I try to limit my intake of 24-hour cable TV news, because as a medium, on balance, I think it’s bad for America. Though Facebook has suffered more scrutiny and reputational damage for its role in 2016, it was cable, not social networks, that went gaga pumping up Trump during the campaign. Today, it’s the toxic feedback swirl of Twitter and cable — and a president and a press corps that spend all hours feeding on one another’s digital droppings in a dystopian circle of life — that has rendered our political culture so vulnerable to reflexive, narrow-minded conspiracies, tribalism and groupthink.
Lately, however, I’ve found myself gorging like a bear in salmon season on the worst, most brain-corroding corner of cable, the network I’ve called a “forked-tongue colossus” for its two-decades-long project of dismantling our collective hold on the truth. I refer, of course, to Fox News.
In the past week, it’s been riveting, and I can’t get enough. Forget “Succession” — as we descend into the hell pit of impeachment and a presidential election, there is no more engaging and consequential family drama on television right now than the one happening every day on Fox News.
I won’t lie to you: Watching Fox isn’t easy. Much of it is still a fetid sewer of venom that bears little resemblance to the real world, and I would hope that you have more enjoyable ways to spend your time, like elective dental surgery.
But when news breaks on television — as it will in an unending cascade of hearings, stump speeches, debates and grandstanding news conferences from now until at least January 2021 — Fox should be your go-to place to watch, especially if you are on the left.
There is a simple reason: While other organizations report the news, Fox News is the news. There is now a growing rift on Fox: Its news side is asking increasingly tough questions of Trump, while its opinion side pushes his raving conspiracies. The drama speaks to real tension on the right, and Fox will inform political reality. It is no exaggeration to say that what happens on Fox now — the way it decides to play impeachment and the twists and turns of the 2020 race — could well determine the fate of the republic.
Fox’s anchors, reporters, its far-flung network of guests and its many shaggy narratives — what Deadspin’s David Roth has called the “Fox News Cinematic Universe” — are now deeply embedded in the operations of the United States government.
Even before the Trump era, Fox exerted striking influence on the Republican Party. But with Trump, Fox has reached the zenith of its powers. Its anchors regularly advise the president about politics and policy. Its story lines inform his hourly moods and his strategic decisions, including his staffing. And its commitment to indulging the president’s conspiracy-fueled ravings has helped pull political culture ever farther from reality.
In other words, Fox is now not just a reflection of what happens in the world; instead, how a piece of news plays on Fox determines what happens in the world.
Tucker Carlson didn’t think it was a good idea to bomb Iran, so we didn’t bomb Iran.
He didn’t like John Bolton, so shut the door on your way out, John!
Lou Dobbs thought Kirstjen Nielsen was weak. Bye bye, Kirstjen!
The connection between Trump and Fox runs so deep that you might wonder where one ends and the other begins. Is Trump rotting Fox’s brain, or is Fox rotting Trump’s?
But when it comes to politics, it doesn’t matter; whichever way the rot runs, watching Fox now is like getting a peek into Trump’s war room and, in a larger sense, into the future of the right in America, however ugly that picture may be.
Now there is an extra layer of intrigue. Suddenly Fox News feels like a nation up for grabs, and there is growing, palpable drama on its sets.
The network’s daytime anchors — people like Shep Smith and Chris Wallace, who fall on the news reporting side of Fox’s opinion-reporting divide — have always grumbled about the network’s nighttime pundits, talkers like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Now the two sides are at open war, sniping at each other daily over the seriousness of impeachment and the very legitimacy of any inquiry of the president.
On impeachment, Fox News’ news side has been excellent. There were many moments in the last week where I felt shocked and gratified by the seriousness with which Fox was taking impeachment.
On Friday, Wallace called the White House’s “spinning” on the Ukraine call “astonishing and deeply misleading.” On Sunday’s “Fox & Friends,” reporter Ed Henry asked conservative radio host Mark Levin a series of substantive questions about the propriety of the Ukraine call. Levin roared his response, earning Twitter praise from the president, but Henry’s sharp questioning stood out to me: There he was upsetting Trump’s narrative on Trump’s favorite show. That’s progress, right?
And later on Sunday, in one of the most devastating performances by an administration official this week, Trump aide Stephen Miller fell apart like a used tissue under Chris Wallace’s withering questions.
In those moments of truth on Fox, I couldn’t help feeling a rush of optimism for America. I’ve often wondered whether after the Trump era it will ever be possible to pull back from the conspiracy right. In the ravings of Trump’s Ukrainian call, we saw undeniable proof that Infowars has invaded the president’s brain.
Are we seeing some sign that the conspiracies have a limit — that as nutty as things have gotten, Rupert Murdoch isn’t willing to turn his air over to an even darker cast of characters and story lines, what NBC News’ Ben Collins calls the “4Chan Cinematic Universe”?
But then I watch Fox’s opinion side and my optimism vanishes. For much of the past week, on Fox’s prime-time lineup, the president’s narrative has held total sway. On Carlson, on Hannity, on Ingraham, on “The Five,” the big story has been much the same: The president did nothing wrong, impeachment is a witch hunt and a coup, they’re coming to take your guns, to corrupt your children and to ruin all that’s great about the country.
There were times, watching Carlson and Hannity, that I felt truly terrified for the nation. Fox’s most popular hosts are still framing Trump’s political battles in apocalyptic terms; if they keep that up, what hope is there for any of us?
But this, too, is important news about America: The president, quoting a Fox News guest, says that his impeachment could bring about civil war in America. Watching Fox’s prime-time lineup, I totally believe it.
Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.