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A Cable News Special ‘News’Letter
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A Cable News Special ‘News’Letter

Statistics and demagoguery on CNN, and why the January 6 hearings won’t be on Fox News.

Hi,

When I signed up as a CNN commentator, I knew I’d have moments like last night’s. As I’ve explained before, one of the things I looked forward to about going to CNN, despite my misgivings about staying in the cable news game, was the opportunity it would give me to be a full-spectrum conservative in ways that had become increasingly hard at Fox News, where the framing of discussions was often designed to be as congenial to Donald Trump and Trumpism as possible.

I’ll give you a sense of what I mean. Trump was a protectionist. I am not. So I wasn’t going to embrace protectionism just to get Trump’s back. The reverse was also true. If Trump’s stated position was the same as mine on an issue, I wasn’t going to change my position just because I was—and remain—a fairly severe Trump critic.

We’ve been through all of this before so there’s no reason to dwell on it further. But the same principle applies to the GOP generally. I’m not going to change my views on something just because they align—or don’t align—with the GOP’s. (Last night, Kasie Hunt said something about wanting to hear my perspective “as a Republican.” I gently corrected her that I don’t really consider myself a Republican—certainly not for professional purposes—but I’m a conservative. But that was all fine. Hunt, as always in my experience, was gracious and good-natured about it.)

Anyway, after both a conversation about how lots of parents—moms in particular—are scared that their kids are not safe from mass shooters, as well as an extended clip from Matthew McConaughey’s White House appearance, I made a simple point:

 “So, look, I think, I agree with everything that [McConaughey] said. And I share the moral outrage, entirely. And I share the moral outrage, with everybody, on this panel, about how horrific, and just morally repugnant, these slaughters are.

But when I listen to you guys talking about how you’re scared for your own kids—and I have a daughter. I get being scared—if we’re going to start telling people that they should be scared, about [how] this could happen to them, we should at least put some of this in perspective.”

And then I pointed out that there are roughly 54 million kids in American schools. And that in the last three decades about 170 kids have been killed in school shootings. As I started to explain that kids are—statistically—in more danger on the drive to and from school than they are at school, things got a little passionate.

This is how it went next, according to a LexisNexis transcript, which is a bit rough:

NAVARRO: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

HUNT: We weren’t going to say–

NAVARRO: Jonah, we can’t do this.

(CROSSTALK)

GOLDBERG: But that’s the fact of matter.

NAVARRO: No, but we can’t—

(CROSSTALK)

HUNT: They should be scared.

NAVARRO: No. But listen, a child’s life cannot be a statistic, right? You can’t tell the parents of Joaquin Oliver, of Parkland. You can’t tell Fred Guttenberg.

GOLDBERG: Yes, but that’s moral bullying.

NAVARRO: You can’t tell my cousin’s—

GOLDBERG: I am making a basic point to say that you shouldn’t tell people that they should be terrified.

NAVARRO: If it were your child that was not going to—it would not be a statistic. It would be a tragedy—

GOLDBERG: I [didn’t] just do that.

NAVARRO: —or you would never ever pick up the phone (ph).

GOLDBERG: That’s moral bullying.  

I used the phrase “moral bullying” because I thought, perhaps wrongly, that it was more civil and somewhat more accurate than demagoguery. But demagoguery works just fine.

Anyway, it went on and you can watch the full video here.

I proceeded to explain, as best I could, that I agree that the statistics have nothing to do with the moral horror of what happened at Uvalde or any other school shooting. I compared these school shootings to terrorism. The point of terrorism is to inflict psychological terror, not statistically significant losses on the enemy. In the early days of the war on terror, some on the left would point out that the death toll from terrorist attacks was relatively minor compared to other causes. And my response was always, “I don’t care, that’s not the point.” America can’t just tolerate terrorists killing Americans at random until the numbers start competing with heart disease or domestic violence. The job of the government is to protect its citizens from foreign threats and violence generally. There were other arguments for why we should take the terror threat seriously. But I think you get the point.

So, yeah, as I said last night, the statistics are entirely beside the point if we’re talking about the moral horror of what happened in Uvalde, Parkland, Sandy Hook, Columbine, or any similar tragedy. But the statistics aren’t beside the point if we’re talking about whether parents should be gripped by fear on a daily basis. As Charlie Cooke put it, “statistics matter in statistical disputes.” (By the way, Charlie is the prairie-dog blasting friend I alluded to last night.)

If that school had been wiped out by a tornado and I said parents shouldn’t be inordinately paralyzed with fear that their kids’ schools were next, everyone would presumably understand the point. Naming the kids who died or the parents of those kids would not be a rebuttal of the point, even if you passionately believed we should invest massively in tornado preparedness.

L’esprit de l’escalier is an occupational hazard in TV punditry and I try not to let it bother me. But it only occurred to me this morning that there’s a better illustration of my point. Ana Navarro is a passionate advocate for immigration, and I probably agree with her on a lot—though not all—of the substance. When Donald Trump played a similar game of using individual tragedies to justify his preferred policies, mentioning the horrible murder of Kate Steinle at every opportunity, Navarro disagreed with it quite understandably. Pointing to the heinous crimes of a handful of illegal immigrants as a way to demonize even legal immigrants generally is—or at least can be—a form of moral bullying, too. And when a Trump defender tried to do that, Navarro was openly contemptuous. She even theatrically mimed doing her nails to convey her bored contempt for the practice. 

Now, I would never do that about the victims of a school shooting, but I also would never do it in response to someone talking about the victims of a murderer who happened to be an illegal immigrant either. And pointing out statistical facts doesn’t make me the moral equivalent of someone yawning at real outrages.

Fox’s business.

Since we’re talking about cable news networks, I might as well offer some equal time to discuss what Fox News considers news. Specifically, the network doesn’t think the January 6 committee qualifies as newsworthy, or at least sufficiently newsworthy, to interrupt the primetime line-up.

I largely agree with Brit Hume that the committee is only “bipartisan on paper,” though I think he’s a bit unfair to Liz Cheney and Adam Kitzinger in his framing. And, it should be noted, that the reason there are no other Republicans on the committee has as much to do with Kevin McCarthy’s partisanship as Nancy’s Pelosi’s, but whatever. Still, it’s obviously true that partisan motivations play an important role in what the Democrats hope to get out of the hearings (as I wrote earlier this week). And the decision to debut public hearings in prime time—a fairly unprecedented move—is entirely worthy of varying amounts of skepticism or even criticism, depending on what we learn from them.

What I cannot fathom is why that matters. If news networks didn’t cover events tainted by partisan motivations, they’d be weather channels.

There was a lot of partisanship behind the Benghazi hearings. Don’t take my word for it. Kevin McCarthy literally said the quiet part out loud on (of course) Fox News:

“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen.”

That didn’t mean the Benghazi hearings—which got lavish coverage by Fox—weren’t newsworthy (I certainly thought they were). How many Trump rallies were newsworthy on the merits? All of them were partisan (as were most of his daily COVID press conferences). Now you might say that a rally by the president is newsworthy because the president is always newsworthy. Never mind that, until Trump, presidential rallies were not normally carried live wall to wall. And if Trump was some special case because he’s Trump, surely a committee laying out how Trump—*sigh—“allegedly” tried to steal an election and sic a mob on Congress is newsworthy, too. Unless, of course, newsworthiness in Fox’s eyes hinges on whether a partisan event is good or bad for Trump.

Put another way, even if the hearings are nothing more than a partisan stunt, that’s news. You can be sure that if they turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, Fox would provide lavish coverage of that fact.

Detractors seem to think that the unprecedented prime time scheduling underscores the illegitimacy or partisan nature of the hearings. Even the Watergate hearings weren’t held in prime time, I’ve heard people, including Hume, note. True, but they were occasionally rebroadcast in prime time, which undermines the complaint. After all, the revelations in the daytime Watergate hearings were already old news, but some networks still thought it was newsy enough to reair them.

Then there’s the awkward point that Fox News in prime time doesn’t report news. All of the programs the hearings are up against are opinion shows. Indeed, Fox’s own lawyers argued in court—and won!—that Tucker Carlson’s show is not a news program and that reasonable people shouldn’t think he traffics in facts. So when people rush to Fox’s defense by insisting that the hearings aren’t news and that’s why Fox isn’t covering them live, they’re question-begging because there wasn’t going to be running news coverage then anyway. It’s like a BBQ joint saying they aren’t serving lobster tonight because lobster’s not kosher, so they’re sticking with their regular menu of pulled pork and ribs.

But in fairness, Fox isn’t actually saying the hearings aren’t news. Bret Baier, a serious journalist and a friend, will be anchoring coverage on Fox Business. In other words, the network just doesn’t want to put the hearings on instead of its normal prime time lineup because they’re not newsworthy enough to preempt non-news shows. I have no inside information, but I’m pretty confident that’s not the judgment of many of the folks in the news division. Certainly, Bret thinks it’s worth his time.

There are a lot of theories for why Fox has made this decision. It’s difficult to tease them all out because they overlap so much. But one theory is that Fox doesn’t want to piss off Trump. Another is that it doesn’t want to piss off its very pro-Trump core audience.  Another is that conceding that the January 6 committee is newsworthy runs against what Fox’s prime time hosts have been feeding to their viewers for more than a year. And another is that the line between GOP messaging and Fox programming is so thin it’s hard to figure out where one ends and the other begins. The GOP and Trump’s inner circle both insist the real issue is high gas prices and inflation. And those are real issues. Moreover, it would just be terribly embarrassing to have text messages from Fox hosts to the Trump White House read over Fox’s air. Oh, and there’s also the theory that it’s just about money. Prime time generates revenue while a C-SPAN-like simulcast carried by all the other networks anyway wouldn’t. A lot of Trumpists insist that they should not be covered because no one cares about January 6.

(I should note that while it’s not true that no one cares, “no one cares” is not a journalistic argument. Serious journalism, at least in part, is about explaining why people should care about some things, even when they don’t. If you only cover things your audience cares about, you’re doing fan service, not journalism.)

I think all of these theories—except for the “no one cares” nonsense—are plausible and at least some of them have real merit. There’s no need to reduce Fox’s decision to a single reason. But I think the decisive factor is simply that Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott and her colleagues are simply scared of the prime time hosts and don’t actually care enough about journalistic considerations to defy them.

I sincerely believe Roger Ailes, for all his myriad sins and flaws, would have covered the hearings because Ailes actually cared about journalism, even if he tested its limits.

Anyway, when the curtain rises on the hearings tomorrow night, we’ll find out whether the committee can overcome legitimate concerns about partisanship and political stunts. And over at Fox, the guy who Fox’s lawyers say shouldn’t be confused with a journalist, who has suggested that January 6 was some kind of Deep State false flag operation, will be explaining why you shouldn’t pay attention to the news being covered over at Fox Business. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.