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The Fox News Distortion Field and Other Media Maladies
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The Fox News Distortion Field and Other Media Maladies

The American right surveyed a biased media landscape and built something ... worse.

It’s now been a little more than a week since my friends, colleagues, and Dispatch co-founders Steve Hayes and Jonah Goldberg announced their resignations from Fox News. After days of online vitriol (and support), the dust has settled a bit, and it’s worth reflecting a bit on what they did and why it mattered.

As I said on Twitter, I’m proud to work with Jonah and Steve. They made a tough, good call, and it took no small amount of courage. To understand why—and to understand so many of the reasons for the dysfunctions in right-wing media—I’m going to show you a chart. And when you read this chart, pay attention to both the numbers and the trends:

There are a few things you should notice. First, Fox is the 800-pound gorilla of conservative media. Unlike the more competitive environment in legacy media, where no single outlet comes close to comparable dominance, Fox isn’t just first, it’s first by a mile. Do the math. Fox reached almost 94 million unique visitors in October. The next 19 right-wing websites reached roughly 59 million combined

Second, look at who’s surging. Fox is in a state of very modest decline, most other sites are declining at a much faster rate, but the two outlets making dramatic gains—the Epoch Times and Newsmax—are, if anything, more aggressive than Fox. 

Third, look at the utterly dreadful quality of many of the outlets on the list. Yes, there are some high quality journals. My friends and former colleagues at National Review produce outstanding work, for example. There are some great folks at the Washington Examiner. But Gateway Pundit? Bongino.com? Infowars? God help us. 

And of course Fox doesn’t just dominate online, it dominates on television. It’s been the cable news ratings leader for years—beating MSNBC and CNN soundly—and it just obliterates its right-wing “competition.” Third-quarter 2021 numbers are instructive. In prime time, Fox averaged 2.37 million viewers. MSNBC averaged 1.28 million and CNN 822,000. Remember when Newsmax thought it could take a swing at Fox when it seemed—just for a moment—to go wobbly on Trump? That’s yesterday’s news. Newsmax averaged 182,000 prime time viewers—not quite 8 percent of Fox’s total. 

None of this is news, really, but it’s so important to understand what it means. Fox News is so big, and its influence is so powerful, that in many ways Fox is conservative media, and almost everything that is not Fox is some variation on the Fox product. Fox is like a red supergiant star, and each orbiting planet is defined by its presence and its heat. Some of the planets will burn hotter. Some cooler. But they’re all just planets, living in the solar system Fox defines. 

I’m reminded of the awesome power of Rush Limbaugh during his early rise. Before Fox was even on the air, radio stations could see his audience and hundreds rushed to fill the remaining 21 hours when Rush wasn’t “ensconced behind the golden EIB microphone.” With a few notable exceptions, the airwaves filled with versions of Rush. There were endless copycats. Rush, except a lawyer. Rush, but a New Yorker. Rush, but more aggressive. Rush, but more philosophical. But—at the end of the day—it was all Rush. 

That power, including the remarkable financial power of Fox itself (unlike Rush, Fox has lots of employees and contributors to hire), creates a culture and it creates incentives. Audience share that large means that Fox defines the format, the visuals, and the ethos of the entire market. Moreover, financial resources that big mean that—for many conservatives—the ultimate payday is found nowhere else. 

The result is an immense pressure to conform—with an understanding that new right-wing voices are often engaged in a de facto audition for that coveted Fox airtime. That reality, combined with Fox’s own aggressive defense of its brand, is one reason why so very little right-wing “media criticism” is aimed at the largest, most powerful, and most profitable cable network in the land.

Fox broadcasts Seth Rich conspiracies? Memory-holed. Fox gave airtime to Kraken lawyers? Well, they were just asking questions. Its streaming platform airs a deranged Patriot Purge documentary that re-imagines the reality of January 6? Nobody watches Fox Nation anyway. 

At the same time, right-wing media picks over the bones of every mainstream media mistake imaginable. But do those same outlets apply the same standards to Fox? Look again at the list of the top 20 conservative outlets. How many reliably highlight Fox’s errors unless they’re attempting to scrape off part of their pro-Trump market share? (Again, National Review—which has real institutional history and depth—is notable for its independence.)

The cultural and political consequences in the right-wing grassroots are considerable. Politically engaged citizens can cite to you chapter and verse of (very real!) mainstream media scandals, yet they’re often completely shocked at the idea that the alternative institutions they follow are often substantially less reliable than the MSM they despise.

But honestly, how would they know? They’re inoculated against criticism of the right by the left, and how many voices on the right are reliably independent and free of Fox’s influence?

I’m an old-school, pre-Rush, pre-Fox grouch about mainstream media. And for year after year my critique has been much the same—it’s about the powerful effects of groupthink. Mainstream outlets are so overwhelmingly populated by different shades of blue, that it’s remarkably difficult for even the most fair-minded of reporters to seek out and find the stories that reflect the full range of American experience. Even if there isn’t outright malice and bias in reporting (and there sometimes is), ideological monocultures are antithetical to the best reporting. 

There are reporters and editors who understand this reality. For example, remember when New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet famously told NPR’s Dave Davies that “New York-based and Washington-based … media powerhouses don’t quite get religion”? 

That self-awareness is unfortunately often at odds with an increasing level of illiberal intolerance in some mainstream media newsrooms, where angry and influential cohorts of employees have helped drive heterodox employees right out of their jobs (and, sometimes, right onto Substack).

Mainstream media is still often plagued with groupthink and intolerance. Unfortunately, the right surveyed years of problems with legacy outlets and then built a media industry that was somehow even worse.

The result, in deep red spaces, is a kind of activist and news consumer who is both hyper-informed and woefully ignorant. They’re united by the cause of the moment. They can cite you chapter and verse of every mainstream media scandal under the sun. And yet, if you ask them if they read the outlets they despise, they often scoff. “The New York Times? Never.” In its place they trust a channel that is too often full of fake news in prime time yet rarely critiqued—at least not by the other outlets they follow. 

These activists don’t know what they don’t know in part because telling them the truth in right-wing spaces carries a cost—and not just in reader disapproval. Fox, the most potent player in the market, will be displeased, and when it is displeased the ceiling on your career gets a little bit lower. And who needs that? After all, why focus on Fox? I’m sure the Washington Post has screwed something up. Let’s take a look over there … 

Don’t forget about Dobbs.

Tomorrow the Supreme Court is going to hear oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and the Roe/Casey legal regime faces its most consequential Supreme Court test in a generation. I’ve written and spoken countless words about Roe, but I wanted to share two quick thoughts before the argument. 

First, I find it absolutely fascinating that the discourse the day before the argument is so muted. I could be proven wrong (and soon!), but I’m starting to think that the politics of abortion are simply changing. As the rate and ratio of abortions decrease, the issue is simply less salient to the American people. 

Second, that lack of intensity (at least so far) reinforces an argument I made earlier this year—that overruling Roe would be more stabilizing than not. Yes there would be a spasm of immediate outrage, but reversing Roe would remove a “breathtaking” (to use Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s own term) precedent from constitutional law and return a vitally important question to state and local governments. Could that de-escalate national politics? Perhaps:

One of the consequences of Roe is that America is now an abortion outlier, one of the more permissive countries in the world and far more permissive than most Americans want (most Americans reject both second and third-trimester abortions, for example). Will this majority consider reversing Roe a constitutional crisis if it means that they get the abortion laws they want? Does it undermine the court’s credibility to tell the nation that an issue the Constitution doesn’t address is one best left to the ballot box? 

One of the dangers of institutionalism is that it leaves the law behind and turns justices into pundits. There are prudential reasons for, say, an originalist justice to choose narrow originalist rulings over broader originalist rulings. Sweeping decisions can have unanticipated consequences. But the moment Roe hit the books, the court left stability behind, and our nation has suffered for it ever since. 

Tune in to Advisory Opinions on Thursday for a deep-dive analysis of the oral argument.

One more thing …

Speaking of podcasts, on Sunday our upstart Good Faith podcast hit a remarkable No. 3 on the Apple “religion and spirituality” chart, briefly knocking Joel Osteen off his high perch. It was a glorious moment. 

The latest episode asks, “What the Heck Is an Evangelical,” and if you haven’t listened yet, I’d urge you to give it a try, and please rate us and leave a comment. I’m still shocked at our momentum. Thank you for giving us a chance.

One last thing …

I can’t even tell you how much I want one of these. The only thing I want more is to go to Mars. Tell me this wouldn’t be a glorious ride:

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.