According to right-wing media figures, the January 6 sacking of the Capitol that disrupted the counting of the 2020 electoral votes was “a false-flag operation.” It was just “politicians” having their “jobs disrupted for two hours.” It was “mostly peaceful.” It was a “setup,” or perhaps it was the work of “antifa,” but those who were arrested and prosecuted are definitely “political prisoners.” Whatever happened, whether it was just a few misguided tourists or an inside job, Donald Trump is certainly not to blame and should not face punishment.
Or at least that’s what these Fox News personalities have said publicly. In fact, they understood exactly what was happening and who was responsible.
As part of its investigation into the Capitol riot, Congress has released a series of text messages between then–White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Fox News personalities, exchanged on January 6. The texts show that the network’s stars, contrary to the deliberate obfuscation campaign they have since offered, were well aware of who was responsible for the attack on the Capitol, and who could have prevented it.
Trump said to his supporters at the rally that day, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” and told them to march on the Capitol in the hopes of preventing Congress from certifying Joe Biden's victory. As the mob ransacked the building, the Fox host Laura Ingraham told Meadows, “The president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home,” and warned that “this is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy.” The morning-show host Brian Kilmeade implored Meadows: “Please, get him on TV. Destroying everything you have accomplished.” The prime-time host Sean Hannity urged Meadows to get Trump to “ask people to leave the Capitol.” Subsequently, all three hosts downplayed Trump’s responsibility for what happened, or sought to cast blame on others, knowingly misleading their viewers. If the rally had been peaceful, if the mob had not been full of Trump supporters, if this were an inside job, then appealing to Trump to stop it would not have made sense.
The texts provide a concrete record of what much of the right-wing media, and Fox News in particular, have since tried to obscure: A violent mob of Trump supporters, incited by falsehoods promoted by right-wing outlets and Trump himself about the election being stolen, sought to overturn the results by force. That violence was but the last desperate effort of a months-long campaign to invalidate the election results by pressuring election officials, state legislators, the Supreme Court, and ultimately former Vice President Mike Pence to use their power to install Trump as president against the will of the electorate.
The messages also highlight Fox News’s unusual relationship with its audience, which involves the conservative media’s most trusted figures consciously lying to their viewers. The texts between Meadows and the Fox News hosts are hardly the only example of the network’s personalities deliberately misleading their audience: From downplaying the deadliness of COVID to making misleading assertions about the effectiveness of the vaccines, to advancing the false claims of voter fraud that helped motivate the riot in the first place, Fox and its satellites have shown little hesitation in exploiting the confidence of conservative viewers who are convinced that the network is one of the few trustworthy outlets in a media landscape they regard with fierce hostility.
The roots of that hostility are worth reflecting on in light of these revelations. Fox News presents itself as a necessary counterweight to the supposed left-wing bias of other media outlets. Its defenders argue that the mainstream media have made so many glaring mistakes, the press can no longer be trusted, and it is therefore natural for Americans to seek alternatives.
The press does make mistakes, sometimes very serious ones—the coverage of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq is a prominent example. Developing stories are often subject to revision as new facts are uncovered, which to some audiences can feel like evidence of carelessness, negligence, or bias. Although the criticism the media face under such circumstances is often harsh, a healthy public skepticism of the press is as important to democracy as a thriving press.
But even errors of fact and framing, ideology or analysis, are different from what Fox News hosts do, which is attempt to get their viewers to believe things they themselves know are false. Fox News is distinct not only from most other broadcasters, but also from conservative magazines and websites whose writers are right-wing but maintain a sense of intellectual independence. Fox News’s symbiotic relationship with the Republican Party makes the outlet roughly as reliable as most politicians, who are more inclined to tell voters what they think they want to hear than what they ought to know.
It’s common to say that conservatives distrust the media, but conservative viewers trust Fox about as much as Democrats trust CNN. The fact that its most popular personalities consciously lie to their audiences has not diminished that trust; it has made Fox the most successful cable-news channel. It is difficult then, to argue that inaccuracy is what has eroded other outlets’ trust with conservatives—the reverse is true. More factual coverage would not strengthen Fox News’s bond with its viewers; it would likely drive them elsewhere. The outlet shapes this demand, but it also bends to it.
A conservative news outlet that sought to compete on accuracy would maintain standards of rigor that would not allow its most famous ambassadors to knowingly lie to their viewers, or it would sanction them for doing so. But Fox News understands that its success depends on maintaining a fantasy world, rather than doing anything to disturb it. This is why some of its most marquee personalities, who shared the same horror as most other Americans at the events of January 6, caked on their makeup, stared into the camera, and lied to the people who trust them the most. What makes Fox News unique is not that it is conservative, but that its on-air personalities understand that telling lies is their job. Their texts on January 6, and their conduct since, leave no other conclusion.