It is good that The Dispatch does not go in for a lot of media criticism—or any, really. Journalism about journalism is among the most disreputable of the already dubious arts of our vocation.
It is too often deployed for commercial or partisan advantage (insofar as those are two different things anymore). It is also frequently a deflection for hacks and flacks who don’t want to talk about what happened and would rather talk about the coverage of what happened. Much of the media criticism that actually is on the level is cruel and useless. Even at its best, media coverage quickly succumbs to the lure of self-absorbed twaddle.
But what about when the news really is about the news? How do we know when the coverage is itself the story? How much is too much? Too often, what is presented as media criticism or coverage is just an excuse to perpetuate a pseudo-event for another news cycle. Gasbag-insults-rival-gasbag coverage and villain-destroyed-in-viral-moment hot takes aren’t news at all.
Even when you know a media story is legit, though, it’s still hard to get it right. When the brother of a governor uses his position on TV news to snoop on the women who accused the governor of sexual misconduct, that’s damned well news. But how much do we really care that someone lost their anchor gig, especially when they were not taken seriously as a journalist before their fall? The part that relates to the public official is news, and should apply to the conclusions people reach about who should govern America’s fourth largest state. But the fact that there is now another unemployed rich dude forming a cover band or joining a classic car club doesn’t affect anyone else. So we should be careful about indulging ourselves even when stories about our own vocation are legitimate.
There’s nobody we’d rather cover than ourselves. But if we’re being honest, we’d admit that there’s something a little uninspiring about covering someone else’s coverage—the copy desk for the first draft of history.
This week, though, the news about the news has been hard to ignore. It’s been impossible for me to overlook because the story is about Fox News, where I worked and appeared on air for more than a decade, and the area of controversy is about the network’s response to then-President Donald Trump’s effort to steal a second term by overturning the results of the 2020 election. As the politics editor at the network who got fired after angry denunciations from Trump and his supporters for our projection that President Biden would win Arizona’s electoral votes, I had a front-row seat for the descent into electoral madness for many in the Republican Party and some at my former employer. Weird days, my friends.
The news this week is that Fox News personalities including Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham texted then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows as the January 6 attack was unfolding to urge him to convince Trump to call off the mob. The texts came out as part of the House inquiry into the attacks and landed with a wet thwack. The story was amplified because it came on the heels of the news that Chris Wallace, whose continued employment was the network’s preferred evidence of journalistic rigor, was leaving the network.
“Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home,” Ingraham wrote. “This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy.” One might hope that Ingraham meant that the attack was hurting all of us Americans, but she more likely meant all of us Trump supporters or pro-Trump public figures.
Hannity, who often acted like he was part of the Trump administration and not a broadcaster covering it, was more blunt: “Can [Trump] make a statement?” Hannity advised. “Ask people to leave the Capitol.”
Forget the fact that these people, who claim some special status as part of the news media, are acting as behind-the-scenes advisers to a presidential administration. If you’re looking to those two for impartial analysis, you haven’t been paying attention. What is noteworthy, though, is the difference between what they told Meadows and what they told their viewers.
By the time Ingraham took air that night, she was already spinning for the GOP. “From a chaotic Washington tonight, earlier today the Capitol was under siege by people who can only be described as antithetical to the MAGA movement,” she said. “Now, they were likely not all Trump supporters, and there are some reports that Antifa sympathizers may have been sprinkled throughout the crowd.”
Hannity also let some red herrings out of his creel, but took the extra step of expressing sympathy for those who might have gotten swept away in the mob. “Our election, frankly, was a train wreck,” he claimed. “Eighty-three percent, according to Gallup, of Republicans, and millions of others, do not have faith in these election results. You can’t just snap your finger and hope that goes away.”
The message that day from two of Fox’s most influential hosts was that it may have been someone else’s fault, but that if it really was the Trump cultists who rallied on the Mall that day, could you really blame them for being upset? Their fellow prime-time host Tucker Carlson would later grab that narrative and ride it to new lows, suggesting the attack, which unfolded on live television, was not what it had seemed but was really a plot by the government to persecute people like him and his viewers.
The spinning here would make a press secretary blush. Within hours of an attack that Inghraham and Hannity acknowledged in private was grave and consequential, both were trying to turn the issue around and use it as a weapon against the political enemies of their party. By the way, this isn’t even helpful for the party. Republicans’ inability to be honest with themselves about Trump, the election-theft gambit, and the January 6 attack is a liability, not an asset. But it would not be in the interests of broadcasters to tell viewers the wholesome truth: People who share our aims did something wicked and un-American today. We should step back and think about how we got here.
Such an examination would reveal how Fox News hosts including Hannity and Ingraham primed the pump for the lunatic assault on election integrity that led to the riot. Hannity was still doing it that night, after all. But it also would have sent the correct signal to viewers as Americans: This is a time not to hate our enemies but to reflect on our own mistakes. That would have been an invitation to turn the television off and reflect on our own shortcomings. And that wouldn’t have sold many pillows. What’s good for business is to absolve your viewers—and yourself—of blame and keep them coming back for more haterade.
The lofty status that news outlets and journalists claim for themselves by osmosis from the seriousness of their subjects is all out of whack. You, consumers of news, should not give us your attention and take us seriously because we are talking about important things. No. When we speak of serious things, we should speak of them seriously. That doesn’t mean we always have to speak of them gravely or be prigs, but it does demand that we take a little vocational pride in showing restraint. That pride is far too little in evidence—maybe that’s so always, but most definitely is lacking today.
But if they don’t show it, we can also decline to take them seriously or afford them the professional distance that even opinionated journalism affords.
Fox News’ competitors once fought on the network’s behalf when the Obama administration sought to isolate and discredit Fox’s White House team and other legitimate reporting. There are a lot of reasons that might not happen if the situation repeated itself, including the animus of those same competitors today. But one of the reasons Fox might find itself alone next time around is that it can hardly seem to rouse itself to defend even the modest standards of cable news opinion coverage against the abuses of its own hosts.