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The Tiger Is Loose
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The Tiger Is Loose

Further thoughts on Fox News and Dominion Voting Systems.

Trump supporter Melissa Regan, of Pike County, Ohio, attends a Stop the Steal rally in support of President Trump on December 12, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images.)

I read this David French tweet on Friday and was instantly mad at myself for not having made the same point in that afternoon’s newsletter.

There’s nothing new about right-wing outlets stooping to the sort of unethical behavior they deride in their enemies. For all their anxiety about media gatekeeping, you’re more likely to find news that’s inconvenient for the left in the New York Times than news that’s inconvenient for the right on a conservative website. People who earn a living complaining about collusion between Democrats and liberal journalists had no issue with Trump treating one Fox News host as his “shadow chief of staff” and patching in another via speaker phone to weigh in during Oval Office meetings. The Venn diagram of populist outlets that screech endlessly about media corruption and populist outlets being sued for defamation for lying about the 2020 election is basically a circle.

If you doubt that most of the right’s media critics are offended not by ethical lapses per se but by the fact that the lapses of the mainstream press favor the left, ask yourself how many spoke up over the last few days upon learning that the most influential conservative news organization in America covered up the truth about a presidential election.

As if to prove how unserious populists and their fellow travelers are about corruption at friendly media outlets, “Horseshoe Theory” exemplar Glenn Greenwald offered these thoughts on Saturday night.

“It used to be the case that if a journalist got caught lying they were a disgrace,” Greenwald said. “There was a penalty for it. That was the reason people sought to avoid doing it and if they did it, they apologized. That has changed completely now. The model on which they depend is exactly the opposite.”

“If you look at how balkanized our media is, liberal outlets only speak to liberals,” Greenwald continued. “Even institutions that used to be considered kind of neutral and in the middle like NPR and the New York Times—at least that’s what they claimed—CBS News, the networks, overwhelmingly they are only speaking to liberals and Democrats. And they know that. And their audience wants them to lie to help advance the Democratic Party. So when they get caught they don’t need to apologize because their audience is in favor of them doing that.”

Greenwald made that critique on Fox News, if you can believe it, oblivious to the fact that the biggest media scandal in the country is how the right’s favorite network knowingly lied ad nauseam after the 2020 election to abet a Republican disinformation campaign that nearly ended in a coup. In conservative media, the only crimes that count are the other side’s crimes, even when the crime rises to the level of an attempted autogolpe.

Theories vary as to why right-wing outlets aren’t better about holding themselves to the standards they set for others. Some think the industry has gotten high on its own supply of anti-media propaganda, justifying its unethical behavior by convincing itself that the MSM routinely operates the same way. Some think it owes to the fact that conservative media skews heavily toward opinion, not news reporting, and that its most successful commentators tend to be aggrieved grassroots voices who don’t distinguish sharply between “opinion writer” and “political agitator.” The industry presents itself as a rebuttal to professional media more so than as a news-gathering endeavor, so go figure that it ends up prioritizing political interests over truth when the two diverge.

My own theory is that the alternative morality Trump has created for populists has bled over into right-wing media and affected how it views its mission. One secret to Trump’s appeal is how he grants a kind of moral license to his fans to behave immorally: So long as you’re loyal to him and hate the right people, you are redeemed and should feel free to indulge your worst tendencies without judgment. I won’t belabor the point since I’ve written about it elsewhere but one can see how a news network that caters to patrons with a mindset like that might decide that covering up the truth about Democratic victory in 2020 was the “moral” thing to do.

Still, something is off in David’s comparison between Fox and Fox’s critique of its media enemies.

Conservatives believe the mainstream media is in the business of brainwashing: The industry selects for highly educated liberals who interpret events in ways that flatter the prejudices of highly educated liberals and promote solutions to policy problems favored by highly educated liberals. It’s very much a top-down conspiracy aimed at shaping public opinion. An elite cabal, essentially, is hiding, shading, and distorting the truth as needed to convince Americans to prefer the progressive agenda to a more conservative one.

That’s not how it worked with conservative media and the Big Lie.

If Fox had behaved the way Fox believes the mainstream media behaves, the “rigged election” narrative would have been cooked up behind closed doors by Rupert Murdoch, Fox executives, and the network’s primetime hosts and then eagerly fed to an unsuspecting right-wing audience. The texts and emails documented in Dominion’s brief last week would have shown Murdoch, et al., nefariously workshopping the details of the phony “steal” plot and then coordinating to roll them out on the air in such a way as to maximize public impact. It would have been a top-down project.

In reality, the Big Lie was a bottom-up phenomenon at Fox. The communications revealed by Dominion show Fox personnel were skeptical of election conspiracy theories, even calling figures like Sidney Powell “crazy” in messages to each other. Some Fox hosts who pushed the “rigged” nonsense too enthusiastically were privately derided by colleagues. Only when network executives began to fear losing market share to more conspiratorial outlets like Newsmax did Fox appear to commit fully to the narrative its audience demanded.

The astonishing takeaway from all this is how powerless the most powerful conservative media entity in the country felt to influence its own viewers.

Fox didn’t behave unethically in order to brainwash its audience, it behaved unethically because its audience had already been brainwashed by less scrupulous propagandists. Its viewers had been conditioned by 25 years of vigorous partisan gatekeeping to expect the media outlets they trust to tell them only what they want to hear and to treat it as a betrayal if they don’t. Had Fox told the truth about the election, it wouldn’t have awakened millions of conservatives to the reality that Trump had lost. Those conservatives would have turned the channel to Newsmax to get the latest about “the steal” and never looked back.

There was nothing America’s top-rated cable news network could have done to reason with them. And executives there knew it.

Political commentators like to imagine Fox as a sort of pied piper of the Republican base even though it’s been clear for years that influential conservative personalities follow the base’s lead, not vice versa. But the thought of Fox as somehow in control of populist opinion is a comforting one because it implies that that opinion could be restrained if Murdoch and his lieutenants chose to restrain it. The populist right is a tiger but Fox is a zookeeper. The zookeeper will keep the tiger caged.

What the Dominion brief reveals is that the tiger is loose. And the zookeeper knows it and is afraid.

A recent Atlantic piece by Tom Nichols on the fake populism of Fox News reminded me of something George Will said in 2021 after it had become clear that attempting a coup would be no bar to continued leadership in the Republican Party. “We have something new in American history. That is, a political party defined by the terror it feels for its own voters,” Will marveled. “Every elected official is frightened of his voters, therefore doesn’t respect his voters and doesn’t like his voters and is afraid that a vote for [creating a January 6 commission] will be seen as an insult to the 45th president.” The conservative base didn’t care about the coup. So Republican officials, who did care, adjusted.

The tiger was loose. Like Fox, its representatives in Congress could either feed it or be eaten.

Stories about Republican voters acting nutty and self-destructive while party operatives wring their hands comprise a practically discrete genre of political reporting now. Look around at the news from this past weekend, and you’ll find the tiger’s footprints everywhere. In Arizona, for instance, the GOP is weighing its options in what looks to be a very winnable Senate race in 2024. Given that the party fumbled away numerous offices there in 2022 by nominating election cranks, one might think Republicans would be looking for the most generic candidate available for the next campaign. And if not, at a minimum they’d want to rule out a second nomination for the state’s most notorious election crank.

They want the crank, it turns out. The tiger is loose.

[Kari Lake] enjoys the highest favorability ratings among Republican primary voters of five potential GOP candidates, followed by former GOP Senate candidate Blake Masters, according to a private poll, portions of which were obtained by The Washington Post, that is viewed by Republican strategists as an accurate snapshot of the mood of the GOP electorate.

There is deep concern about Lake’s viability in a general election, national Republican operatives said, given her recent statewide loss, continued focus on false election fraud claims and her unfavorable ratings in a recent public general election poll conducted by the polling firm OH Predictive Insights.

In Michigan, where Republicans were walloped in November, delegates convened to choose a new party chairman. Conservatives in a state that was competitive as recently as 2020 will be more willing to lay aside their personal preference for cranks and opt for leaders who can broaden the party’s appeal, you might think. But you would be wrong: The chairman’s race boiled down to a choice between two election truthers, one of whom was endorsed by Donald Trump himself.

And Trump’s candidate, Matt DePerno, lost. Quote: “Some delegates said they grew to doubt DePerno because, unlike [winner Kristina] Karamo, he conceded his loss in November.” DePerno was the GOP nominee for attorney general in Michigan and ended up losing by 9 points; Karamo was the party’s nominee for secretary of state and lost by 14. The fact that she refused to concede her landslide defeat while DePerno did not was deemed worthy of a promotion by the party faithful. “Matt ran out on us; he didn’t fight for us,” one delegate told the Washington Post. The outgoing party chair, reflecting on her tenure and the GOP’s electoral predicament, complained that she’s “so tired of hearing that our party has moved too far to the right. The problem is we haven’t moved far enough.”

Republican delegates ended up insisting on a hand count of votes in the chairman’s race because they didn’t trust that their own election wouldn’t be rigged if electronic equipment was used. The tiger is loose.

Not only is it loose, even Donald Trump might end up as prey. On Saturday Bloomberg published a story about what might be his biggest vulnerability in the 2024 presidential primary, his nagging belief that the COVID vaccines his administration helped produce actually benefited the American public. “If there was one thing about the pandemic that Trump did right, it was the vaccine,” one expert said, “and his voters are going to punish him for it.” Trump has been booed by his own fans at rallies for endorsing vaccination and is anxious enough about Ron DeSantis’ anti-vaccine pivot that he’s taken to trying to damage the governor by reminding voters of how pro-vaccine DeSantis used to be.

In short, the Republican nomination could turn on the candidates’ relative enthusiasm in discrediting cutting-edge medicine that’s saved millions of lives. 

At some point traditional conservatives will ask themselves whether they want to remain tethered to a tiger in perpetuity.

Fox News has no choice. When your business is built on catering to an ideological niche, you’re traveling with that niche wherever it goes unless you’re prepared to go out of business. Fox nursed the tiger and helped raise it to adulthood; it’ll be dragged along by the tether unless and until it decides it’s willing to sever it and be eaten.

This data was released a few weeks ago, before Dominion submitted its new brief, but I thought of it when the news about Fox’s coverup broke. Green means agree, red means disagree.

There’s more green than there should be in a liberal society across every faction but one group is almost twice as likely as others to support censorship in the name of protecting “American values.” It’s the same group that’s most likely to watch Fox News, I suspect. Every media property runs some risk when it gets on the wrong side of its audience, but only one niche contends with a majority open to seeing an outlet shut down entirely if its expectations for content aren’t met.

The moral intuition behind the “actual malice” standard in New York Times v. Sullivan is that newspapers shouldn’t be bankrupted for getting something wrong provided that they made a good-faith attempt to get it right. Responsible journalism is a public good but human beings make mistakes; if every error risks putting a publisher in the poor house, the incentive to publish will disintegrate. And so the law limits liability (at least with respect to public figures) to cases where a publisher acts in bad faith, either smearing someone deliberately or behaving indifferently as to whether the information it publishes is true or not.
If Fox didn’t evince bad faith by amplifying a lie mocked by its own employees for the sake of appeasing viewers hungry for propaganda, what would constitute bad faith under Sullivan, exactly? The only way to restrain the tiger—maybe—is to make it prohibitively expensive for its handlers to keep feeding it disinformation. If Dominion can’t recover from Fox, I don’t know if the American right can recover either.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.