When President Richard Nixon’s Watergate misconduct was being dissected before congressional committees in 1973 and 1974, Republican support for him collapsed because most Americans shared news sources and inhabited a similar political reality.
In short, facts mattered.
Aides to Nixon did propose to him a plan to create sympathetic television news coverage; Roger Ailes backed the idea; and it eventually evolved into Fox News. And today Fox gives President Donald Trump an important defense system that Nixon never had.
Fox was the most popular television network for watching the first day of impeachment hearings this past week, with 2.9 million viewers (57% more than CNN had), and Fox viewers encountered a very different hearing from the one seen by viewers of other channels.
With Rep. Adam Schiff on the screen, Fox News’ graphic declared in all caps: “TRUMP HAS REPEATEDLY IMPLIED THAT SCHIFF HAS COMMITTED TREASON.” At a different moment, the screen warned: “9/26: SCHIFF PUBLICLY EXAGGERATED SUBSTANCE OF TRUMP-ZELENSKY CALL.”
Fox downplayed the news and undermined the witnesses. While Ambassador William Taylor was shown testifying, the Fox News screen graphic declared: “OCT 23: PRESIDENT TRUMP DISMISSED TAYLOR AS A “NEVER TRUMPER.” It also suggested his comments were, “TRIPLE HEARSAY.”
Researchers have found that Fox News isn’t very effective at informing Americans. A 2012 study by Fairleigh Dickinson University reported that watching Fox News had “a negative impact on people’s current events knowledge.”
The study found that those who regularly watched Fox News actually knew less about both domestic and international issues than those who watched no news at all. NPR listeners were particularly well-informed, the study found, but even people who got their news from a comedy program like “The Daily Show” — or who had no news source whatsoever — knew more about current events than Fox viewers.
That may be correlation rather than causation, but at the least it suggests that viewers of Fox News don’t actually learn much.
Yet if Fox News doesn’t inform citizens, it does sway their votes. Two Stanford scholars, Gregory J. Martin and Ali Yurukoglu, published a paper in American Economic Review in 2017 suggesting that without the network, the Republican share of the vote for president would have been 0.46 percentage points lower in 2000, 3.6 points lower in 2004 and 6.3 percentage points lower in 2008.
Let’s pause here to acknowledge that Fox News has some excellent reporters, and let me just say that I’m jealous of Chris Wallace’s interviewing skill. It’s unfair that the real Fox reporters are tainted by blowhards like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, who engage less in journalism than in presidential public relations.
There’s no easy solution at a time when we’re all so polarized, but we can try to stand up for democratic and journalistic norms. It’s of course true that I live in a glass house. I’ve made countless mistakes in my career, and The New York Times makes them almost every day.
Yet that shouldn’t have stopped us from criticizing Father Charles Coughlin’s anti-Semitic radio broadcasts in the 1930s, and it shouldn’t stop us today from pointing out that Fox regularly hands the microphone to a guest, Joseph DiGenova, who might have made Joe McCarthy blush with this absurd anti-Semitic rant: “There’s no doubt that George Soros controls a very large part of the career Foreign Service at the United States State Department.”
While Democrats feel victimized by Fox News and allies like Rush Limbaugh, it’s also true that this right-wing cocoon is a disservice to its own true believers — because it feeds them misinformation. We saw that in the Iraq War, when Fox News anticipated that troops would be welcomed with flowers and that the war would pay for itself.
Early in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I spent a scary, violent day with U.S. troops, and that night we watched a feed of Fox News — and our jaws dropped as commentators ridiculed critics of the invasion and blithely insisted that Iraqis were welcoming us as heroes. The troops and I looked at each other in astonishment.
The right-wing media bubble and its conspiracy theories can even be lethal. During the 2009-10 swine flu epidemic, Democrats and Republicans initially expressed roughly equal concern. But then conservative commentators denounced the Obama administration’s calls for vaccination as a nefarious plot. Glenn Beck, then of Fox News, warned that he would do “the exact opposite” of what the administration recommended.
As a result, Democrats in the end were 50% more likely to seek vaccination than Republicans, according to the Journal of Health, Politics and Law. Some 18,000 people died in that flu epidemic, so it seems logical that some died because they believed Fox News.
I wonder if Fox viewers are again being misled when they watch Hannity celebrate the opening of the impeachment hearings as a victory for Trump and as “a lousy day for the corrupt, do-nothing-for-three-years radical extreme socialist Democrats.” That is, shall we say, a quixotic interpretation.
In the meantime, Fox News is aggressively defending Trump, joining in smears of public servants and playing a role in history that embarrasses many of us in journalism.