin and undercuts Ukraine.
During the day, you can find many Fox News hosts and guests who speak candidly about Putin’s war crimes and the importance of American resolve. But the hosts who control three of the four hours between 8:00 p.m. and midnight on the East Coast—Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Greg Gutfeld—are peddling arguments that coincide with Putin’s interests. So are several other Fox hosts. Here’s what they’re telling the network’s viewers.
1. America is marching into a world war. On Saturday night, Fox host Dan Bongino warned viewers that “the U.S. is slow-walking its way directly into World War III.” He repeated this phrase three times, each time citing a different alleged American provocation. First he pointed to the recent sabotage of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, suggesting that the United States may have done it. Then he cited President Joe Biden’s warning to Putin that America would defend every inch of NATO territory. Then he cited a bulletin from the U.S. embassy in Russia, which urged Americans to leave that country. No matter what we do, Bongino has the same warning: It might trigger a world war.
It’s true that Russia might escalate the conflict in response to American acts. But by framing our acts as the cause of Putin’s behavior—and indiscriminately applying that framework to anything we do—Bongino’s advice would paralyze the United States. And he’s hardly alone. On Friday night, another Fox host, Will Cain, blamed American leaders for Russia’s deployment of planes that could carry nuclear weapons. Cain asked Fox viewers: “Why is virtually every politician [in] both parties trying to provoke Russia into using those bombers?”
2. Lower the temperature. In his Friday monologue, Cain proposed that “given” Russia’s nuclear threats, “Every NATO country now needs to answer a very basic question: How are you going to lower the temperature? How are you going to prevent global nuclear war? It’s really the only question that matters.”
The key word in this argument is “given.” Like several other Fox hosts, Cain accepts Putin’s behavior as a given but treats America’s behavior as a variable. This puts the onus on us to appease Putin, regardless of what he does. And Cain, like Bongino, has an endless supply of American acts or statements that in his view might unduly trigger Putin. He accused Biden of “deliberately provoking Russia” merely by suggesting that Putin sabotaged the pipeline.
3. Putin is invincible. No matter how many losses Putin suffers in Ukraine, the appeasement caucus insists he can never truly be defeated. “There is no way Putin is going to give in,” Gutfeld scoffed on Friday. “Older generations like him” in Russia, said Gutfeld, and “the younger people, they’re leaving. So . . . I don’t think he has any reason to worry.” By depicting Putin as relentless and politically secure—more secure than he really is, judging by Russia’s domestic unrest in response to his latest mass conscription—these advocates of conciliation strengthen his hand.
4. Submit to any nuclear threat. Last week, Carlson called for immediate capitulation to Russia. “Putin is making nuclear threats,” he noted. “Whatever the reason he is making them, the fact he is making them . . . is enough for any responsible person to say, ‘Now we stop.’” On this view, any dictator could paralyze America just by issuing a plausible nuclear threat.
5. Helping Ukraine just prolongs the suffering. “We just keep sending billions and billions and billions of dollars” to Ukraine, Gutfeld complained on Friday. “We’re not affecting the outcome. . . . All we’re doing is making [the war] longer.” And “the longer it goes, the worse it gets,” he argued. By this logic, American aid is harmful, and for Ukraine’s sake—never mind what Ukrainians claim to want—we should cut a deal that placates Putin.
6. Give peace a chance. “I don’t understand the problem with the P-word,” Gutfeld pleaded on Monday. He fretted that “everybody is pro-war,” and “we’re just pouring the money in.”
This depiction of military conflict—if you resist the aggressor, you’re for “war,” but if you reward him by capitulating, you’re for “peace”—used to be associated with the left. Now it’s spreading on the right, and conservative isolationists are using it to pose as idealists. Last week, Carlson brought former Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard onto his show to make this case. “Our leaders and European leaders are the ones fueling and funding this war,” said Gabbard. Instead of “pushing for more destruction, more war,” she proposed, we should “fight for peace” by using our leverage to “push for . . . a negotiated ceasefire.”
7. Helping Ukraine costs too much. Ingraham, Carlson, Gutfeld, and other conservatives complain about the war’s price tag. But to make this concern sound less selfish, they also enlist nominally progressive guests who talk about America’s domestic needs. On Thursday, Ingraham invited journalist Glenn Greenwald onto her show to praise Republicans who “step up and say, we don’t think billions and billions of dollars should be sent to a war in Ukraine, where we have no vital interests at stake, while Americans are suffering at home.”
8. Sanctions hurt us, not Russia. On Friday, to punish Putin for his illegal annexations, Biden announced new sanctions. To this, Cain responded by rebuking Biden, not Putin. “Why would more sanctions deter Russia?” he asked. “The last seven months of sanctions have led to blackouts and food shortages in Europe. Meanwhile, in Russia, the ruble got stronger,” and “our economy tanked.” By understating the damage to Russia and overstating the damage to Europe and America, this argument seeks to persuade citizens in the West that Putin can hurt us more than we can hurt him, and therefore we should give in. Cain also implied that sanctions were to blame for any further escalation by Putin. “Sanctions don’t deter,” he asserted. “They provoke.”
9. Split the difference. “Picking sides” between Ukraine and Russia is “folly,” Gutfeld told Fox viewers on Friday. To reach a settlement that might end the war, he proposed that we “table the animosities and grudges” and “ask both parties what they want to get out of this.” He sounded like the character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who—on behalf of a knight who has just butchered wedding guests—pleads, “Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who.”
10. Russia only wants part of Ukraine. On Monday night, Carlson and Greenwald argued that the stakes in Ukraine weren’t worth risking nuclear war. The stakes aren’t “even Ukraine,” said Greenwald. They’re just “the Donbas, the eastern region in Ukraine, where a majority of people actually identify as ethnic Russians and want to be part of Russia.” Greenwald’s claim about the people of Donbas is false. But it supports the narrative that Russia’s rape of eastern Ukraine is somehow a consensual relationship and that Putin is only asking for territory to which he’s morally entitled.
11. The war is an attack on Putin. Carlson, casting America as the villain, frames the war as a Democratic plot. “Biden’s advisers wanted a total regime-change war against Russia, apparently to avenge the election of Donald Trump,” he told viewers last week. He claimed that this was why the Biden administration wanted to label Russia a state sponsor of terror: not because Putin really does commit terrorism, but because we’re looking for an excuse to “topple” him. Cain extends this argument to NATO, accusing it of conspiring “to remove Putin from power.” The war isn’t “really about keeping Ukraine safe,” he says.
On this view, Russia is just defending itself. According to Cain, Ukraine triggered the war by seeking to join NATO, which aimed to oust Putin. All Putin wanted was a promise from Ukraine to stay out of the alliance. In fact, Carlson asserted last week, the United States “could end this war tonight” by securing a deal to which Putin would readily agree: “Russian troops leave. Ukraine promises not to join NATO. Everything is at it was in January of this year. And everything’s fine.” That’s a preposterous scenario, but it follows logically from Carlson’s comically benign account of Putin’s motives.
In his Monday appearance with Carlson, Greenwald portrayed Putin as a besieged man protecting his homeland. NATO’s “escalating” aggression in Ukraine, “right across [Russia’s] border,” is turning the conflict into an “existential war” for Russia, he alleged. Naturally, he concluded, this threat to Russia might prompt Putin to use nukes.
12. Ukraine is just like Iraq. Many Americans who opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 are sympathetic to arming Ukraine because this time, Russia, not America, is the invader. But Carlson says there’s no difference. Our involvement in Ukraine is “designed to topple Vladimir Putin, just like we toppled Saddam Hussein,” he asserts. On Monday, Greenwald echoed that comparison. Americans are being lured into war based on demonization of Putin, he argued, just as we were lured into war by demonization of Saddam.
13. The “elite class” is pushing us into war. On Monday, Ingraham played video of foreign policy experts and a retired American colonel talking about the risks of nuclear escalation in Ukraine. “You would think that the elite class would call for calm,” she told viewers, but “they don’t seem to want calm.” In the view of Ingraham and several other Fox hosts, everything the experts and the media tell us—about vaccines, election results, and the importance of thwarting Russian aggression—is presumptively wrong. “We’re sending another $12 billion to Ukraine,” she complained on Thursday night. “Is there any real debate about how things are going in Ukraine? Or are we just going to agree with whatever CNN says?”
14. This is another Russia hoax. Some Fox hosts and their guests deride anything said about Russia by current or former U.S. intelligence officials. They assert, falsely, that the Russia investigation exonerated Donald Trump, and therefore nothing said about the current crisis in Ukraine by American intelligence experts—in particular, former CIA Director John Brennan—can be trusted. “John Brennan and the CIA . . . invented the hoax of Russiagate,” Greenwald told Ingraham on Thursday. They “spun all of these tales about how Russia was responsible for infiltrating the United States. . . . They blamed Russia for everything, and it turns out to be lies.” On Monday, Carlson chimed in: “John Brennan used to run the CIA. He knows which lies work. He’s an expert.”
15. America is coercing Ukraine to fight. According to Cain and Carlson, Ukraine wanted to sign a peace deal in April but was blocked by the United States so that Biden could “fight to the last Ukrainian” to oust Putin. This story, which wildly distorts a temporary proposal to which Putin never agreed, is designed to sucker Americans who sympathize with Ukraine. In this version of the Carlson-Cain alternate universe, the real aggressor against Ukraine isn’t Russia; it’s America. “Who cares what the Ukrainians want? America and the U.K. demand total war with Russia,” says Carlson. “The Ukrainians, caught in the middle, had no choice but to concede.”
16. Ukraine is manipulating us. Carlson and his protégés alternate between portraying Ukraine as our victim and portraying it as a wicked temptress. On Friday, Cain showed viewers a clip of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signing an application for admission to NATO. “It’s yet another slick, well-produced video from Kyiv,” Cain smirked.
17. Ukraine is a spoiled parasite. As U.S. military aid to Kyiv increases, some Fox hosts are depicting Ukraine as a greedy welfare recipient. “Ukraine feels entitled to endless support from the West, mostly the United States,” Ingraham groused on Monday. “We’re the ones who pay the bills.”
18. Ukraine is pushing us to start a nuclear war. In his diatribe last week, Carlson accused Zelensky of demanding that the United States “launch nuclear weapons now,” “before Russia actually launches missiles.” This assertion, like much of what Carlson says, was a remorseless lie. It’s also laughably inconsistent with his simultaneous story about how Ukraine just wanted to end the war and has been dragged into combat by America.
19. Ukraine is an arm of the Democratic party. “Zelensky is not the independent leader of a democratic nation,” Carlson declared Monday. “Zelensky is a client of the Biden administration, which runs his country.” In fact, he’s “the puppet of the Democratic party of the United States.” Carlson went on to denounce “Democrats and the defense establishment they control.” By smearing the U.S. government and the U.S. military as partisan enemies of Republicans, Carlson makes it easier for his viewers to think of themselves as patriots, even as they blame America.
20. As Ukraine’s sponsors, we should force Zelensky to settle. Despite their bogus allegations that Biden coerced Ukraine to fight, some Fox hosts are now suggesting that we should, in fact, coerce Ukraine to do what they want: cut a deal. Ukraine should respect our wishes because “we’re paying” for the war, says Gutfeld. Carlson goes further. “We are funding this war. We could end it,” he declared last week. He demanded that Biden “shut this whole thing down and force a negotiated peace.”
Many people who support a strong foreign policy, or who simply believe in telling the truth, still work at Fox News. They report on Russia’s war crimes, they speak frankly about Putin’s illegal annexations, and they interview guests about the urgency of arming Ukraine. But in primetime, their good work is buried by propaganda that misleads the public, blames America, and empowers Putin.