Media Matters: Fox News got the cover-up that it was built to get The right-wing propaganda network did its job and helped acquit an impeached GOP president
The U.S. Senate’s Wednesday acquittal of President Donald Trump after the House of Representatives impeached him for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress marks a staggering defeat for the rule of law -- and a victory for Fox News, whose lies and propaganda made it a bulwark for the president. The network was created for a moment like this, and it did its job.
Twenty-four years ago, Roger Ailes, an acolyte of Richard Nixon who blamed the press for driving that president from office, founded Fox News, ushering in an era of “post-truth” politics for the benefit of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. And while he resigned in disgrace in 2016 and passed away the following year, his vision of a right-wing megaphone powerful enough to shield Republican presidents from accountability has been vindicated.
The broad contours of the damning case against Trump have been visible for months: He corruptly pressured a foreign government to investigate his political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, working through both administration officials and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Reams of testimony and documents have since revealed crucial details about the precise nature of the quid pro quo, the construction of the fabricated Biden conspiracy theory it revolved around, the illegality of the administration’s actions, and Fox’s central role in every phase of the scandal. And subpoenaing additional witnesses and documents, which the Senate rejected Friday, could have filled in more gaps.
With Trump's presidency in jeopardy, he turned to the network that had spent the last few years merging with his administration. Fox was the powerful propaganda apparatus Trump needed to ensure his political survival, twisting every fact to cover up the voluminous evidence of his rampant criminality and stiffen the spines of his supporters.
Ever since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, citing a whistleblower’s complaint, announced the initiation of an impeachment inquiry into Trump’s actions, Fox has done everything in its power to muddy the waters and conceal the truth from its viewers. The network’s personalities, with a mere handful of exceptions, have thrown out an array of often contradictory rebuttals, working overtime to convince their audience that Trump hadn’t done what he had been accused of doing. But after months of moving the goalposts in response to new evidence of Trump’s culpability, they ultimately settled on precisely the opposite argument: Trump did it, and that was fine -- or even worthy of applause.
The Senate trial provided House impeachment managers with the opportunity to detail Trump’s corruption, providing evidence and arguments typically absent from Fox’s airwaves. But Fox personalities urged their viewers not to bother watching the trial, arguing that it was too “boring” and bereft of new information to be worth their time. And rather than expose its audience to the case against Trump by airing the proceedings in full, as CNN and MSNBC largely did, Fox cut away from the live feed of the Senate trial in favor of airing commentary from its stable of right-wing evening opinion hosts.
The case for Trump, on the other hand, was built on arguments that were very familiar to the Fox audience. Trump had frequently relied on his beloved network to vet his staff, and impeachment proved no different: He stocked his defense team with attorneys pulled from Fox’s green room, where they had made hundreds of appearances in support of the president. The arguments those lawyers made echoed the ones frequently heard on the network, and Fox’s trial coverage -- even on its supposed “straight news” hours -- recycled Trump’s talking points in turn.
And through every aspect of the scandal, from its initial disclosure to his acquittal, Trump relied on the network’s commentary to power his own communications strategy, sending waves of tweets promoting propagandistic Fox segments on the story that he had watched on his television.
Fox’s coverage had its intended effect, keeping Trump’s base from abandoning him in his moment of need. A December Daily Kos/Civiqs poll found that while 53% of Americans said Trump had committed impeachable offenses, 95% of Fox viewers said he had not. An Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight poll released the same month likewise found Fox viewers were much less likely than CNN or MSNBC viewers to believe that Trump asked the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden, that military aid to Ukraine was conditioned on that investigation, or that he had covered up what he had done.
With Trump’s Fox base remaining fervently in his corner -- and the network’s hosts threatening the careers of any Republican senator who dared to step out of line -- the odds of a “Goldwater moment” plummeted. Only Utah Sen. Mitt Romney ultimately crossed the aisle and voted to convict the president. Fox’s Geraldo Rivera was correct when he told Sean Hannity, the network’s star host and a key Trump ally, “You are the difference between Donald J. Trump and Richard Nixon.” Thanks in large part to the work of Hannity and his colleagues, Trump will retain his office.
The remaining chance for Trump to face accountability will come in the fall, when he faces the election he’s already tried to rig in his favor. But whether Trump wins a second term or not, Fox will remain as a powerful and malignant force in American public life, ensuring that impeachment is a dead letter for Republican presidents and thus keeping them above the law. Ailes wouldn’t have it any other way.
Media Matters: This is why Fox News existsNixon didn’t have Fox. Trump does. And that may make all the difference.
Update (10/21/19): This post has been updated with new polling data showing the impact of Fox’s impeachment coverage on its viewers.
Forty-five years ago, President Richard Nixon resigned. His impeachment at the time seemed almost certain, as key Republican senators had signaled they would no longer support him. But Nixon’s acolytes did not blame their president for his gross corruption and mind-boggling criminality. Instead, they blamed the press -- the “enemy,” as Nixon had described it -- for hounding him out of office.
Over two decades later, Roger Ailes, one of those Nixon retainers, founded Fox News. As the network has gained power and influence, it has played many roles -- an attack dog that savages progressive policies and individuals, a counterweight to a media that conservatives consider unbearably liberal, a radicalization engine that brings a bigoted ideology from the fringes into the homes of millions of Americans, and a propaganda machine that champions conservative politicians.
Over the past week, we’ve seen another one of Fox’s roles. As it has become clear that President Donald Trump used the office of the presidency to suborn a foreign government to investigate one of his political opponents -- triggering a formal impeachment inquiry -- Fox has been serving as a bulwark against the repetition of Nixon’s fall.
The network -- “news” and “opinion” sides alike -- is relentlessly lying to its viewers. Its personalities have: offered a response to the release of a memorandum chronicling Trump’s demands that was indistinguishable from the White House’s talking points, mocked Democrats for focusing on the story, claimed that they are exaggerating in a rush to impeachment, suggested that Trump was “duty-bound” to ask the Ukrainian president to investigate his political opponent, and sought to redirect attention to the purported corruption of Democrats. They’ve sought to smear the whistleblower -- whose complaint brought the scandal to light -- as a “partisan hack” who has endangered the country with his “snitching” and is part of a “coup.”
On the rare occasions when Fox employees attempt to tell their audience the truth, they have been publicly condemned by the president’s followers at the network.
Fox’s propaganda has not gone unnoticed at the White House -- Trump has frequently incorporated the network’s commentary into his response to the burgeoning crisis. The president sent 51 tweets or retweets lifting up Fox’s programming or the comments of its employees about the story between its emergence last week and 9 a.m. EST Thursday morning.
The network’s effort to create a fantasy world for its viewers has serious implications. “If Fox chooses to lie to its audience about what’s happening that makes it challenging for GOP members to respond to reality rather than to Foxality,” Vox.com’s Matt Yglesias noted. “And if most Republicans embrace a complete false version of events, most non-Fox television news will embrace a ‘partisans arguing’ frame that naturally dulls the impact on non-Fox viewers who just generally disagree with Democrats about stuff.”
Indeed, Fox’s disinformation campaign has effectively mobilized its audience against impeachment. As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted in a post on the results of a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, “98 percent of Fox-citing Republicans oppose impeaching and removing Trump -- opposition that’s ‘essentially unanimous,’ as PRRI puts it. By contrast, 90 percent of non-Fox-citing Republicans oppose impeaching and removing him -- which is overwhelmingly high, but suggests that among this group, at least, Trump could suffer losses on the margins as the inquiry turns up worse revelations.” Sargent concluded that the study shows Fox is “having a real impact, and could even help Trump survive.”
Richard Nixon didn’t have Fox. Donald Trump does. And that may make all the difference. That’s no coincidence -- it’s what the network was created to do.
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