Since its founding by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes in 1996, Fox News has managed to act as an informal propaganda ministry and ideological enforcer for the Republican Party, even as it simultaneously masquerades as a reputable news organization. Impressed by its profits and the career opportunities it afforded, most journalists participated in the scam by refusing to call it out, no matter how often Fox transgressed the most basic rules of honest reporting. Both in style and in substance, Fox presaged the Trump administration and what my last column called its “Upside-Down Day” method of news management. When journalists did honest reporting on corporate and conservative power, they were accused of “activism” and “liberal bias.” When Fox concocted fake facts and then demanded political fealty to them from politicians and pundits, the network claimed to be presenting news that was “fair and balanced.”
Judged by almost any measure save those relating to professional ethics, Fox has been a spectacular success. Not only has it earned Rupert Murdoch and his fellow shareholders billions of dollars, but it has also permanently altered the media landscape. Today, conservative politicians need not worry about being caught lying so long as they tell the right lies. Fox doesn’t only provide the script; it happily manufactures additional lies as needed in order to sustain the original ones. The net result is usually a media-driven “dispute” in which citizens are invited to choose between genuine and “alternative” facts depending on their own prejudices.
This ideological and intellectual swindle has run through countless manifestations over the past two decades. But only recently has the charade been reinforced by the diminutive thumbs of the president of the United States. How many times in the last two months have we all woken up and wondered what the hell Donald Trump is going on about now, only to learn about some lunatic rant on Fox that aired 10 minutes before the time stamp on his latest tweet? One of the clearest examples of this tendency, however, came not in a tweet but during Trump’s Nuremberg-style rally in Melbourne, Florida, on February 18, when he flummoxed much of the Western world with this question: “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden, who would believe this?”
Who indeed? Nobody, including his own staff, had any idea what Trump was talking about. The president himself later clarified that he had caught wind of a segment on Tucker Carlson’s show in which a filmmaker named Ami Horowitz claimed, without evidence, that there’s a connection between an alleged increase in Swedish crime rates and the rise of the refugee population in the country. But this was no clarification at all, as no one on Carlson’s program had mentioned anything that had happened the previous night. Later, two of the law-enforcement sources cited in Horowitz’s film complained to the real journalists who contacted them afterward that their work had been misrepresented.
“The president made stuff up by misrepresenting our own baseless reporting?” said the folks at Fox. “No problem.” Bill O’Reilly came to Trump’s rescue by booking a fellow named “Nils Bildt,” whom Fox billed as a “Swedish defense and national security advisor.” Bildt came on O’Reilly’s show to back up Trump’s bizarre accusation with intimations of a conspiracy to suppress the truth. “These things are not being openly and honestly discussed,” he intoned. In fact, Bildt himself was a kind of walking alternative fact. He was not any kind of adviser to anyone in Sweden. Actually, he was an immigrant himself, having moved from Sweden to the United States in 1994—and, even more ironically, he was a criminal: Convicted of assaulting a police officer, Bildt was sentenced to a year in a Virginia prison in 2014. When questioned, Bildt told reporters that he had no memory of being in prison that year, but that may have been because he was then living under another name. He also says he has no memory of telling Fox he had the qualifications the network pretended he had.
Recall that in addition to the public crimes against truth and democracy described above, Fox also appears to have acted as an actual criminal organization in private. According to myriad witnesses and alleged victims, its CEO, Roger Ailes, had long tried to treat the place as his own private bordello and used stockholder cash to pay hush money to his unwilling victims. And he was hardly alone: Bill O’Reilly has also cost the company millions of dollars to settle charges of his sexual harassment of his underlings. Most recently, the company paid out yet another multimillion-dollar settlement to a woman who, according to court papers described in The New York Times, was forced to give blow jobs to yet another Fox executive, Francisco Cortes. (For the record, everyone denies everything, except the payoffs.)
Now consider the news in late February that Preet Bharara, then the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was investigating Fox for potential criminal charges related to the secret payoffs. It’s public knowledge that former anchor Gretchen Carlson netted a reported $20 million alone, but it was the secret payoffs with shareholder money that inspired the investigation. Lo and behold, shortly after that report appeared, Donald Trump—a friend to both Murdoch and Ailes and a big fan of Fox News—fired Bharara, effective immediately. True, Trump summarily fired 45 other US Attorneys at the same time, but both Bharara and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer had received assurances from Trump himself that Bharara would keep his job.
Coincidence? Not bloody likely. Moreover, rumor has it that Bharara’s replacement will be Marc Mukasey, Ailes’s personal lawyer. Kafka wouldn’t dare.