Please Lie to Me, Tucker
Oh, how conservatives loved to hate the media. I witnessed it firsthand for decades. In any speech before a conservative audience, the jokes about media bias got the loudest laughs and heartiest applause. Among conservative writers and thinkers, examples of bias were a staple of our output. It was evergreen. In 1992, conservatives sported bumper stickers reading “Annoy the Media: Reelect George Bush.”
I certainly did my share of press criticism (and I’ll reveal my jokes if you’re interested). The leftward tilt of the big prestige press was irritating for those of us on the other side, and compounding the offense were ritualistic denials that emanated from the likes of CBS and the New York Times. We’d cite chapter and verse of slanted reporting; we’d reference surveys showing that only 7 percent of reporters and editors called themselves Republicans; and still we’d be waved away with the patronizing explanation that reporters’ personal views didn’t taint their work.
Does it strike you as outrageous to suggest, as Fox News host Tucker Carlson has, that President Joe Biden’s slow response to the toxic spill in East Palestine, Ohio is evidence that he doesn’t care about white people? Carlson put it this way: “East Palestine is overwhelmingly white, and it’s politically conservative. That shouldn’t be relevant, but it very much is. . . . [It’s] a poor benighted town whose people are forgotten, and in the view of the people who lead this country, forgettable.” Not to be outdone in the racial sweepstakes, Charlie Kirk denounced Biden’s “war against white people.”
If you’re disgusted by that, you may understand how some conservatives felt in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina became the occasion for charging George W. Bush with racism. Jesse Jackson told CNN, “I saw five thousand African Americans on the I-10 causeway. It looked like Africans in the hull of a slave ship.” He also claimed that when churches were contacted about offering aid, they first demanded to know whether the victims were black or white. During NBC’s telethon for hurricane relief, Kanye West famously declared that “George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Those sentiments got a good airing on major TV outlets. (That West wound up on the Mar-a-Lago patio 17 years later in company with a Nazi suggests that perhaps he shouldn’t have been treated as an oracle back then.)
George W. Bush was smeared as a racist despite his “No Child Left Behind” education bill; his appointment of the first African-American secretary of state; the first black, female secretary of state; and the PEPFAR program that has saved 25 million lives in Africa—so far.
My own writing featured many objections to liberal media bias. I objected to widespread reporting during the Clinton years about a spate of church burnings that were nearly universally attributed to white racists. In fact, many churches, not just African-American churches, had experienced fires and most were not the result of arson. When the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives tracked down the arsonists, they could find only 2 out of 39 church fires that were the work of racists (and both of those fires were set by the same two individuals).
Conservatives were dismayed that Mitt Romney’s anodyne comment about having “binders full of women” (as potential hires when he was governor of Massachusetts) was transformed by many in the press into some kind of misogynist slur. And even Saturday Night Live mocked press sycophancy toward Barack Obama.
Like most conservatives, I initially welcomed Fox News to the airwaves. A media world that included Jennifer Griffin at the Pentagon, Neil Cavuto on Wall Street, and Charles Krauthammer every evening on Special Report was an overdue counterbalance. An enormous audience had been underserved, and Fox was able to exploit an opening.
But then things went sideways. While we can’t say the Fox News effect was entirely responsible—talk radio too played a role, as did social media—it started to become evident during the Obama years that the right’s impatience with press bias had curdled into something more ominous. Instead of seeking to fact check and balance coverage, Republican and conservative audiences demanded combat. Newt Gingrich turbocharged his anemic presidential campaign in 2011 by using the primary debates not as an opportunity to draw contrasts with his opponents but as a forum for attacking the press. When Politico’s John Harris asked Gingrich about a philosophical dispute regarding health insurance, Gingrich wheeled on him:
I hope all of my friends up here are going to repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated, and all of us are committed as a team—whoever the nominee is—we are for defeating Barack Obama.
The crowd vibrated with pleasure, and the belligerent seed that would later bloom into Donald Trump’s war on truth itself was planted.
The revelations in the Dominion Voting Systems legal filings demonstrate the full corruption of Fox News. The channel that debuted with the tagline “fair and balanced” has become completely untethered to any standard of integrity. Its own bias bears no comparison to that of the “mainstream media.” CNN, ABC, and USA Today have their flaws, but at least remain within the bounds of reality. Fox is not a news channel—it is the right’s Pravda. Among the frank acknowledgments of what the channel had become were rebukes to reporters who attempted to tell the simple truth. When reporter Kristin Fisher noted on the air that Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell’s howler of a press conference on November 19 contained allegations that did not align with what Trump’s lawyers were pleading in court and were not supported by evidence, she was rebuked by higher-ups at the network and told to do a better job of “respecting the audience.”
Respecting the audience in Fox speak meant telling the audience exactly what it wanted to hear and nothing that would ruffle its delicate feathers. In private, Sean Hannity would confide that “Rudy is acting like an insane person,” but in public—to Fox’s vast audience—Rudy’s ravings were laundered and legitimized. In private, Tucker Carlson fumed that a reporter telling the truth—that the election had not been stolen—was “measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down.”
The executives and others who clung to their integrity, most notably Chris Stirewalt and Bill Sammon, were cashiered. Those who could “protect the brand” by lying were rewarded. Dominion’s thorough airing of internal communications reveals executives who were total cynics, ready to serve the rubes whatever was required to maintain their market share. Fox News President Jay Wallace, after catching a bit of Lou Dobbs Tonight, noted tartly that “The North Koreans do a more nuanced show.”
We know what to think of Fox News hosts and executives. But what about the audience? All of us indulge the urge, at least sometimes, to hear news that confirms our own views. What Fox’s audience must grapple with is that choosing news is not like other consumer choices. It’s not like choosing country music in preference to hip hop or preferring Android over iOS. Getting the truth from a news source is more analogous to getting the straight story from your doctor or financial adviser or home inspector. If your financial adviser told you what you wanted to hear rather than the truth, you’d have a legal case. He or she has a professional responsibility not to mislead you. If your doctor assured you that your skin lesion was benign because he thought this would be more welcome than the news that it was melanoma requiring immediate treatment, the doctor would be guilty of malpractice and you wouldn’t thank him. When Fox News and its competitors lie to viewers, they are endangering not their physical health but their civic health and the good of the nation.
For decades, conservatives longed to get the whole story into the national news, but by demanding agreeable fiction instead of accepting complex fact, they have embarrassed themselves and undermined the case—still relevant—for fair and balanced coverage.