Donald Trump would not be president today were it not for the help of Fox and Friends. Their frenzied cheerleading for the birther candidate and their relentless bashing of Hillary Clinton wasn’t the only reason for last November’s outcome, but it was an indispensable one. Clinton started the 2016 race burdened with some of the highest unfavorability ratings of any candidate in modern history: 43 percent of the electorate told pollsters they disliked her. As a result, Clinton essentially had to run the table with the remaining 57 percent—a daunting task. Nothing, including her own sometimes questionable actions, did more to boost her negatives than the right-wing media, which has been attacking her since she appeared on the scene as the wife of candidate Bill Clinton in 1992.
Nor were Hillary’s presidential prospects the only casualty. The United States is the only advanced country in which the denial of climate science is taken seriously in governing circles. ExxonMobil and the other fossil-fuel companies that spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars promoting this denial are the number-one culprits, but Fox and Friends rank a close second: It was their ceaseless repetition of such corporate disinformation that embedded climate denial in right-wing ideology and made it a litmus test for Republican politicians.
When I say “Fox and Friends” here, I’m not talking about the Fox News morning show of the same name. Rather, it’s my nickname for the larger right-wing media infrastructure of which Fox is the most visible and influential member. This infrastructure of cable-TV outlets, talk-radio stations, websites, newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses has exerted enormous influence on America’s public discourse and political life for nearly 30 years, ever since it began taking shape with the nationwide rollout of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show in 1988. This right-wing infrastructure dwarfs its left-of-center counterpart, as illustrated in the charts and graphs accompanying this article. Is anyone surprised, then, that right-wing views enjoy so much more visibility and influence in today’s United States?
Collectively, the news media wield perhaps the greatest power there is in politics: the power to define reality. The journalistic choices of news organizations send a message, consciously or not, about what is—and isn’t—important at any given moment and who should—and shouldn’t—be listened to. Are the Standing Rock pipeline protests being covered by CBS, or ignored? Who gets quoted in The New York Times, and how prominently? Which authors are invited on NPR programs, and which are shunned?
Such decisions shape the ideological air we breathe and the political actions we take: whether we vote for candidate X or candidate Y (or vote at all), whether we take to the streets in protest or hope the police bust heads. The media’s power over how people think, feel, and act is ubiquitous, but it is exercised in such a routine manner that many do not recognize it as power. Like fish in water, we take it for granted.
Fox and Friends were veritable kingmakers in 2016. Fox itself was the loudest media voice during the presidential campaign: 19 percent of all voters named it as their main source of campaign news, according to a Pew Research Survey—ahead of CNN, the other TV networks, and even social-media platforms like Facebook. In the Republican primaries and general election alike, the right-wing media’s unabashed boosting of Trump and savaging of Clinton, along with its slanted coverage of issues from Obamacare to terrorism, had a decisive impact on what millions of Americans believed and how they voted. (Carlos Maza explains in a video for Media Matters how these outlets spread a message of fear that encouraged voting for Trump and kindred extremists.)