When Bill Taylor, the United States’ acting ambassador to Ukraine, began his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee yesterday morning, MSNBC did what news networks will often do to educate viewers about the events unfolding on-screen: It offered a graphic providing contextual information. “Top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine since June,” one bullet point noted, explaining Taylor’s most direct relevance to President Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings. “Testified he had ‘clear understanding’ aid tied to probes,” another bullet went, referencing the military support the United States withheld from, and then gave to, Ukraine. “Texted it would be ‘crazy’ to withhold Ukraine military aid,” went another.
The Fox News Channel offered a similar selection of information about Taylor. Fox, however—rendering its bullet points in an all-caps font—made different assumptions about which facts about the ambassador were most urgent for its viewers to know. “Oct. 23: PRESIDENT TRUMP DISMISSED TAYLOR AS A ‘NEVER TRUMPER.’” And: “WH CALLED TAYLOR’S CLOSED-DOOR TESTIMONY ‘TRIPLE HEARSAY.’” And: “GOP SAYS TAYLOR HAD NO FIRST-HAND KNOWLEDGE ABOUT UKRAINE AID.”
Danielle Misiak, who tweeted back-to-back images comparing MSNBC’s coverage with Fox’s, noted of the differences, “You already know how this is gonna play out.” She was correct. There is an inevitability to Fox’s very Foxiness at this point—and this makes it easy to forget how profoundly undemocratic it is that a major media outlet, as it covers a history-making happening, would insist that the most pertinent facts of the event are the president’s opinions about it. MSNBC, too, had a bias in its coverage (“IMPEACHMENT: WHITE HOUSE IN CRISIS” went its chyron as Taylor delivered his testimony to Congress). But Fox had much more than a slant; in Trump, effectively, it had an author. It had a purpose and a person, and it long ago decided that both were, in every sense, unimpeachable.
And so, across the day’s several formats—as assorted hosts and commentators took to its air to have their say—the Fox News Channel converged around a common message: The impeachment hearings are an affront to the country because they are an affront to the president. Trump, as Fox covered him, was both the question and the answer. He was the only fact that mattered. Here is how Fox’s graphics introduced Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee: “TRUMP HAS TWEETED ABOUT SCHIFF MORE THAN 100 TIMES SINCE INQUIRY BEGAN.”
Fox’s opinion shows also behaved according to script: They mocked the hearings as alternately biased and pointless and time-wasting and—the greatest offense, if you are a cable-news network—boring. On The Five, Fox’s co-ed, late-afternoon answer to The View, the host Greg Gutfeld began the quintet’s conversation with a message: “Congrats, Adam Schiff,” Gutfeld said, “you found something that makes the Mueller hearing look sexy.” The host proceeded to refer to the hearings as “a crappy horror movie scripted by the Dems for the media, with Schiff and his bunch playing the bug-eyed zombies.” (He later amended that assessment: “Actually, this is worse than a horror film. It’s pornography for Democrats.”)
And then things moved more explicitly Trumpward. There’s nothing wrong with behavior that amounts to state-sanctioned extortion, Gutfeld explained. On the contrary: “No, you dopes, that’s called leverage,” he said. “And using it on behalf of your country is Trump’s job, especially when he couldn’t trust anyone else to do it.” He concluded with the following defense: “Trump broke no laws—but he may bend the rules a bit, because he has to do it, since the media and the Democrats write the rule book.”
The network’s evening shows, as well, proceeded according to the stereotype. Tucker Carlson—who had previously explained his refusal to discuss the impeachment hearings with the explanation that the inquiry “is not only dumb, it’s boring”—used the day’s events to discuss the broader biases at play against Trump. (Chyrons: “DC & MEDIA BREATHLESS OVER HEARINGS” and “DEEP STATE AGAINST TRUMP FROM THE START ON RUSSIA.”) Sean Hannity deployed the bad-because-dull line of argument: “THE WORST SHOW ON EARTH,” he called the hearings.
Laura Ingraham and her frequent guest Raymond Arroyo mocked that show’s aesthetic. They debated whether the State Department deputy assistant secretary George Kent, with his tidy bow tie, better resembled “Jimmy Olsen from the old Superman movie” (Arroyo’s contention) or “Les Nessman from WKRP” (Ingraham’s). They mocked the Democratic congresswoman Val Demings for what they deemed, inaccurately, to be an “irregular” pronunciation of the word irregular. They mocked Schiff. (Ingraham: “He has a very priggish presentation, does he not?”)
The opinion shows of Fox, in other words, reveled in their cartoonish cruelties. But the network’s self-styled purveyors of straight news engaged in the Trump-centrism, as well. The anchor Bret Baier, the first Fox host to weigh in on the hearings after they concluded, selected as the event’s key moment not the new information that emerged from it—the previously undisclosed phone call that, as my colleague Russell Berman put it, could add to the Democrats’ case that Trump “put his own interests above the nation’s”—but instead a scene of theater: the Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe asking Taylor and Kent, of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, “Where is the impeachable offense in that call? Are either of you here today to assert there was an impeachable offense in that call?”
The query was met with silence by the witnesses—not because they were conceding that the call lacked that offense, but rather because the question was absurd: It is not their job to make such a determination. The optics, however, were apparently too good to pass up. Here was a Republican lawmaker yelling at career bureaucrats who met the indignation with mute confusion. Fox’s clip cut itself off before the words that followed the men’s silence—chief among them, Taylor explaining that, in fact, the work of deciding what might be impeachable falls not to him, but to Congress. But no matter. Fox would go on to recycle its selectively edited clip throughout the day and evening.
There was more. The anchor Martha McCallum used her time assessing the day’s hearings to argue that Trump had not been extorting the leader of a U.S. ally, but rather engaging in creative, Art of the Deal–style diplomacy. “Is it the president pushing for a little bit more before he gets anything out of this Ukraine relationship?” she asked, eventually answering her own question: “He started, really, with a clean slate. And this was the new opportunity to do that with Ukraine.”
Just Trump being Trump. Just Fox being Fox. The news channel, at its founding, announced itself as a beacon of informational independence; the network, it said, would serve as an antidote to the unchecked power of the “liberal media.” It would be straight-shooting. It would be free-thinking. We report; you decide. But there is a fine line, it turns out, between contrarianism and capitulation. There is a Bergerian element to Fox’s relationship with the man who is by turns its audience and its assignment editor: Donald Trump watches Fox News, and Fox News watches itself being watched. Fox News helped put Trump into power. Its coverage of his impeachment hearings is a reminder of how insistently it will work to keep him there.
Near the end of the day’s congressional testimonies, a new graphic appeared on Fox’s screen. “SOON: TRUMP SPEAKS,” it said. The trio of words was teasing a news conference the American president would be holding with the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. There was an aptness to the convergence of the hearing and the meeting. Here were two leaders who find autocracy much more tempting than its alternatives—who consider strongman to represent not a threat, but an aspiration. And here were two presidents who believe that facts should conform to their will, backed by news outlets that have come to agree.