I try to limit my intake of 24-hour cable TV news because as a medium, on balance, I think it’s bad for America. Though Facebook has suffered more scrutiny and reputational damage for its role in the 2016 campaign, it was cable, not social networks, that went gaga pumping up Trump.
Today, it’s the toxic feedback swirl of Twitter and cable — and a president and a press corps that spend all hours feeding on one another’s digital droppings in a dystopian circle of life — that has rendered our political culture so vulnerable to reflexive, narrow-minded conspiracies, tribalism and groupthink.
Lately, however, I’ve found myself gorging like a bear in salmon season on the worst, most brain-corroding corner of cable, the network I’ve called a “forked-tongue colossus” for its two-decade-long project of dismantling our collective hold on the truth: Fox News.
In the past few weeks it has been riveting, and I can’t get enough. Forget “Succession.” As we descend into the hell pit of impeachment and a presidential election, there is no more engaging and consequential drama on TV right now than the one aired daily on Fox News.
I won’t lie to you: Watching Fox isn’t easy. Much of it is still a fetid sewer of venom that bears little resemblance to the real world. You ought to have more enjoyable ways to spend your time, like elective dental surgery. But when news breaks — as it will in an unending cascade of hearings, stump speeches, debates and grandstanding news conferences from now until at least January 2021 — Fox should be your go-to place to watch, especially if you are on the left.
Because while other organizations report the news, Fox News is the news. It is no exaggeration to say that what happens on Fox could determine our fate.
Fox’s anchors, reporters, its far-flung network of guests and its many shaggy narratives — what Deadspin’s David Roth has called the “Fox News Cinematic Universe” — are now deeply embedded in the operations of the United States government.
Even before Trump, Fox exerted striking influence on the GOP. But with Trump, Fox has reached the zenith of its powers. Its anchors regularly advise the president. Its story lines inform his moods and decisions, including his staffing. And its commitment to indulging the president’s conspiracy-fueled rants has helped pull political culture ever farther from reality.
Tucker Carlson didn’t think it was a good idea to bomb Iran, so we didn’t. He didn’t like John Bolton, so shut the door on your way out, John! Lou Dobbs thought Kirstjen Nielsen was weak. Bye bye, Kirstjen! The connection runs so deep you might wonder where one ends and the other begins. Is Trump rotting Fox’s brain, or is Fox rotting Trump’s?
It doesn’t matter. Whichever way the rot runs, watching Fox is like getting a peek into Trump’s war room and, in a larger sense, into the future of the right in America, however ugly that picture may be.
Now there is an extra layer of intrigue, a growing, palpable drama on Fox’s sets. The daytime news anchors — people like Shep Smith and Chris Wallace — have always grumbled about the nighttime pundits, talkers like Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Now the two sides are at open war, sniping at each other daily over the seriousness of impeachment and the very legitimacy of any inquiry of the president.
Recently, Wallace called White House “spinning” on the Ukraine call “astonishing and deeply misleading.” On “Fox & Friends,” Ed Henry asked conservative radio host Mark Levin a series of sharp, substantive questions about the propriety of the call. Then, in one of the most devastating performances by an administration official, Stephen Miller fell apart like a used tissue under Wallace’s withering questions.
I couldn’t help feeling a rush of optimism for America. I’ve often wondered whether after the Trump era it will be possible to pull back from the conspiracy right. In the ravings of Trump’s Ukrainian call, we saw undeniable proof that Infowars has invaded his brain. Are we seeing some sign that the conspiracies have a limit? That as nutty as things are, Rupert Murdoch isn’t willing to turn his air over to even darker characters and story lines?
But then I watch Fox’s opinion side and my optimism fades. For much of the last few weeks on Fox’s prime-time lineup, the president’s narrative has held total sway. On Carlson, on Hannity, on Ingraham, on “The Five,” the story has been much the same: The president did nothing wrong, impeachment is a witch hunt and a coup, they’re coming to take your guns, corrupt your children and ruin all that’s great about the country.
There were times while watching that I felt truly terrified for the nation. Fox’s most popular hosts are still framing Trump’s political battles in apocalyptic terms. If they keep that up, what hope is there for any of us?
But this, too, is important news about America: The president, quoting a Fox News guest, says that his impeachment could bring about civil war in America. Watching Fox’s prime-time lineup, I totally believe it.
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPANY