Here are some of the things that happened yesterday evening on the most-watched news network in America: The minority leader of the House of Representatives announced, absolutely falsely and with no pushback, that “President Trump won this election.” A former speaker of the House argued that, in the name of democracy, the U.S. federal government should “lock up” state election workers. One of the most-watched TV hosts in the country implied to the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the GOP-controlled Pennsylvania legislature should override the will of the state’s voters to appoint its own electors. Lindsey Graham responded, gravely, “Everything should be on the table.”
Fox News, which spent years flattering Donald Trump and his fictions, is finishing what it started. The network that first helped bring Trump to political power is now working—despite a fair election that seems poised, as of this writing, to be won by his opponent—to keep him there. Fox’s popular prime-time opinion programs, throughout this week, have functioned as a Trump-campaign ad by another means. But last night’s shows reached a dangerous new low. The Fox News Channel, this week, had the opportunity to reckon with reality; instead, the network chose to mislead its viewers about the state of the election, and to foment mistrust in the workings of the American electoral system more broadly. It chose the fate of Donald Trump—and the ratings that come from the viewers who love him—over the fate of American democracy.
“As poll workers continue to slowly tabulate results,” Sean Hannity said last night, “we have serious reports of irregularities and fraud and not allowing vote counters to observe counting. Which is a matter of law. And they continue to come in, these reports, from all over the country.”
The reports have been coming from the Trump campaign itself. They have not been validated. They have been, in some cases, thoroughly debunked. “Trump,” The Washington Post noted yesterday, in an extensive summary of his campaign’s long-running attempts to claim voter fraud where there is none, “has offered no evidence that the election’s integrity has been compromised, and none has been found. In fact, cybersecurity experts in the Trump administration and local officials say the process has been smooth despite the unusual historic circumstance of a deadly pandemic.”
That did not stop the misinformation on the news network. On Wednesday evening, Laura Ingraham—who had spent part of the day in the White House with the Trump campaign—claimed that Democrats were trying to “destroy the integrity of our election process with this mail-in, day-of registration efforts, counting after the election is over, dumping batches of votes a day, two days, maybe even three days after an election.”
The election results trickled in as they did because the pandemic has changed the logistics of how Americans vote: New circumstances led to new systems, as they should. And the lag in vote counting is partially attributable to Trump himself: His campaign, operating on the conventional wisdom that in-person and same-day voting favors Republicans, spent months telling its base not to vote by mail.
None of that was explained to Fox’s viewers. In fact, if you watched only Fox to get election results, as so many Americans do, you could reasonably forget that America is currently living through a steadily worsening pandemic. Instead, on Fox this week, “fraud” has been a refrain. Political actors who have various vested interests in a second term of Trump have filled the network’s air with baseless claims of Democrats’ malfeasance and, consequently, the wide-scale failures of a free and fair election. (PRESIDENT TRUMP DISCUSSES QUESTIONABLE ELECTION RESULTS read one Fox chyron last night. THE CORRUPT MEDIA MOB went another.) As ballot counts in remaining states continued to narrow in favor of Joe Biden, Fox’s viewers were misled: They were told, again and again, that an election whose outcome they might not like is the same thing as an election that has been stolen.
Senator Ted Cruz: “What we’re seeing tonight, what we’ve been seeing the last three days, is outrageous. It is partisan, it is political and it is lawless. We’re seeing this pattern in Democratic city after Democratic city, with the worst in the country right now is Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.”
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich: “You have a group of corrupt people who have absolute contempt for the American people, who believe that we are so spineless, so cowardly, so unwilling to stand up for ourselves, that they can steal the presidency … No one should have any doubt: You are watching an effort to steal the presidency of the United States.”
Senator Lindsey Graham: “The allegations of wrongdoing are earth-shattering … So Senate Republicans are going to be briefed by the Trump campaign Saturday, and every Senate Republican and House Republican needs to get on television and tell this story.”
These baseless claims were echoes of the desperate and lie-riddled speech Donald Trump had delivered from the White House earlier yesterday evening. They were also distillations of arguments that had been building throughout the day on the network. On the early-evening talk show The Five, one of the hosts, Greg Gutfeld, made the eye-popping argument that Democrats’ dislike of Trump was its own evidence of voter fraud. (He said nothing about the grounds for the dislike.) “Because if you’re that emotionally invested in getting rid of somebody,” Gutfeld said—“and especially the hard left, who are emotionally invested in politics—they’re gonna do anything that they can. They will cheat.”
Hannity, meanwhile, spun—again, baseless—stories about polls that were wrong on purpose in order to discourage Republican-voter turnout. He aired a video of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, insisting that Pennsylvania ballots whose counting wasn’t overseen by a cadre of Trump partisans must be thrown out. The arguments were incoherent, but they also worked to create a fog of uncertainty and indignation around the election. During an exceptionally fragile week in America, the opinion-mongers have been taking a line from Steve Bannon’s old playbook—flood the zone with shit—and modifying it for the present circumstances. They are flooding the zone with “fraud.”
They are also, in the process, undermining the “news” element of Fox News. Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, the news-side anchors who have been leading much of the network’s election coverage this week, have spent much of their own airtime pushing back against daytime guests who have echoed the Trump campaign’s baseless claims of fraud. They have repeated the need for evidence when it comes to validating those claims; they have emphasized, as well, how absent that evidence has been. This has been, in part, why some observers of the network have been wondering whether this week marks a new relationship between Fox News and reality.
But those most basic efforts at checking the president’s lies mean little when, on the same network, powerful members of the United States government, encouraged by Fox’s opinion hosts, are talking openly about arresting poll workers and staging coups. And those efforts mean little if, as CNN reported this morning, Fox is instructing its journalists not to refer to Joe Biden as the “president-elect”—even once the network itself calls the race. One of the stories of this week, as it will be during every election week in America, is the outsize power TV news networks have when it comes to processing the results of elections. (Fox itself made that power clear when it called Arizona, relatively early on Tuesday night, for Joe Biden.) The whiplash on Fox this week—reality crowded by lies, fighting for air on the network—is a reminder that that influence extends far beyond the mathematical calling of states. “Many Americans will never again accept the results of any presidential election,” Tucker Carlson warned earlier this week, as he insisted, baselessly, that the results for the current one should not be trusted. The host was taking the network full circle. He was fulfilling its own flawed prophecies. This is a crucial hour for American democracy. Fox failed it.