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Fox Was Frightened By the Monster It Helped Create
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Fox Was Frightened By the Monster It Helped Create

It’s still afraid, and it still feeds the beast.

On January 6, 2021, as a mob stormed and ransacked the Capitol in an effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election, Fox News host Laura Ingraham sent this telling text message to Mark Meadows, President Trump’s chief of staff: “Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home. This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy.”

This is hurting all of us. What a curious sentence. Ingraham’s text was one of several from Fox News hosts to Meadows. As we reported in our Morning Dispatch, Brian Kilmeade texted, “Please, get him on TV. Destroying everything you have accomplished.” Sean Hannity wrote, “Can he make a statement? Ask people to leave the Capitol.” 

But Ingraham’s statement stands out. It speaks explicitly to the symbiotic relationship between Fox News and the president. In many ways, the Trump administration and (especially) Fox prime time represented a joint venture. They shared a message, a mission, and purpose. Together, they unleashed the whirlwind, and key Fox hosts were with the president right until things went too far.

Then they pulled back. At least for a little while. At least until they decided to defend the president and his “patriots” again—by minimizing the importance of January 6, deflecting responsibility to others, and zealously going to the barricades to protect Trump from the impeachment and conviction he so richly deserved.

When Fox News covered the unfolding attack on the Capitol, its personalities were covering an event they helped create. Indeed, it’s hard to even imagine the January 6 uprising without Fox News. As I’ve written before, the numbers don’t lie. It’s the 800 pound gorilla of conservative media. Its television audience isn’t just the largest in cable news, it’s the largest in conservative media by a factor of 10. Online, its audience is so large that its traffic almost doubles the next 19 right-wing websites combined

Fox helped create the mob that swarmed the Capitol on January 6, and no one should forget the role that it played. I went back and reviewed the Smartmatic and Dominion lawsuits against Fox, and they make for harrowing reading. Keep in mind that these complaints focus on claims aired on Fox against those companies—and thus refer to a fraction of Fox’s post-election content—but the facts are still extraordinary.

As early as November 8, only five days after the election, Fox host Maria Bartiromo welcomed “Kraken” lawyer Sidney Powell, who claimed there was  “a massive and coordinated effort to steal this election from we the people of the United States of America, to delegitimize and destroy votes for Donald Trump, to manufacture votes for Joe Biden.” There was more:

Bartiromo  asked Powell:  “Sidney,  we  talked  about  the Dominion  software. I  know  that  there  were  voting irregularities. Tell  me  about that.”  And Powell responded:

“That’s putting it mildly. … That is where the fraud took place, where they were flipping votes in the computer system or adding votes that  did  not  exist.  …  That’s  when  they  had  to  stop  the  vote  count  and  go  in  and replace votes for Biden and take away Trump votes.

That was pure nonsense. But the nonsense didn’t stop. Powell was invited back on Fox airwaves again and again, despite the fact that her claims were obviously, facially ludicrous—so ludicrous that even Trump administration officials ultimately distanced themselves from Powell. 

On November 10, Laura Ingraham devoted part of her program to specious claims of voter fraud in Nevada, including claims that people next to a Biden/Harris van were “opening and marking” ballots and concealed their work by forming a “human wall.” You can watch that segment still today:

The hits just kept on coming. On November 16, for example, Lou Dobbs hosted Powell as she shared a completely fictional assertion “Smartmatic owns Dominion,” and that Dominion was created in Venezuela so Hugo Chavez could rig elections. (The Dispatch Fact Check debunked both of those claims here.)

Even though both Dominion and tried to correct the record, Fox hosts kept amplifying false claims. Again, here’s the Dominion complaint:

On November 21, 2020, the day after Fox received Dominion’s letter, Fox  went  right  back  on  the  attack  against  Dominion,  with  Pirro  repeating  and amplifying   Giuliani’s   never-made-in-litigation   claims   that   Dominion   was   an  “organized criminal enterprise” “started in Venezuela with Cuban money” that could and did “flip[] votes” “with the assistance of Smartmatic software,” thus creating the “stunning” ballot “dump[s]” in the early morning of November 4 that “fill[ed] in” votes for Biden.  In order to drive home the lies about Dominion, Pirro rhetorically asked,  “why  was  there  an  overnight  popping  of  the  vote tabulation  that  cannot  be explained for Biden?”

The lies continued. On November 30, Powell went on Sean Hannity’s show and said Dominion “ran an  algorithm  that  shaved off  votes  from  Trump  and awarded them to Biden.  And they used the machines to trash large batches of votes that should have been awarded to President Trump.  And they used the machines to inject and add massive quantities of votes for Mr. Biden.” (Another claim handled by The Dispatch Fact Check.)

On December 8, Ingraham asked South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham whether  “people were on the take” in Georgia and wondered if people were “lying down, thinking, ‘Well, I’ll get ultimately rewarded in the future?” Graham declined to take the bait but did state the Georgia election shouldn’t be considered “accurate” until there was an “audit of the signatures” on the ballots. 

This December 10 tweet from Lou Dobbs was just breathtakingly false and irresponsible:

It’s honestly hard to know where to stop detailing the sheer number of lies and conspiracy theories shared on Fox News. On December 16, Maria Bartiromo “reported” that an “intel source” told her that Trump had actually won:

It’s important to remember that Fox hosts were supplementing and amplifying Trump’s own messaging. He was using his bully pulpit to lie. Fox was using its immense platform to broadcast Trump’s lies. And Trump’s surrogates were all over Fox’s airwaves spreading lie after lie after lie. It was the most comprehensive public misinformation campaign I’ve ever seen.

Earlier I described the Trump/Fox relationship as “symbiotic,” and indeed it was. Trump obviously needed the biggest platform in conservative media to sell his biggest lie. But Fox needed Trump as well. When Trump turned on Fox News after the high-integrity members of its news team not only called Arizona for Trump but stuck to their accurate call even through intense pressure from the White House, Fox’s ratings took a hit. Newsmax surged. 

Yet as Dominion documents, not every Fox host’s ratings suffered. Bartiromo’s program “flourished.”

Fox’s defenders, including its own contributors, claim that the text messages prove that Fox hosts weren’t part of the insurrection. After all, they wanted to stop January 6! They thought it hurt Trump. 

The reality, however, is more complex. I tend to place the architects and enablers of January 6 into two broad categories (with blurred boundaries in between). We’ll call the categories the grift and the steal. Most of Fox was part of the grift—people who, out of a combination of fear, profit, and devotion to Trump rode the wave of conspiracy right up until the very last moment. 

The grifters were the “useful idiots” in service of the actual steal. It’s now quite clear—and made more clear by the John Eastman memos, the Jenna Ellis memos, and reporting about meetings with Donald Trump—that there were operatives who hoped to persuade (or coerce) Vice President Mike Pence into either attempting to reverse the election outcome outright or delay certification as the pressure built. 

And this chilling anecdote from Robert Costa and Bob Woodward’s book Peril sets the stage for how Trump viewed the mob:

Make no mistake, both the grift and the steal continue. The grift downplays the significance of Trump’s biggest lie. The grift continues to defend President Trump as a credible candidate for president, continues to manufacture and disseminate conspiracy theories about January 6, and also treats his effort to subvert American democracy itself as nothing but a footnote to his legacy. It scorns courageous Republicans who attempt to investigate the origins and true dimensions of the crisis. 

While the Democrats have largely been focused on various Republican ballot access measures that (mostly) have little marginal impact on voters’ ability to cast ballots, the GOP grassroots has been busy targeting Republican election officials who resisted Trumpist pressure to reverse election outcomes and who counted and certified the votes with honesty and integrity. 

The real risk to the 2024 election, as Bart Gellman outlined in The Atlantic, has less to do with vote casting than it does with vote counting. Who determines who “really” won a state’s electoral votes? 

Architects of a new steal want to make sure that Republican elected officials decide, and they want to make sure that only “their” officials hold public office. That means purging dissenting secretaries of state like Georgia’s Brad Raffensperger. That means purging dissenting state legislators and members of Congress. And that means purging even stalwart conservative governors when those governors uphold the rule of law and protect the American republic.

When Fox News hosts texted Mark Meadows asking the president to call off his mob, they were staring at a monster of their own creation, a movement they helped build but could no longer control. They still can’t control it. They barely even try. Indeed, they feed it again. And so the grift continues. Frankenstein makes money off his monster, and the rest of the country braces for its next rampage.  

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.