Altercation: Fox News Keeps Getting Foxier

The Atlantic’s invaluable Ron Brownstein makes the point that in red states, including Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, Arizona, Iowa, and Montana, “Republican legislators and governors have operated as if they were programming a prime-time lineup at Fox News. They have focused far less on the small-government, limited-spending, and anti-tax policies that once defined the GOP” and instead are obsessed with things like loosening gun restrictions, functionally banning abortion, targeting transgender folks, preventing minorities and other traditionally Democratic constituencies from voting, and attacking masks and vaccinations. As Brownstein points out, “Very few of the [states or right-wing districts within them] are competitive [in a general election], so all they are worried about is being primaried.” Alas, the people likely to do that successfully are almost all even crazier, given the fact that virtually all the energized support in the party today is motivated by a slavish devotion to Donald Trump.

Absent (the unimaginable) reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, these people are a lost cause. The death of the local news ecosphere in many communities and the void being filled by Fox and other national behemoths has made it impossible to hold a conversation with a common set of facts. As Barack Obama told Ezra Klein, when he first ran for president in 2008, he could “go to the fish fry, or the V.F.W. hall, or all these other venues, and just talk to people” in red states. “And they didn’t have any preconceptions about what I believed. They could just take me at face value. If I went into those same places now—or if any Democratic who’s campaigning goes in those places now—almost all news is from either Fox News, Sinclair news stations, talk radio, or some Facebook page. And trying to penetrate that is really difficult.”

More from Eric Alterman

Fox’s prime-time post-pandemic ratings are down, but remain almost equal to those of MSNBC and CNN combined. Tucker Carlson Tonight leads the pack in total viewers, averaging 2.94 million, and the audience is fed comically idiotic bullshit like this: “You can still go see a baseball game if you want to. But be warned, you will be sitting in your own roped off section marinating in your shame with the other disobedient bad people. Medical Jim Crow has come to America. If we still had water fountains, the unvaccinated would have separate ones.” As for the rest of the crew, the no less nutty Hannity was next with 2.63 million, and The Five at 2.63 million. Rachel Maddow snuck in with an audience of 2.52 million just before Laura Ingraham’s egregious program clocking in at 2.06 million.

Meanwhile, the (no doubt vaccinated) grand pooh-bahs at the network have chosen this moment of maximum political and social peril to double down on the damage they are doing to the health and sanity of the world, by making Fox ever more Foxier. In recent weeks, they lost two relatively sane Fox personalities: Juan Williams left The Five, and Donna Brazile is gone from the station entirely. The network canned its politics editor, Chris Stirewalt, at the beginning of the year, apparently in retaliation for his correct call of Arizona going for Joe Biden, along with Washington bureau chief Bill Sammon. White House correspondent Kristin Fisher, who according to The New York Times “aggressively debunked lies about election fraud advanced by Mr. Trump’s lawyers” has been shown the door as well. The (relatively) respectable newscaster Shepard Smith has been gone since 2019. Crazy people like Greg Gutfeld and Dan Bongino have been rewarded with new shows.

Part of what’s going on with Fox is an extension of what’s been going on with far-right politicians; they’re afraid of being primaried. With networks like One America News and Newsmax, as well as random YouTuber conspiracy theorists, turning up the crazy to even higher levels, Fox must keep up with the Joneses. The brutal logic of the right has made even mild deviations from the most extreme narratives out of bounds.

Another frequent face showing up on Fox of late is former leftist Glenn Greenwald, who gives every impression of modeling his political hegira on that of David Horowitz. Greenwald is under no illusion, as he told The Daily Beast, that Fox isn’t filled with “horrific, toxic, damaging, destructive, and bigoted” broadcasting. Nevertheless, he has managed “at least 72 appearances on Fox since December 2017”—40 of them on Tucker Carlson Tonight, 14 on Ingraham’s show, nine on Fox News Primetime, three more on Howard Kurtz’s MediaBuzz, in addition to one or two on at least five more Fox programs. Playing that old standby tactic of “Even the liberal New Republic”–style faux mystification, Greenwald is almost always introduced as a “progressive journalist” who then goes on to attack actual progressives. (Advice to aspiring young pundits: Apostasy sells.)

All of the above should, I think, clarify the context of recent controversial statements by Chris Wallace, who, despite his continued employment at Fox, insists on being treated as an authentic journalist. In excusing himself for consistently booking Republican liars and insurrection supporters on his program, and treating their answers as if deserving of respect, he equated holding such people to the most basic standards of truth-telling—as opposed to rewarding their lies with generous amounts of airtime—as “moral posturing.” Speaking to Politico Playbook, Wallace went on to distinguish this from what he calls “newsgathering,” which, apparently, is allowing liars to lie unimpeded about elections, public health, or whatever Fox and its de facto chief programmer, Donald Trump, are lying about at any given moment.

Would it be overly simplistic in a vulgar Marxist sort of way to point out that Wallace, who is paid an estimated $7 million a year by Rupert Murdoch and company, could not possibly condemn the practice of inviting liars and insurrectionists on his program without condemning the entire network he works for? How much more convenient to take one for the team and actually defend the practice of purposely misleading the country and driving it into the arms of the would-be fascists waiting to destroy its electoral system at the first opportunity that arises, like our coming elections in 2022 and 2024. This is especially true given the fact that our punditocracy continues to treat Fox as an actual news network, instead of the nakedly dishonest propaganda channel it has been since it first aired 25 years ago.

The Guardian has been celebrating its 200th anniversary, and I give thanks for the fact that it is still around almost every day. One of the many articles it published to mark the occasion was a compendium of great headlines. Because I walk around all day with song lyrics in my head, frequently, to the dismay of whomever I am talking to, working them into conversation, I was particularly pleased to see the 2009 classic about John Lennon’s love of nature: “I fed the newts today, oh boy.” My all-time favorite of this genre was one that once appeared in the “A-hed” front-page column of The Wall Street Journal that read, “If There’s a Bustle in Your Hedgerow, Don’t Be Alarmed,” beautifully mocking one of the silliest song lyrics of all time above a story about English environmentalists trying to preserve traditional hedgerows. I did, however, find a reference to that one in this 1998 “On Language” column by William Safire. Searching the Journal, alas, the closest I could come was this: “A Bustle Grows on Hedge Row: The IPO Allure.”

Last week in directing readers to what I mentioned was one of my favorite musical performances of all time: Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, Ben E. King, and Chuck Jackson singing together at the Apollo Theater in 1993, I carelessly posted an inferior video reproducing it. I did some searching and found a far better one in two parts, here and here. Make sure to stay to the end. And if you remain in the mood for more such competition, well, there is always this classic. Also there’s this bit of wonderment, which comes with a strong Altercation recommendation as a first-dance wedding song, should you be in the market for one.

And if you’re in need of a bit more high-minded entertainment this weekend, here is Salman Rushdie interviewing Edward Said at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in September 1986.