On Thursday evening, President Joe Biden addressed the nation in a speech that was both sober and hopeful, discussing the losses everyone has suffered over the past year, and delivering the news that vaccinations will be open to all adults by May 1. The speech provided details on how the nation will move forward to end the pandemic and bring us closer to normal. It not only called to cheer scientists and medical workers for their efforts in protecting the nation, but showed that the consequences of ignoring expert advice are dire. It was a speech both serious and hopeful. And it was a near-masterclass in the forgotten art of competence.
Meanwhile, on Fox News, viewers saw a presidential address as they never had before—with a real-time box allowing Tucker Carlson to mug for the camera in response to everything Biden said. Under the banner “Live Tucker Reaction,” Carlson did his best to demonstrate outrage and disgust with expressions large enough to overcome the relatively small size of his on-screen box. Meanwhile, the shifting Fox chyron offered its own commentary, including reminding viewers repeatedly in the last 10 minutes that “Biden speech nearly finished; Tucker will respond.” And spending the last couple of minutes pouting that “Biden should be finished.”
On the one hand, it may seem a wonder that Fox News decided to air the speech in any form. After all, since President Biden moved into the Oval Office, Fox has determined that it would be much better to cover anything—including devoting a full day to a misread press release about a plastic toy potato—rather than deal with the issues facing the nation. But the Carlson-in-a-box episode may serve to underscore something that’s been obvious for months: Fox News is dead.
It may be difficult to remember at this point, but four short years ago, Fox News actually had a substantial news content. Yes, it was forced into nooks and crannies during couch time for racists and friends, and it was squeezed into the hours before folks like Bill O’Reilly laid out their personal pet peeves for the day. But there were actual newscasters who weren’t hired for the effect they had on Roger Ailes’ pants, and even that collection was more than a lawsuit waiting to happen.
There used to be news on Fox News. That news was carefully filtered. It was often too clipped to avoid dealing with the messy bits of reality that did not fit with the day’s narrative. Ailes famously led the day with a talking point that supported whatever right-wing theme song the network was singing at the moment, and the news was rarely allowed to sing a discordant note … except when it did.
There was Shepard Smith warning that many of Donald Trump’s statements were simply lies and warning against content was “misleading and xenophobic.” There was former Fox White House Correspondent Carl Cameron, who was widely regarded as an impartial operator who held both sides to task. As recently as last September, Fox Reporter Jennifer Griffin was hounded by the White House after confirming that Donald Trump had, in fact, whined about being asked to visit a cemetery for military veterans in France and personally instructed staff not to lower the flag to mark the death of Sen. John McCain. A year earlier, Griffin had also fact-checked a Trump statement that he had never made a commitment to protect the Kurds.
Finding light between hard-right positions and statements on Fox News was difficult, but it did happen, and it happened most often in the few hours of news that was … news. But Smith is gone. Cameron is gone. And Griffin is not exactly leading off the prime-time broadcast. There’s still Chris Wallace, but Wallace’s opening statement when he hosted a 2020 presidential debate—“My job is to be as invisible as possible”—might well define his current role at Fox.
Roger Ailes resigned in the summer of 2016 under a cloud—actually, more like a tornado-producing supercell—of sexual harassment charges. At that point, Fox News had the chance to remake itself. It might have have abandoned all pretense of news and become simply a source of entertainment for those who think racism is hilarious. It might have shifted more toward the news. It might have even become something that did service to its “fair and balanced” motto.
But the Rupert Murdoch-owned network could not put down its conservative credo. They chose to become a mouthpiece for Trump, even when what Trump was saying had no relation to either the truth or conservative principles. Having already learned from O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh that hatred and culture warrior conflicts could drag in angry eyeballs, Fox doubled down on Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham.
Increasingly, the never-too-solid firewall between the news part of Fox News and the “entertainment” of the frothing-mouthed hosts was burned down to ash. In four years of Trump support, it became not a right-leaning news network with hours of commentary, but a commentary network where supposed news segments are used as straight men to set up the hours of punch lines. And every punch line is punching down.
In recent months, under threat from ever more strange and unhinged beasts like OANN and NewsMax, Fox has demonstrated a willingness to go there. Where “there” is anywhere, anywhere at all, that preserves their dwindling demographic of people who think Roger Stone’s sunglasses are badass.
As foolish as they are, both the “Gender-Neutral Potato Head” and the “cancelling Dr. Seuss” stories showcase the world as it exists today. In the first case, there was no change in company policy toward the perceived macho qualities of the simulated spud man. The whole “controversy” stemmed from a simple misreading of a company press release that was discussing their whole family of potato-themed mutants. In the second case, a company dumping their lowest-performing products—which happened to also be graced with jaw-droppingly racist images—was turned into claims about “cancel culture” and “censorship.”
Not only did the network continue to give false reports about these items long after the true nature of what had happened was clear, they turned each into multiday affairs that were allowed to dominate the schedule over such trivial events as a raging pandemic, confirmation of white supremacist planning for the Jan. 6 insurgency, and the passage of a $1.9 trillion relief package. Such news as the network allowed to exist existed only as a means of fueling the outrage engine, even when that required that the news reports themselves be outright lies.
Tucker Carlson testing his ability to convey haughty disdain from the confines of corner box should seem odd, but it’s not. It’s defining. It’s a double underscore that Fox News isn’t just delivering slanted and one-sided news, it’s given up on the idea of news as a concept. It would also be harder to put the dedicated political position of the network more in bold type than by skipping the idea of having an opposing politician produce a response, and just making it clear that one of your own hosts is going to take of the duty of being the Angry Opposition.
That doesn’t mean Fox is lacking in purpose. The pipeline between Fox and the floor of the U.S. Congress (and the mock baroque gaudiness of their master’s bedchamber) has been on full display in Kevin McCarthy reading his favorite novel on the House floor between jetting off to Mar-a-Lago to check in with the boss.
Fox News isn’t slated news. It’s not even fake news. It’s simply not news. It is a Trump-flavored circus show that chased NewsMax down the rabbit hole and, unfortunately, caught it.
On a casual inspection, that would seem to be working out fine for Fox News. After all, it has averaged around 1.3 million viewers since Biden moved in, compared to 1.1 million at MSNBC, and 0.9 million at America’s home for inconsistency, CNN. But that’s not really the comparison Fox News deserves. After all, over 10 million people watched each episode of Bull last year, and at least that show tells you what you’re getting, right there in the title.
Come to think of it, maybe Fox News could do with a rebranding.
An illustration of how things work now: Fox News sources its “news” from the commentary on Fox News. That news will then become the source of the next round of commentary. It’s a lie-based ouroboros.