On Tuesday night, hours after President Joe Biden announced the first tranche of sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, Fox News host Pete Hegseth criticized Biden for purportedly emboldening Russian dictator Vladimir Putin by previously “approv[ing]” the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Hegseth then took a shot at the U.S. press, saying, “No entity has done more to spread Russian propaganda and to prop up the strawman that is Vladimir Putin than our very own media.”
Fifteen minutes later, on the same network, Fox host Tucker Carlson produced a defense of Putin so fulsome that it was reaired with subtitles on the Russian propaganda channel RT. Carlson went on to criticize Biden for his role in shutting down the same pipeline in response to Russian aggression, arguing that it would raise gas prices for Americans.
Those two segments sum up the general incoherence of Fox’s coverage of the mounting Ukraine crisis, while pointing to its consistent throughline. Virtually everyone on the network agrees that Biden’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been terrible. But the stated rationale careens back and forth hour by hour, with some hosts and guests saying Biden should be responding more forcefully to defend Ukraine and others arguing he should be ignoring the attack altogether and leaving Ukrainians to their fate.
This can be very confusing, particularly for journalists who do not watch a lot of Fox. Here’s my take on what is happening on the network as Russia launches a full-scale war against Ukraine.
Fox is a propaganda network designed to tell its viewers how to think in a manner that both benefits the Republican Party and keeps them watching its programming. On key domestic political and cultural issues, its hosts present a largely unified front. While each has their own personal obsessions and foibles, they savage the Democratic Party in similar ways on issues such as taxes, government spending, “critical race theory,” undocumented immigration, and the depredations of Sesame Street.
But with regard to foreign policy, Fox’s propaganda functions somewhat differently, targeting Democratic White Houses with a sort of pincer attack. Since the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, the network — and the GOP it supports — has featured both an interventionist wing and an isolationist one. During President Barack Obama’s tenure, these wings would simultaneously criticize the administration for doing too much and too little in response to the crises in Libya and Syria. The same strategy is playing out under Biden. (Under Donald Trump, by contrast, both factions would try to influence the Fox-obsessed president’s actions, and remain supportive regardless of what he did.)
And so some Fox hosts lash out at Biden for having “appease[d]” Putin, and bring on the likes of Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and former Vice President Mike Pence to pan Biden’s sanctions as “quarter measures” and argue that his “weakness” has “emboldened” Russia to invade Ukraine. Others declare that any U.S. involvement will hurt Americans in order to benefit a “State Department client state” led by the “pathetic” President Volodymyr Zelensky.
What unites the network’s propagandists is their reflexive opposition to the Democratic president’s foreign policy actions, which will continue as long as the crisis persists and beyond it.