Like Waylon Jennings, cable news has always been crazy. CNN, after all, was founded by Ted Turner. (Sample wisdom: “Castro’s not a communist. He’s like me—a dictator.”) MSNBC has gone through more permutations than the late artist formerly and latterly known as Prince. And then there’s Fox. While the first two have often (if not always) prized ratings over news judgment, Fox transformed the genre by its willingness to make stuff up—stuff that, without exception, favored far-right conservatives in their battle against centrists, liberals, and reality.
In the past, these stations have damaged our country not only by misinforming their viewers and giving voice to nefarious and deranged hosts and guests, but also by setting the agenda for much of the rest of the news media. Stupid issue after stupid issue has dominated political debate in America, owing to the willingness of news networks and others to follow the lead laid down by ratings-chasing cable executives. Judging by airtime alone, a missing blond girl, a shark sighting, and, of course, a poop-filled cruise ship were all deemed to be of greater importance than, say, global warming, the opioid epidemic, or the US war in Afghanistan.
When cable news did get serious, the results were even worse. To the degree that presidents and politicians found their hands forced by cable-news panics, the result was almost always catastrophic, regardless of party. Recall that in 2010, Obama agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack fired Shirley Sherrod, the director of rural development in Georgia, on the basis of a purposefully misleading video posted by the late right-wing charlatan, Andrew Breitbart, because Vilsack feared what would appear on Fox News. (He later apologized, and Sherrod was offered a new position at the USDA.) That same year, when Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, Democrat John Kerry, and conservative independent Joe Lieberman were working on a bipartisan energy bill, Graham warned both men that they needed to hurry up and finish “before Fox News got wind of the fact that this was a serious process,” according to a report in The New Yorker. “[I]t’s gonna be all cap-and-tax all the time, and it’s gonna become just a disaster for me,” he explained. Graham’s prediction turned out to be correct, and the bill never came to fruition. “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us,” the dissident GOP conservative David Frum commented around that time, “and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.” So, too, it turned out, were Democrats.
OK, that was bad, especially when you consider that Fox, whose ratings were the highest and drove this process more powerfully than its competitors, was run as a kind of private bordello by any number of its executives and hosts. (It is, undoubtedly, no coincidence that a “news” channel crawling with sexual predators played a pivotal role in getting another one elected president of the United States.) But that has since turned out to be a golden age of measured, sensible debate compared with the cable-news program that is Donald Trump’s America.
Trump lives and breathes cable news. It’s not just that, like so many ill-informed, emotionally immature, and insecure older white men, the guy who has the most powerful and sensitive job on earth reportedly wastes at least five hours a day with Fox et al. It’s that the crazy world of Sean Hannity and Fox & Friends is his reality. Because Trump possesses little actual knowledge about the real world outside his family and paid fluffers, the lunatic conspiracy theories that make up the programming day at Fox and, to a lesser degree, CNN and MSNBC—with a dollop of Bannon-supplied Breitbart—are the equivalent of Scripture. Not only are Trump’s tweets often plagiarized versions of stupid Fox News arguments; so, too, are his legislative proposals and executive orders.
When members of Congress, world leaders, and even his own aides want to reach Trump, they often get themselves booked on TV to make sure he’s paying attention. Anthony Scaramucci got his job by impressing Trump this way. He lost it after complaining about a leak regarding his dinner with Trump, Fox host Sean Hannity, former Fox News honcho Bill Shine, and Fox News co-host Kimberly Guilfoyle. Shine and Guilfoyle have both been floated as candidates for top White House jobs, while Hannity couldn’t stand the pay cut. Now the white-nationalist lunatic Stephen Miller is rumored to be ready to replace “The Mooch” because he had an argument about immigration with CNN’s Jim Acosta. According to National Security Council staffer Sebastian Gorka, Miller received high fives after his appalling performance. Gorka himself is a longtime associate of a Fascist-friendly organization in Hungary who, according to Axios’s Mike Allen, “was effectively a non-entity…until he began tearing shreds of CNN anchors.”
This cable-as-reality dynamic took a giant step into totalitarian territory when, according to a recent lawsuit filed by Rod Wheeler, a Fox News contributor and former homicide detective, Fox colluded with the White House—according to the suit, allegedly Trump himself—to push the phony/crazy story that ex-DNC staffer Seth Rich had been murdered because of his links to WikiLeaks. The story, designed as an “alternative fact” to the likely-but-still-murky Russian role in the drama, was shamelessly and obsessively peddled on Fox, particularly by Trumpists like Sean Hannity and the cast of Fox & Friends, until Rich’s parents publicly objected. It was based on the “reporting” of Malia Zimmerman, a FoxNews.com fantasist who has repeatedly reported on events for which no evidence exists.
A closed circle in which an administration colludes with a faux-independent media to purposely mislead the nation on behalf of its program of political control is one that has no room for democratic practice of any kind. It’s long past time to stop treating Trump like any other legitimate leader and Fox like an actual news network. They are, respectively and collectively, a metastasizing cancer on our body politic.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misidentified Kimberly Guilfoyle’s title. She is a co-host at Fox News, not a contributor. The text has been corrected.