There will be no Watergate-style hearings on Fox News’ watch.
Every other major broadcast and cable news network believes tomorrow night’s first hearing from the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol is newsworthy and will carry it live with coverage hosted by top news teams. But Fox has a different purpose than keeping its viewers informed, so it plans to hide the bombshell probe from its viewers.
Fox’s vaunted “straight news” team will instead provide coverage on its lightly watched sister network, Fox Business. On the main channel, it will be business as usual, with prime-time propagandists Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham airing their regular shows and providing counterprogramming for the Trumpist faithful until 11 p.m. ET, when the “straight news” team will air special coverage of the hearing once much of the audience has gone to sleep.
This marks a new phase of Fox’s complicity in the violent right-wing coup attempt. The network’s biggest stars went all-in to support former President Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election had been stolen. When that incitement triggered the storming of the U.S. Capitol – an attempt to overturn the election results by force and end American democracy – they privately begged Trump to stop the assault, then publicly excused it. In the months that followed, they pivoted to defending Trump and his insurrectionists and punishing any Republicans who spoke out against the depravity.
And now, as the bipartisan congressional committee convenes to detail the fruits of its investigation, Fox will, at best, downplay and conceal what happened from its viewers — or, more likely, have the very people who helped bring about that bloody day lie about the events.
Fox’s decision to air its typical programming in lieu of the prime-time hearing is particularly grotesque given what we’ve learned about its prime-time hosts since the committee began its work. Text messages released by the committee exposed the duplicity of the coverage Hannity and Ingraham provided about January 6. And Carlson’s commentary proved so maliciously false that several of his colleagues quit the network in protest. All three have spent the days leading up to tomorrow night’s hearing priming their viewers to view the committee as a farce tainted by anti-Trump partisanship.
Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 after the high-profile, heavily watched Watergate hearings convinced Republican politicians to abandon their leader, dooming his presidency. Fox was founded by a former Nixon aide who wanted to prevent such a thing from happening again by producing alternate narratives for the right-wing faithful that would keep GOP politicians from straying. The network’s stars performed their function throughout the Trump presidency, helping to keep the perpetually besieged and twice-impeached president in office.
They are going to try to do it again.
Before the January 6 insurrection: Incitement
For Fox, Trump was too big to fail. The network had helped make him a political force, catapulted him to the Oval Office, and effectively merged with his administration. Its stars used their platforms to offer fervent defenses of his every move, while simultaneously serving as his key advisers with influence over a range of policy and personnel decisions.
So when Trump lost his reelection but declared himself the victor and a victim of widespread voter fraud, it was natural for his propagandists to rally to his aid with as much froth and fervor as any Republican politician. The network immediately flooded the zone with voter fraud lies ripped from social media fever swamps and Trump’s campaign. “It will be impossible to ever know the true, fair, accurate election results,” Hannity concluded on the second night after the election. “Americans will never be able to believe in the integrity and legitimacy of these results.”
Two days later, Fox’s decision desk declared Joe Biden the president-elect – but the network’s assault on democracy continued to unfold. Over the following two weeks, as Trump continued to contest the election, Fox questioned its results or pushed conspiracy theories about it at least 774 times.
Trump nonetheless lashed out at Fox for being insufficiently supportive and urged his supporters to instead watch its right-wing competitors, OAN and Newsmax. That encouraged Fox personalities to dive deeper into the fever swamps and produce ever-more-esoteric conspiracy theories to explain Trump’s defeat.
Fox’s propaganda campaign coincided with a wide-ranging campaign by Trump and his allies to overthrow the election results. That effort crescendoed with a multifaceted attempt to prevent Congress from approving the electoral vote slates during its January 6, 2021, joint session, including a rally against the results planned that day outside the White House.
Hannity gushed about that rally the night before to his Fox audience. “Big day tomorrow, big crowds apparently showed up to the point where the West Wing could hear the music and the chanting of the people that were there already,” he said. “And this all kicks off in the morning tomorrow.”
But privately, Hannity was worried that Trump was being misled. “I do NOT see January 6 happening the way he is being told,” he texted Meadows.
His fears – which he hid from his viewers – were correct.
The January 6 insurrection: Justifications
As Congress assembled to continue the peaceful transition of power, Trump told the thousands of his supporters who had converged at the White House from across the country that he would never give in to the forces he claimed had rigged the election. “We fight like hell. And if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore,” he said. He concluded his rally speech by telling the increasingly angry crowd, that “we're going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. … And we're going to the Capitol.”
While Trump did not personally leave the White House grounds, an angry mob of his supporters, incited by his speech, did make their way down Pennsylvania Avenue, and tried to overturn the election. They forced their way through police barricades and stormed the Capitol building, sending Congress out of session and into hiding as they occupied the floors of the House and Senate. Members of the violent Proud Boys gang and the anti-government Oathkeepers militia were reportedly key instigators in the violence. Amid the chaotic scene, rioters waved giant pro-Trump signs on the steps of the Capitol, roughly 140 police officers were reportedly assaulted, and members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence narrowly escaped confrontations with rioters. Some of the insurrectionists were chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” and indeed a gallows had been erected outside the building.
While those horrific scenes were playing out on TV and social media, several of Trump’s staunchest Fox supporters were texting Meadows, begging him to get Trump to stop the violence. “Can he make a statement. Ask people to leave the Capitol,” Hannity wrote, in messages revealed by the select committee. Ingraham similarly wrote: “Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home. This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy.”
But that night, the same hosts validated the concerns of the rioters, repeated the election lies that riled up the mob in the first place, and provided a platform for the conspiracy theory that leftists infiltrators had been responsible for the violence.
“If you don’t bother to pause and learn a single thing from it, from your citizens storming your Capitol building, then you’re a fool,” Carlson added on his program. “If people begin to believe that their democracy is fraudulent, if they conclude that voting is a charade, the system is rigged and it is run in secret by a small group of powerful, dishonest people who are acting in their own interests, then God knows what could happen.”
With these justifications, Fox launched its monthslong campaign to minimize a bloody riot aimed at reversing the presidential election results based on the lies the network itself had helped perpetuate.
After the January 6 insurrection: Solidarity
Election trutherism has become a major plank of the Republican Party in the 17 months since the January 6 riot. Acquitted by the Senate following his second impeachment, Trump retained his role as the party’s chief and worked to purge officials who refused to support his rigged-election lie. Republicans pushing that canard have won the GOP nomination for major offices and flooded the poll worker ranks. States where Republicans hold sway have sought to change voting laws in hopes of suppressing enough Democratic voters to win in the Electoral College; if that fails, the party is building the political will to ensure that a future effort to overturn the results on its nominee’s behalf succeeds. Republican officials who recognized in real time that the riots were disastrous and that Trump was at fault have reversed themselves.
Fox paved the way for the GOP’s strange new respect for violent insurrectionists. The network’s brass could have looked at the horrors of January 6, recognized the responsibility Fox bore for them, and changed course. Instead, they made Tucker Carlson the face of the network and supported his deliberate effort to create an alternate mythology around the riot, while his colleagues followed his lead.
Carlson did his best to downplay what happened on January 6, counting on the memories of his viewers to fade over it. He called it a “lie” to describe the events of January 6 as an insurrection, describing it instead as merely “a political protest got out of hand.” He scoffed at the well-documented facts that the rioters included QAnon adherents, white supremacists, and Proud Boys. He lashed out at Reps. Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), the Republicans who agreed to serve on the select committee, attempting to discredit them to his viewers. And he mocked police officers who gave public testimony about being assaulted during the attacks.
Carlson’s alternate version of the events of January 6 is a lie. Of the more than 800 people federal prosecutors have charged with crimes related to the riot, at least 225 have been charged with assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers or employees. Roughly a third of those were also charged with using a deadly or dangerous weapon against police officers or causing serious bodily injury to an officer. The leaders of both the Proud Boys and the Oathkeepers, as well as 14 of their members or associates, have been charged with seditious conspiracy.
But downplaying the danger posed by the rioters and the violent extremism of their ideologies made it easy for Carlson to urge his viewers to feel solidarity with them. He told his audience that the Democratic overreaction to the insurrection was endangering their lives and freedoms and constituted a “new war against our own population.”
Having decided that Democrats were overreacting to the insurrection, it was only a small step for Carlson to allege that the insurrection had been deliberately manufactured for that purpose. “The events of January 6 ... were at least in part organized and carried out in secret by people connected to federal law enforcement,” he alleged last June based on no evidence, adding, “It's hard to think of a bigger potential scandal than this one.”
Carlson’s adaptation of the classic “false flag” tropes of the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones culminated with Patriot Purge, his obscene three-part revisionist special on the attack for Fox’s streaming service. The miniseries, written by a director of white nationalist documentaries and heavily promoted on Fox, posits that the riots were a setup and that its perpetrators are the real victims.
Not everyone at Fox was initially on board with Carlson’s take. Longtime anchors Chris Wallace and Bret Baier reportedly raised concerns about Patriot Purge with top Fox executives Suzanne Scott and Jay Wallace, and those concerns were brought to Lachlan Murdoch, the chairman and CEO of the network's parent company, Fox Corp. When the Fox brass once again prioritized Carlson’s conspiracy theories and allowed him to continue his work, Wallace left the network, joining longtime contributors Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes, who had already quit in protest.
Fox’s executives, from the Murdochs on down, were willing to lose the services of the dissenters in order to keep Carlson happy. And the rest of the network’s staff, including Baier, have continued cashing their hefty Fox checks rather than making a stand for the truth of what happened when a violent mob incited by the president beat up cops and sacked the U.S. Capitol in hopes of overturning the election.
The specter of another January 6 still looms over the American political system. If it comes to pass, everyone at Fox — and everyone who does business with the network — will bear responsibility for the result.