Thanks to an article by The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, Fox News will not host any primary debates for the Democratic presidential candidates in the coming election season. As Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, explained in a statement to The Washington Post: “Recent reporting in The New Yorker on the inappropriate relationship between President Trump, his administration, and Fox News has led me to conclude that the network is not in a position to host a fair and neutral debate for our candidates.”
The decision is the correct one, even if the reasoning is off-kilter—as is typical for leaders of the Democratic Party. The problem is not with Mayer’s characteristically compelling reporting. It’s with the framing of both her article and Perez’s decision. Mayer’s piece ran with the subhead “Fox News has always been partisan. But has it become propaganda?” The problem with this question is that Fox News has always been propaganda, ever since it first went on the air in October 1996.
Fox News anchor Chris Wallace had a fair point when, speaking with The New York Times, he asked: “Do I think Tom Perez read the New Yorker article and suddenly said, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s gambling going on in the back room?’” Perhaps he did—but if so, that willful blindness is an even bigger problem.
Fox has never been an honest news network, and the inability and/or unwillingness of so many to recognize this obvious fact is what has allowed it to poison our discourse for so long. Feed the last 23 years of this column into a computer algorithm, and you could generate countless more essays on why Fox News is a propaganda outlet masquerading as a news source.
From day one, billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch and communications savant and sexual terrorist Roger Ailes created Fox News as a political mechanism through which they could control the Republican Party and shift the debate in favor of their regressive agenda. Republican candidates were routinely given contracts and free airtime to spout lies about immigrants, climate change, tax cuts, and so much else, and Fox’s hosts rarely pushed back. Sometimes the network’s anchors lied outright, but most often they left the fabulism and incendiary hate speech to their contributors. Remember, it was during the allegedly halcyon days of pre-Trump Fox that Ailes built a studio in Sarah Palin’s house so the network could spread her nutty beliefs as “news” without having to bother hiring a driver. Conservative activist James O’Keefe’s phony videos ran on endless loops on pre-Trump Fox. So did the hateful lies about DNC staffer Seth Rich. Even Trump’s racist lies about Barack Obama’s birth certificate ran on pre-Trump Fox.
The purpose of Fox News, aside from the billions it brings in for Murdoch, is to push a right-wing agenda. To take just one example, nearly every Murdoch property—but especially Fox News—amplified and exaggerated the dishonest case that George W. Bush’s administration made for its allegedly preemptive war against Iraq in 2003. Back then, The New York Times reported that “Mr. Murdoch’s creation of the Fox News Channel has shifted the entire spectrum of American cable news to the right.” Two years later, political scientist Jonathan S. Morris analyzed the data from the Pew Research Center’s Biennial Media Consumption surveys in order to “identify demographic and behavioral factors that predict Americans’ exposure to cable and broadcast nightly news.” Alarmingly, he found that Fox News viewers were “more likely than nonwatchers to underestimate rather than overestimate the number of American casualties in Iraq.”
Fox News’ dishonesty has been crucial in shaping our politics. Examining the voting data for 9,256 towns in the 2000 elections, Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan found that Republicans did better in places where the network was carried by cable providers. They discovered “a significant effect of Fox News on Senate vote share and on voter turnout. [The] estimates imply that Fox News convinced 3 to 8 percent of its viewers to vote Republican.” And that was just the beginning: A more recent study by Gregory Martin and Ali Yurukoglu showed that Fox News increased Republican support by 3.59 points in 2004 and 6.34 points in 2008.
Clearly, Fox has been a powerful advocate for Republicans since its inception—but just as often, it was Fox in the driver’s seat. Back in 2010, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was negotiating with Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) to write a bipartisan energy bill, and he reportedly warned them that they had better make progress quickly, “before Fox News got wind of the fact.” It was just such phenomena that led conservative David Frum to observe, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.”
Initially, the Obama administration tried to address Fox’s dishonesty by barring its officials from appearing on Fox’s Sunday shows. The administration was attacked—and Fox defended—by the likes of CNN’s Jake Tapper, The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik, and many others. We are hearing similar nonsense today from political consultant Liz Mair, writing in the Times opinion section; Maggie Haberman, the Times’ White House correspondent; NBC’s Jonathan Allen; the Associated Press’s Zeke Miller; and Politico’s Jack Shafer. All have argued that the Democrats are showing fear and a lack of confidence by refusing to grant Fox the right to question their candidates according to the network’s own dishonest and deeply biased terms. But the truth is that it’s long past time for the Democrats to wise up and point out what even Fox’s competitors in the mainstream media will not: that Fox is not news. Its power to pollute our debate lies in playacting on TV. “Real” journalists debase themselves and their profession by participating in the destructive and debilitating charade.