Back when most people, myself included, thought a Trump victory impossible, I used to worry that under a Hillary Clinton presidency, her former antagonist and debate-stage stalker would found a new far-right television network that would immediately shift the center of political gravity to the point where CNN would try even harder to mimic Fox News, even as Fox sought to position itself as the “responsible” center.
But now Trump is president, and Fox is even worse than before. (So, for that matter, is CNN.) Sure, Rupert Murdoch has always used his “news” network as a two-way pipeline for deliberate disinformation designed to promote his business interests and ideological obsessions. For years, it has encouraged racism and sexism on the air, especially directed against the Obamas. In the process, it has corrupted many other media institutions by demonstrating that right-wing ideology combined with tabloid journalism’s taste for invented scandal is a guaranteed formula for both massive profits and political influence.
I have known all this for years; we all have. But even I underestimated Fox’s awfulness. For instance, it never occurred to me just how far Murdoch and company were willing to go to cover up the sexual harassment of women by the channel’s most powerful executives (Roger Ailes, among others), along with its most famous anchor, Bill O’Reilly (also possibly among others). The company has secretly paid tens of millions of dollars in hush money to keep its victims quiet and quiescent and to keep the rest of us from knowing the full story. Nor was I aware that it was a workplace where racist insults and discrimination were both tolerated and encouraged, according to lawsuits filed by 13 plaintiffs, all of them people of color who are either current or former Fox News employees, including an anchor and individuals who have worked with O’Reilly.
We also now know that Fox was much more deeply involved in helping to plan Trump’s presidential campaign than was previously reported. After some initial misgivings, both Murdoch and Ailes—before he was cut loose with a $40 million sweetener—were more than happy to turn Fox into a round-the-clock televised political rally for Trump. According to a detailed report in Politico, Ailes and Trump “spoke on the phone frequently during the campaign, sometimes several times a week.” Whenever Trump went too far off the rails, according to an unnamed Fox host, Ailes would “tell him, ‘Hey, Donald, settle the fuck down.’” Trump repeatedly expressed his admiration on Twitter: “Roger Ailes just called. He is a great guy & assures me that ‘Trump’ will be treated fairly on @FoxNews. His word is always good!”
Its multiple embarrassments notwithstanding, the network is reaping the for its pro-Trump labors. Indeed, all of the cable-news networks are doing boffo business, but none more so than Fox. Before his ouster this month—lubricated, reportedly, by a $25 million payoff—O’Reilly increased his (roughly 90 percent white) audience by 40 percent over the last two years, thanks to Trump. And he was no outlier: The first quarter of 2017 has produced the network’s best ratings period ever, despite its loss late last year of the alleged superstar, Megyn Kelly. “Nobody needs to put out an edict to producers to try to win their hours,” according to an “on-air personality” quoted in Politico. “They don’t need to be told to do anything but win, and the Trump shit rates through the roof.”
The tweeter-in-chief recently explained as much. “Just heard Fake News CNN is doing polls again despite the fact that their election polls were a WAY OFF disaster. Much higher ratings at Fox,” Trump wrote. He talks to Murdoch every week, according to The New York Times, and recently came to the defense of his fellow sexual predator, O’Reilly. No wonder the vast majority of Trump’s on-air interviews as president have been with friendly correspondents from the network with which he appears to have some kind of informal mutual-promotion agreement.
I have argued over and over in this magazine, ever since Fox was founded in 1996, that journalists who insisted on treating this dishonest, sexist, racist, Islamophobic propaganda outlet as a legitimate news source were making a terrible mistake. Not only were they legitimating the lies it regularly broadcast, but they were allowing those lies to drive the rest of the mainstream media’s political agenda and to color the content of their coverage. (Remember that it was on CNN, not Fox, that a paid network contributor referred to Trump as the “Martin Luther King of health care”—and he wasn’t even the guy whom the Trump campaign was paying while he was on CNN’s payroll, too.)
But here again I appear to have been insufficiently cynical: Not only does Fox remain ensconced at the center of the media discourse despite the scandals involving Ailes, O’Reilly, and others, but the mainstream media are now making the same mistake they made with Fox 20 years ago—this time as farce.
I refer, of course, to the rise of Breitbart. Incredibly, it does somehow manage to make Fox look reasonable by comparison. The brazenness of its dishonesty, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism puts one in mind of Nazi-inspired publications. Don’t take my word for it: “The articles that they [Breitbart] publish about blacks in America and about Muslims in Europe, it’s basically stuff that you would read on the Daily Stormer,” the publication’s proprietor, Andrew Anglin, explained to the hosts of a Swedish neo-Nazi radio program, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The resemblance is even stronger when one delves into the Breitbart comments section. Former editor Ben Shapiro calls it “a cesspool for white supremacist mememakers” and terms the site itself “a party organ, a pathetic cog in the Trump-Media Complex and a gathering place for white nationalists.” According to a study published in the Columbia Journalism Review, based on over 1.25 million stories published online in the year and a half before Election Day, the “right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart…not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.”
Breitbart’s cheerleading for Trump has grown even louder since the election. That’s no surprise, given the fact that its former executive chairman, Steve Bannon, is now employed in the White House in a Rasputin-like role. And the site is more than giving Fox a run for its money in shaping the overall media discourse, as well as top government appointments. Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a career civil-service official who helped shape the Iran nuclear deal, was recently transferred from a top job in the State Department after her appointment aroused the ire of Breitbart character assassins. It wasn’t the first time this has happened in the Trump administration. One of Reince Preibus’s deputies, Katie Walsh, was likewise shown the door after Breitbart’s “reporting” turned on her, too.
All of this makes it particularly distressing to learn that many of the media’s prestige-conferring institutions have lately been treating Breitbart denizens as if they were legitimate claimants to the title of “journalist,” just as they did with Fox. “Breitbart editor slams mainstream media in Pulitzer Hall,” read a recent CJR headline, referring to the august auditorium at the Columbia University School of Journalism named after its founder. I attended the conference in question. Even as the Breitbart editor, former Wall Street Journal reporter John Carney, made one ridiculous claim after another—“This is the best beginning to a presidency that I’ve experienced in my adult life”—he was treated with the same respect by the moderator as the panelists from the Times and The New Yorker. CJR also ran a lengthy, no less respectful interview with Carney in which he felt free to repeatedly lie on behalf of his website—“There’s not going to be any fake news emanating from Breitbart. Frankly I haven’t even seen it, so I don’t buy it”—and, again, went largely unchallenged. Not long afterward, the Newseum in Washington held a similar sort of panel in which it committed the identical journalistic sin. There, for instance, a Breitbart “reporter,” Charlie Spiering, defended Trump’s lie about phony Obama wiretaps during a panel discussion moderated by the suddenly reasonable-seeming Fox News anchor Bret Baier.
It’s easy to see why Trump’s White House would seek to undermine the integrity of the journalism profession by inviting into the press room representatives of racist, sexist, anti-Semitic “alt-right” websites without any significant journalistic credentials, and for Sean Spicer and the president to call on them for softball questions to be answered only with more lies and other malefactions. What’s more difficult to understand, and what’s impossible to accept, is that the rest of the press appears to be so beaten down by decades of decline and disrespect—to say nothing of the rise of Fox News—that they have entirely lost the ability to recognize the enemy within their ranks and fight back.