When Fox News turned to Bret Baier for comment shortly after the conclusion of Tuesday’s hearing of the House select committee investigating the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters, the network’s chief political anchor was adamant that it would be impossible for anyone to downplay the devastating testimony heard that day. Over the previous several hours, four police officers had described in searing detail how they had risked their lives defending Congress from a violent, bigoted throng that sought to halt the counting of electoral votes formalizing President Joe Biden’s election.
“If you were watching, you saw compelling, at times damning, emotional testimony from these four officers who fought the line to try to protect the Capitol and the lawmakers inside,” Baier said. Highlighting the officers’ descriptions of how they “fought to hold on to their lives,” he added that while Republicans are trying to argue that the investigation is politically motivated, “you can't watch the testimony and say that's not a big deal.”
Baier was describing an emerging consensus that is damaging to Republicans. But Fox exists in part to manufacture dissent, disrupting such consensuses with narratives that are more palatable to its right-wing audience. And so that evening, Baier’s colleagues -- who helped lay the groundwork for the riots by trumpeting Donald Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen 2020 election and then spent the last seven months downplaying and concocting justifications for the resulting insurrection -- went to work.
“We’re being lectured by phony politicians about threats to our country,” The Five co-host Greg Gutfeld sneered amid a whataboutist rant, going on to describe the January 6 Capitol riots as “having politicians’ jobs disrupted for two hours.” He added that the hearing was “a circus” and “a clown show.”
Fox’s star prime-time host Tucker Carlson literally snickered after playing a clip of Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone saying that he's “been left with psychological trauma and emotional anxiety" from the Capitol riots. (Fanone described being “grabbed, beaten, tased, all while being called a traitor to my country”; the assault resulted in a heart attack.)
Mocking the testimony of Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, who compared the riots to his Army deployment in Iraq, Carlson described the events of January 6 as follows: “Officers let the rioters into the Capitol. They had casual conversations with them inside the Senate Chamber. Some of the rioters had face paint and carried American flags.”
Sean Hannity picked up the next hour where Carlson had left off, denouncing the investigation as a “political charade” with a “predetermined outcome” intended to “smear and slander” Trump and the Republican Party.
What followed was a parade of whataboutism, with Hannity and his guests highlighting how Democrats were fixated on the sacking of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob intent on stopping the peaceful transition of power rather than homicides in Chicago or violence at last year’s protests against police brutality.
Later that night, from her platform on Fox’s 10 p.m. ET hour, Laura Ingraham described the hearing as “nothing more than performance art.” She went on to announce “The Angle awards for today’s best performances,” including the award for “best use of an exaggeration in a supporting role” to Gonell, “blatant use of partisan politics when facts fail” to Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, and “best performance in an action role” to Fanone.
Over the prime-time block, Carlson and Ingraham aired clips from the hearing only to mock the speakers, while Hannity bashed the event without actually airing clips from it.
Whether or not they watched the hearings as Baier did, Fox’s right-wing propagandists did their best to leave their audiences thinking that the testimony that day was not actually a “big deal.” And by this morning, the hearings had all but disappeared from the network’s airwaves.
The same phenomenon has happened over and over again: Fox’s “straight news” side describes events as damning for Republicans or helpful for Democrats, only for the “opinion side” to go into overdrive to hide that from its audience.
The cycle played out after professor Christine Blasey Ford testified that then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had attempted to rape her when they were in high school in the early 1980s. It happened again during the 2019 impeachment hearings over Trump’s abuse of power in Ukraine. And it happened after Biden called for “uniting our nation” and ending “this uncivil war that pits red against blue” during his inaugural address.
Fox isn’t in the business of telling its viewers what happened. It’s in the business of telling them what they should think about what happened.