Margaret Sullivan: Trump and Fox News are the conjoined twins of misinformation

FILE - In this July 26, 2018, file photo, Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity talks during an interview during a taping of his show in New York. Bad news for President Donald Trump also means a tough time for his biggest media backer, Fox News’ Hannity. His ratings are down since the election, and his rivals are up. Still, Fox will finish as the top-rated network in all of basic cable for the third straight year. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

It's no secret that Fox News and the Trump administration are deeply entwined with each other: They are the conjoined twins of misinformation.

So it hardly raised an eyebrow when the president took to Twitter on Thursday to urge everyone to tune in to Fox for Attorney General William Barr's (misleading) prelude to the release of the report by special counsel Robert Mueller.

The results were predictable: Fox's early news coverage was somewhat straight - kept so largely by the presence of Fox's designated truth-teller, Chris Wallace.

The follow-up coverage and commentary, though, was outlandishly one-sided, led by Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani, who was allowed to spin frenetically for what seemed like endless minutes, offering such gems as "there's not a single surprise" in the report.

"Nothing to see here" was the clear message - nothing but the corrupt investigation itself.

I tuned in to Fox for a while Thursday morning, trying the experiment of using it as my only news source for an hour or two.

When I emerged and started reading and watching elsewhere - and looked at the report for myself - I felt like I had returned from beyond the looking glass and was back in the real world.

Back in a world where there was plenty of newsworthy material in the report.

Back in a world where - as just one example - Mueller had something to say about Seth Rich, the young Democratic National Committee staff member killed in Washington in 2017.

For months until it retracted its "reporting," Fox News had helped to spin a pernicious conspiracy theory - that Hillary Clinton may have had him killed because he leaked damaging DNC emails through WikiLeaks.

Mueller, to put it mildly, did not see it that way.

"The special counsel report asserts without a shade of doubt that Russia hacked the Democratic servers and passed that material to WikiLeaks," wrote the fact-checking organization PolitiFact.

No matter. The lie had served its political purpose.

And so it will be going forward, as the findings of the Mueller report make their way deeper into the political bloodstream, with implications for President Donald Trump's 2020 reelection bid.

Trump will need Fox News more than ever to fend off the undeniable truths of the report, which Dahlia Lithwick in Slate called a "highlights reel of things even the most casual observer already knew."

To wit: "The Russians tried to steal the election. Some members of his campaign were happy to help. The president wanted to protect Michael Flynn. The president wanted to kill the special counsel investigation. The president materially and significantly tampered with witnesses to that investigation. The president lied and told others to lie."

We knew this. As The Washington Post's Paul Farhi documented, the Mueller report "largely validated news accounts that Trump dismissed or disparaged," often with his favorite insult - that those accounts were nothing but fake news.

The report's findings made it all the more absurd that Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, a world-class dissembler herself, was ever so graciously offering Thursday to accept apologies from reporters.

Even the casual news consumer would know these things. Unless, as Lithwick noted, in a nod to a Fox prime-time host, you were one of those people with "an intravenous hookup to Tucker Carlson's worldview."

But here's the rub: Many Americans have that hookup.

The ugly reality of the report's findings - with facts undeniably nailed down in sworn testimony and documents - won't matter if your main news source is Fox. Like the president and Conway, it is deeply invested in denial, delusion and blame-shifting.

In the months ahead, the nothing-to-see-here network stands ready to help.

On a less-influential scale, so does the New York Post, another news organization controlled by Trump booster Rupert Murdoch. The paper's front page on Friday shouted in type the size of soup cans: TRUMP CLEAN. (Its chief tabloid competitor, the New York Daily News, went with a pun slamming the attorney general's partisan performance: LOW BARR.)

In the weeks and months ahead, Democrats in Congress will have to decide whether the devastating facts of the report will lead to an impeachment investigation. Democratic presidential candidates will have to decide how much those facts matter in their quest for the Oval Office.

Most importantly, members of the public will have to decide how much they care.

Millions of them are watching Fox, which touts itself - accurately - as the most-watched cable network. The highest rated of its evening shows? That of Trump whisperer Sean Hannity.

Democratic candidates, too, acknowledge the network's power and reach: They are beginning to appear on Fox town halls; a recent one featuring Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pulled in more viewers than any comparable event so far.

Meanwhile, Trump, a TV-savvy politician if there ever was one, will hold on tight to what is not only his favorite media outlet, but his most valuable friend and protector.

"One of Roger Ailes' aims in founding Fox News was to ensure Watergate wouldn't happen to another president he supported like Nixon," observed Jane Mayer, the author of a sweeping New Yorker investigation of the network.

Without Fox News steadfastly in his corner, Trump would be in big trouble.

With it, he may be invincible.

| Courtesy Margaret Sullivan, op-ed mug shot.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.