All happy families are alike; some unhappy families are unhappy because of Fox News.
You might have come across the articles (“I Lost My Dad to Fox News” / “Lost Someone to Fox News?” / “‘Fox News Brain’: Meet the Families Torn Apart by Toxic Cable News”), or the Reddit threads, or the support groups on Facebook, as people have sought ways to mourn loved ones who are still alive. The discussions consider a loss that Americans don’t have good language for, in part because the loss itself is a matter of language: They describe what it’s like to find yourself suddenly unable to speak with people you’ve known your whole life. They acknowledge how easily a national crisis can become a personal one. At this point, some Americans speak English; others speak Fox.
Political theorists, over the years, have looked for metaphors to describe the effects that Fox—particularly its widely watched opinion shows—has had on American politics and culture. They’ve talked about the network as an “information silo” and “a filter bubble” and an “echo chamber,” as an “alternate reality” constructed of “alternative facts,” as a virus on the body politic, as an organ of the state. The comparisons are all correct. But they don’t quite capture what the elegies for Fox-felled loved ones express so efficiently. Fox, for many of its fans, is an identity shaped by an ever-expanding lexicon: mob, PC police, Russiagate, deep state, MSM, MS-13, socialist agenda, Dems, libs, Benghazi, hordes, hoax, dirty, violent, invasion, open borders, anarchy, liberty, Donald Trump. Fox has two pronouns, you and they, and one tone: indignation. (You are under attack; they are the attackers.) Its grammar is grievance. Its effect is totalizing. Over time, if you watch enough Fox & Friends or The Five or Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, you will come to understand, as a matter of synaptic impulse, that immigrants are invading and the mob is coming and the news is lying and Trump alone can fix it.
Language, too, is a norm. It is one more shared fact of political life that can seem self-evident until someone like Trump, or something like Fox, reveals the fragility that was there all along. You might have observed, lately, how Americans seem always to be talking past one another—how we’re failing one another even at the level of our vernacular. In the America of 2020, socialism could suggest “Sweden-style social safety net” or “looming threat to liberty.” Journalist could suggest “a person whose job is to report the news of the day” or “enemy of the people.” Cancel culture could mean … actually, I have no idea at all what cancel culture means at this point. Fox, on its own, did not create that confusion. But it exacerbated it, and exploited it. The network turned its translations of the world into a business model. Every day, the most watched shows of the most watched cable network in the country—a prime-time destination more popular than ESPN—take the familiar idioms of American democracy and wear away at their common meanings. The result is disorientation. The result is mass suspicion. Like a vengeful God bringing chaos to Babel, Fox has helped to create a nation of people who share everything but the ability to talk with one another.
There’s an episode of The Office that ends, as so many episodes of The Office do, with Jim playing a prank on Dwight. Dwight, who sells paper with the militant zeal he brings to everything else he does, wins a company-wide prize for his sales record. His reward is to give a speech at a corporate gathering. Dwight is nervous about this opportunity; Jim—here is where he stares directly at the camera—gives him some public-speaking advice. Fast-forward to Dwight, in a cavernous hotel ballroom, breathing heavily into the lectern’s microphone, pounding his fists, and shouting lines from the script Jim had provided him: the Googled speeches of famous dictators. Jim had turned Dwight into something he wasn’t; that was the prank. But the joke was that Jim had also turned Dwight into something he’d been all along. Dwight Shrute has what psychologists might refer to as an “authoritarian personality.” Jim had given him, in a roundabout way, the ability to become himself—dictator cosplay, no costume required. The crowd loved it.
I thought of Dwight while watching the first night of this year’s Republican National Convention—specifically, while watching Kimberly Guilfoyle deliver her own version of Dwight’s speech to living rooms across America. Guilfoyle, a Trump-campaign fundraiser, a sort-of daughter-in-law to the president, and a former Fox star, shouted her speech. She finger-pointed and fearmongered with a verve that might have been comical were it not also, in its Mussolinian menace, terrifying. Of Joe Biden and assorted other “cosmopolitan elites,” Guilfoyle said:
They want to steal your liberty, your freedom. They want to control what you see and think and believe so that they can control how you live. They want to enslave you to the weak, dependent, liberal victim ideology to the point that you will not recognize this country or yourself.
Guilfoyle’s script, like Dwight’s, was both wildly inappropriate and deeply revealing. It was also, at this point, familiar. Guilfoyle was speaking the language of Fox. Her warnings were lifted from the same text the network’s opinion hosts read from each evening: elites, control, enslave. Here was Fox’s defining monomyth—the you and the they, locked in unending combat—brought to party politics’ biggest stage.
If you weren’t a regular viewer of Fox, Guilfoyle’s speech, and the many others that followed it as the convention wore on, might have been nearly unintelligible. If you hadn’t been informed that inclusivity is “groupthink”; if you weren’t conditioned to understand that the definition of media is “the enemy”; if you hadn’t been aware that Democrats want to “destroy your families, your lives, and your future”—you might have been jarred by all of the vitriol. You might have found yourself wondering why, in the midst of a global pandemic that had sickened millions of Americans and claimed the lives of more than 170,000, the RNC was warning about the threats of “cosmopolitan elites.” You might also have wondered why, during the nation’s long-overdue racial-justice reckoning, the RNC gave airtime to a couple who brandished guns at peaceful protesters—or why, during an economic emergency that has cost millions of Americans their livelihoods, a teenager was trotted out to talk about cancel culture (“being canceled, as in annulled, as in revoked, as in made void”).
The speeches, yes, were distractions from the ground truths of our crises. But they also attempted another kind of control: They reveled in the power TV has to shape—and to limit—viewers’ empathies. Instead of describing the America that is, the Republican Party described the America that is manufactured, every day, on Fox. It used its platform to refight some of Fox’s fondest micro-wars. It told its viewers not to focus on the people who have died, or the many more who might, but instead to focus on themselves: Your freedom. Your future. Your America. Watching it all, I felt the familiar fog that descends when something is lost in translation, when someone talks about something you share—in this case, a country—using details that are unrecognizable. It was the same kind of haze that came when Trump, newly sworn in as president, coined American carnage to describe a nation where violent crime had been declining for decades. Do we live in the same America? the broken words whisper. Maybe not, the same words reply.
When scholars discuss the effects of propaganda, that dissonance is often what they talk about. Hannah Arendt described it in terms of cynicism: the mental exhaustion that, over time, can make people “think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” Masha Gessen, the great observer of modern autocracy, writes of a more generalized kind of dissolution: “When something cannot be described,” Gessen notes, “it does not become a fact of shared reality.” The fog can descend, as well, when words have had new meanings imposed on them. In George Orwell’s 1984, freedom is captivity, peace is war, truth is a lie. In his 2015 book How Propaganda Works, the philosopher Jason Stanley defines political propaganda as “the employment of a political ideal against itself.” He describes in particular how self-negating language can make for self-negating politics. “The most basic problem for democracy raided by propaganda,” Stanley writes, “is the possibility that the vocabulary of liberal democracy is used to mask an undemocratic reality.”
The Fox News Channel itself arose as a matter of negation: Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, guided by the Nixonian notion that America’s “unelected elite” had amassed too much power, created the network in 1996 as a counterweight to the liberal bias that many conservatives saw in journalism writ large. But Fox’s initial project now reads as quaint. War is, at this point, Fox’s defining metaphor. Like the other outlets that both inspired Fox and were inspired by it—conservative talk-radio shows, Breitbart News and other websites—the network often processes the facts of the world as assorted weapons of war. On Fox, there are enemy combatants (Hillary Clinton, James Comey, “the Media,” Nancy Pelosi, Robert Mueller, Christine Blasey Ford, China, immigrants, Democrats) and there are allies. The sides are always clear. So is the cause.
“For the past five years, I’ve had a front row seat to the Trumpification of Fox and the Foxification of America,” Brian Stelter writes in his new book, Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth. Stelter, as a media correspondent and analyst, covers Fox for CNN. His book is deeply reported: For it, Stelter spoke with more than 140 staffers at Fox, along with 180 former employees and other people with direct ties to the network. (“Fox did not cooperate with the book,” Stelter told The Washington Post, but he “was in frequent touch with Fox News spokespeople” for fact-checking and the like.) Many of Hoax’s revelations are shocking, even—especially—if you follow the network. Fox really does function, Stelter suggests, as Trump’s presidential daily briefing. (The president reportedly once told the Fox legal analyst Andrew Napolitano: “Everything I know about the Constitution, I learned from you on Fox & Friends.”) And Fox really does serve as a kind of adviser to its most fervent fan. Trump, Stelter writes, “granted pardons because of Fox. He attacked Google because of Fox. He raged against migrant ‘caravans’ because of Fox. He accused public servants of treason because of Fox.”
The leader and the news network speak, and enforce, the same language. Trump regularly lifts his tweets directly from Fox’s banners and banter. Last year, Media Matters for America’s Matt Gertz counted the times the president tweeted something in direct response to a Fox News or Fox Business program. Gertz found 657 such instances—in 2019 alone. Fox hosts and producers use that power to manipulate the president. “People think he’s calling up Fox & Friends and telling us what to say,” a former producer on the show tells Stelter. “Hell no. It’s the opposite. We tell him what to say.”
But the manipulation flows in both directions. At Fox, Stelter reports, executives live in fear of angering the opinion hosts, who in turn live in fear of angering viewers—who of course have been made angrier by the hosts themselves. A former producer tells Stelter: “We were deathly afraid of our audience leaving, deathly afraid of pissing them off.” Stelter’s sources describe “a TV network that has gone off the rails,” he writes. “Some even said the place that they worked, that they cashed paychecks from, had become dangerous to democracy.” A well-known commentator on the network tells Stelter: “They are lying about things we are seeing with our own eyes.” An anchor laments that “we surrendered to Trump. We just surrendered.” The capitulation has become so complete, and so widely recognized, that when a Fox news reporter actually questions the president, the questioning itself makes news.
Fox is fond of accusing its alleged enemies of “politicizing” the news; the irony is that politicizing the news is Fox’s most basic move. Take the network’s coverage of COVID-19 in the spring. The opinion shows often treated the pandemic not as a public-health emergency, but as a political threat to Trump—as a front in its ongoing war. The Fox host Pete Hegseth: “I feel like the more I learn about this, the less there is to worry about.” The host Jeanine Pirro: “If you listen to the mainstream media, it's time to buy the family burial plot.” The language mocked, and minimized. Geraldo Rivera announced, baselessly, that if you could hold your breath for 10 seconds, that was a sign that you were COVID-free. On March 6, Fox’s longest-tenured medical analyst, Marc Siegel, told Hannity that “at worst, at worst-worst-case scenario, it could be the flu.”
Every news network struggled to understand the threat of the coronavirus in those early days. But Fox struggled much more. Stelter quotes several staffers who were ashamed and angry with the network’s coverage at a time when it was crucial for Americans to grasp the severity of the virus. “Hazardous to our viewers,” one told him. “Dangerous,” said another. “Unforgivable,” said another. And also hypocritical: Even as Fox was airing segments that downplayed the threat of the virus, Stelter reports, executives at Fox headquarters in Manhattan were ordering deep cleanings of their offices and making preparations for their talent to work remotely. On March 9, Stelter notes, Hannity poked fun at his favorite targets—Dems, the Media—for, he claimed, exaggerating the threat of the virus. “They’re scaring the living hell out of people, and I see it again as like, Oh, let’s bludgeon Trump with this new hoax,” he said.
Nine days later? He was insisting that “we’ve never called the virus a hoax.”
War, in the field, rationalizes behavior that would be deemed immoral in times of peace. War, used as language, can amount to a similar kind of exceptionalism. If your side is the right side, you might do whatever it takes to make sure that your side keeps winning. You can justify a lot in the name of liberty. (The title of Hannity’s 2002 book, Manichaean and Mad Libbian at once, is Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty Over Liberalism.) One Fox & Friends staffer Stelter spoke with describes being upbraided for a particular piece of copy she’d written for the show: an update sharing the news that White Castle would begin to serve vegan burgers. The copy presented the introduction as a positive development. But that was wrong, the staffer was told: The new burgers were actually part of the “war on meat.”
A 2019 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute tracked the differences between “Fox News Republicans” and other Republicans who said Fox was not their primary news source. Of the Fox loyalists, 55 percent said that there was nothing the president could do to lose their approval. That figure helps to explain how Fox can serve the state even as it operates independently. The “home team” is a powerful thing. Peter Pomerantsev, the author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, points out how cannily Fox employs the metaphor of the family in its packaging of its opinion shows: Bill O’Reilly, Pomerantsev told me, was for a long time the network’s cynical uncle. Tucker Carlson is the quirky cousin. Sean Hannity, meanwhile, is “the father coming home, ranting about this horrible world where the white man felt disenfranchised.” Familiarity, literally—this is the “strict father” model of political discourse, rendered as infotainment. The upshot, Pomerantsev noted, is a constructed world that is above all “very, very coherent.”
Earlier this summer, Tucker Carlson opined that Black Lives Matter is “not about Black lives” but about “left-wing mobs” who are trying to “cancel your rights.” He warned viewers to “remember that when they come for you.” Some advertisers left; Carlson stayed on the air. He stayed as audio surfaced of him referring to Iraqis, in 2006, as “semiliterate primitive monkeys” and saying, in 2008, that the Congressional Black Caucus existed to “blame the white man for everything.” He stayed after he claimed that immigration “makes our country poorer and dirtier and more divided.” Fox’s PR machine, when Carlson made that comment in late 2018, backed up its star: “It is a shame that left-wing advocacy groups, under the guise of being supposed ‘media watchdogs,’ weaponize social media against companies in an effort to stifle free speech.”
This is the paradox of a certain brand of propaganda. It is not the result of top-down efforts to capture hearts and minds; it is the result, instead, of a powerful entity responding to a powerful public. “No cable operator has ever seriously flirted with dropping Fox to save money,” Stelter notes, “because, among other reasons, they believe the right-wing backlash would cripple their business.” The president has his base; so does the network. That confers another kind of impunity. Fox can say whatever it wants with little consequence, save for, perhaps, higher ratings. One of the most sobering takeaways of Stelter’s reporting is that Fox foments fear and loathing not really because of a Big Brotherly impulse, but because the network has recognized that fear and loathing, as goods, are extremely marketable. In 2020, Stelter notes, Fox “is on a path to $2 billion in profits.”
And yet: You are under attack, Carlson tells his viewers, with his signature furrow of the brow. They are coming for you, he insists. Carlson does what he wants, and says what he wants, because he can. And he suggests that his audience, through the transitive powers of television, can enjoy a similar freedom from accountability. Critics might talk about Fox as an “information silo.” They might dismiss the network’s skewed stories as alternative realities. But even the insults, in their way, inoculate. They imply that Fox can do what it does in isolation. It cannot. Its outrages are atmospheric. Its definitions of the world are communal, even if they aren’t commonly shared. The events of 2020 have been tragic reminders of that. When cruelty is refigured as “free speech,” and when expertise becomes condescension—and when compassion is weakness and facts are “claims” and incuriosity is liberty and climate change is a con and a plague is a hoax—the new lexicon leaps off the screen. It implicates everyone, whether they speak the language or not.