Jan. 7, 2019 – Robert Brent Toplin has published several books about history, politics, and film. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Since retirement from full-time teaching, Toplin has taught occasional courses at the University of Virginia.
During the past two years in which Donald Trump has stumbled through his presidency, critics have been asking why so many Americans continue to back him despite mounting evidence of deeply flawed leadership. Often, these critics express contempt for the millions of Americans who constitute Trump’s “base.” They complain that Trump’s partisans are uniformed people who refuse to acknowledge that the president’s lying, ethical lapses, and failed policies are harming the nation. Trump remains in power, these critics argue, largely because starry-eyed followers ignore the facts.
These critics cast blame in the wrong place. Trump’s supporters, representing 38% of the electorate according to a recent poll, do not deserve all the censure that is directed at them. They did not create the pro-Trump narrative. They are its recipients. Conservative media have been especially influential in promoting optimistic judgments about Trump’s leadership. Fox News serves as command-central for the perspective. It draws a large audience. In October 2018, according the Nielson’s research, Fox racked up its 28thconsecutive month as the No. 1 basic cable news channel. Fox drew more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined.
Millions of Americans who wish to be informed about current events tune in regularly to Fox. Once they are Fox fans, they tend to stick with the channel. The hosts and reporters on Fox News encourage loyalty. Frequently, they make damning references to CNN (a favorite target) as well as CBS, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, the New York Timesand the Washington Post. They hint that only Fox can be trusted. Don’t look elsewhere for information, they warn, because “liberal” networks hawk “fake news.”
What kind of reporting does the Fox News viewership receive through prime-time reporting and commentary? Consider the lessons viewers learned on Thursday, December 20, 2018, an extraordinary day of troubles for Trump’s presidency. Leading print and television journalists outside of Fox expressed shock that Trump suddenly announced plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and quickly draw down half of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. They warned that an American exodus in Syria could benefit the Russians, Syrians, Iranians, and Turks at the expense of Kurds who fought bravely against ISIS. Military leaders and foreign policy experts blasted Trump’s decision as ill-advised and dangerous.
General Jim Mattis’s decision to resign as Secretary of Defense, also received abundant commentary on December 20. Mattis’s letter of resignation communicated strong disagreement with the direction of U.S. foreign policy. Mattis, in a clear rebuke of the president, noted that during his four decades of “immersion in the issues” he had learned the importance of treating allies with respect and “being clear-eyed about malign actors and strategic competitors.” Both American and international leaders were alarmed that the last general who seemed capable of taming the erratic president planned to leave his post.
On the home front, President Trump led congressional leaders to believe that a compromise was workable on temporarily funding the government. But Trump suddenly reversed his position, insisting there would be no settlement unless Congress provided $5 billion for a border wall. On December 20 the stock market tanked on this news and other developments. The next day Wall Street closed with its worst week since the financial crisis of 2008.
Mainstream journalists focused on the chaos associated with these developments. Several Republican leaders joined them in expressing concern, including Senators Lindsay Graham and Bob Corker. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell backed compromises aimed at averting a shutdown, but Trump and his backers in the Freedom Caucus made compromise unworkable.
Fox News television viewers got almost no sense of this mounting crisis when watching prime-time programing on the night of December 20. Shows hosted by Martha MacCallum, Tucker Carlson, Dan Bongino (sitting in for Sean Hannity) and Laura Ingraham directed viewers’ attention to other matters. The programs focused on a subject that had already received extensive coverage on Fox in previous months and years: undocumented immigrants. Hosts and guests warned repeatedly that dangerous foreigners threatened to overrun American society.
Even though the real “news” on December 20 was about struggles in Congress to keep the government running, Fox’s prime-time programming highlighted stories about an immigrant invasion. Commentators asserted falsely that Democrats advocated “open borders.” They accentuated a report about a violent undocumented immigrant in California. In each program hosts and commentators left viewers with an impression that the big news of the day concerned security threats from aliens. Speakers praised President Trump for his determination to build a wall.
What other topics dominated the night’s discussions on Fox, essentially eclipsing any discussion of the big stories of the day about blow-back from the president’s controversial actions?
Martha MacCallum’s program featured a lengthy interview with Susan Collins. The senator from Maine talked at length about some extremist critics of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court (individuals who harassed her in disgusting ways).
Tucker Carlson drew attention to the work of Robert Shibley, who maintained that America’s universities have been pushing aggressively against free speech. Carlson also took shots at a “Climate Tax” and made fun of claims about Russian interference. He maintained that China was the real threat.
Dan Bongino and his guests blasted Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s defense of the “so-called Russia investigation.” Bongino praised a “terrific book” by Gregg Jarrett called The Russia Hoax: The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump.
Laura Ingraham, like all the other prime-time hosts, devoted considerable time to immigration, but she encountered difficulty when a sheriff objected to some of her arguments. The officer acknowledged the difficulty of holding a violent undocumented man in California because of laws pertaining to sanctuary cities, but he noted that many immigrants in his community were good citizens and sought help from law enforcement when troubled by criminals. “That’s a lie!” Ingraham responded. She ended the interview quickly by mentioning “violence, rape, burglary, robbery and other offenses against property and people.”
A pattern in the reporting and commentary on Fox was evident in these four prime-time programs. By focusing on old news stories that had been red meat in right-oriented media commentary for years, there was little time left for an analysis of stunning developments in the previous 24-hours. General Mattis’s resignation letter hardly got a nod. The outcry by national and international leaders regarding President Trump’s plan to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan received little or no attention. The impact of a government shutdown on the American economy and the American people was almost completely ignored. There was hardly a word about the stock markets’ plummet that day or the huge slide of recent weeks. Instead, viewers heard about scary threats from immigrants, Democrats, university administrators, and Chinese hackers. They were reminded often that President Trump fights tenaciously for ordinary Americans.
Much of the discussion did not reflect what used to be identified as mainstream Republican stands on economic and political affairs. Instead, viewers got an earful of analysis from individuals who spoke from the margins of political debates. Hosts and commentators seemed eager to please their most important viewer, the President of the United States. Most of them endorsed and celebrated Donald Trump’s statements and actions, despite their sharply controversial nature. Dan Bongino, substituting as host for Sean Hannity, provided an example of the slant by promoting his co-authored book, Spygate: The Attempted Sabotage of Donald J. Trump.
Endorsing controversial and often questionable ideas, has, of course, been evident in Fox’s broadcasting over many years. A decade and a half ago, the channel sounded a drumbeat for war in program after program, convincing many viewers that Saddam Hussein had been responsible for the 9/11 tragedy, threatened the world with WMDs, including nukes, and needed to be removed. On the same channel host Bill O’Reilly devoted considerable time to warning viewers about a “war on Christmas.” Anti-religious forces were trying to replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays,” O’Reilly cautioned. During those years, Roger Ailes, then Chairman and CEO at Fox News, designed the channel’s modus operandi, applying a heavy-handed slant on the news.
Complaints about Donald Trump’s enthusiasts are often misplaced. Many citizens who are regular patrons of Fox News and other right-oriented programming want to be well-informed about current events. They take civic engagement seriously. Those listeners and viewers should be more discerning, of course, but they are not fully to blame for making judgments about national and international affairs that raise the eyebrows of Trump’s critics. Fox News, and other opinion sources on television and radio are primarily responsible for the base’s narrow and skewed viewpoints. Millions of Americans have turned to the Fox News Channel and other sources, seeking knowledge about current events. They have been let down by the manipulators of “news.”