There will be no Fox News debate for this year’s Democratic presidential primary contest. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez closed the door to the right-wing network on Wednesday, telling The Washington Post that the party had rejected the network’s bid in light of the “inappropriate relationship” between Fox News and President Donald Trump that The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer documented in her damning new story. Perez’s statement brought a quick response from Bill Sammon, Fox News’ senior vice president and Washington managing editor, who urged the DNC to “reconsider its decision to bar Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, all of whom embody the ultimate journalistic integrity and professionalism,” from moderating a debate.
Sammon’s comment is a well-worn talking point familiar to anyone who has followed the network’s public relations campaigns over the years. Fox executives and flaks are constantly telling reporters and advertisers alike that the network simply has separate “news” and “opinion” sides like any other news outlet. In their telling, it is unfair to hold the conspiracy theories and naked bigotry of Fox’s right-wing prime-time hosts against Wallace, Baier, MacCallum, Shep Smith, and the rest of the purportedly objective news team.
But Mayer’s piece is more than a dissection of Fox’s merger with the Trump White House and emergence as a propaganda tool for his administration. It also helps underscore the farcical nature of the narrative that Sammon and his fellow Fox executives use in pushing back against the network’s detractors.
“Fox’s defenders view such criticism as unfounded and politically biased,” Mayer writes, noting that in response to her inquiries, “Fox’s public-relations department offers numerous examples of its reporters and talk-show hosts challenging the Administration.”
This argument was never credible, but the network’s reinvention as state TV has rendered it utterly appalling. Everyone at Fox is complicit in what the network has become.
The Fox-Trump fusion that Mayer reveals -- the total breakdown of basic journalistic standards, the endless propagation of paranoid conspiracy theories bolstering Trump, the revolving door between network and White House, the Fox hosts advising the president by day and shilling for him on air by night -- came about while Wallace and company were collecting paychecks from the network. To the extent they may have wished to halt that slide, they were obviously unable to do so.
That's because Fox is -- by design, and to its core -- a right-wing propaganda apparatus that relies on misinformation, disinformation, and outright bigotry to promote the conservative movement and Republican Party. That is its business model and its political project. It also employs some reporters, who have little influence over the bulk of the network’s operations. The reporters may at times criticize the unwillingness of other Fox employees to follow basic media ethics, but to no avail; as Mayer points out, “many Fox News reporters were angry, and provided critical anonymous quotes to the media” after Sean Hannity appeared on stage at a Trump political rally, but Fox supported Hannity nonetheless. The network’s pro-Trump talkers provide Fox with an audience, ratings, and political heft, and so its executives will choose the Hannitys over the Wallaces every time.
The Wallaces nonetheless play important roles -- ones that are unique in the media.
At a normal outlet, journalists report out stories and try to break news. At Fox, on-air talent who roughly adhere to journalistic standards serve a very different purpose: They provide Fox’s PR team a fig leaf to point to when critics decry the network’s vile programming. When Hannity, Tucker Carlson, or Laura Ingraham get in trouble, Fox corporate can point to the likes of Wallace or Smith “challenging the Administration” as evidence that the network is more than a right-wing fever swamp.
Mayer highlights two examples of this phenomenon: Smith giving a monologue in which he “contradicted Trump’s scaremongering about immigrants,” and Wallace debunking one of the White House’s “wildly inaccurate” talking points during an interview with press secretary Sarah Sanders. Both instances garnered media attention precisely because they cut against the right-wing lies and smears typically seen on Fox programs with much bigger audiences.
That attention benefits Fox’s PR offensive: When clips like these go viral, they become examples the network’s team can highlight when they want to argue that Fox is not a monolithic pro-Trump apparatus. Fox keeps people like Wallace and Smith on the payroll not in spite of these types of segments, but because these segments burnish the Fox brand for journalists, advertisers, politicians, and other elites who don’t watch the network’s programming on a regular basis, more than making up for the hosts’ hefty salaries.
But these deviations from Fox’s norms are ultimately hollow. In effect, they are the new versions of former Fox host Megyn Kelly’s “Megyn moments,” bolstering the credibility of the hosts and their network, but without any broader impact on the trajectory of Fox’s programming. Smith may tell his audience that there is no immigrant “invasion,” but that doesn’t stop the network’s prime-time lineup from assuring its much larger audiences that there is one. Wallace can give Trump aides a hard time in his interviews, but those exchanges end up going viral everywhere except at Fox itself, which apparently prefers not to inform too many viewers about the administration’s false talking points.
As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple put it: “Nothing that Smith says during his Fox News program -- no matter how sick his burns on Trump might be -- neutralizes the impact of Dobbs or Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson or dozens of other Fox talking heads. Nothing. Episodic truth-telling about Trump doesn’t excuse fulsome conspiracy-theorizing about Trump.”
Baier and, of late, MacCallum, are often included in these discussions, but they largely went unmentioned by Mayer. I find their typical inclusion in these discussions suspect. Both tend to avoid publicly criticizing their colleagues, unlike Smith and Wallace, and produce far fewer of these viral moments. Baier’s biggest story in recent years was his quickly debunked and largely retracted report, days before the 2016 election, that the FBI was conducting a “very high priority” investigation of “possible pay-for-play interaction” between Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation that would “likely” result in an indictment; more recently, he’s breached ethical norms by golfing with Trump. Meanwhile, MacCallum is every bit as pure an ideologue as anyone else on the network, using her show to claim that a border wall is “needed” to stop the immigrant “invasion” and declare that “both sides” were at fault during the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA, among other misdeeds.
It’s also telling that the network’s PR effort consistently focuses on these sorts of moments from Fox’s journalistically inclined anchors rather than major news stories that its reporters break. That’s because the dirty secret of Fox News’ “news” team is that the “news” team doesn’t break much news.
The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and a host of other news outlets have spent the last few years producing scoops at a furious, exhausting rate. What Fox scoops can you remember? Despite unparalleled access to the Trump administration and other Republican officials, the network has little to show for itself.
Instead, the Fox “news” team provides daily fodder for the network’s right-wing stars to opine about. Their role is to fill the network’s “news” hours with reports on whatever stories conservatives are panicking over that day -- Uranium One, Benghazi, migrant caravans, and the purported Justice Department conspiracy against Trump among them. They provide incremental stories, often sourced to Republican legislators, that advance the narratives with fresh details for the “opinion”-side hosts to freak out about.
Sammon himself is a key party to this dynamic. In 2010 and 2011, this top “news”-side figure became the subject of widespread criticism after Media Matters produced a series of reports showing how he had used his position to slant the network’s news coverage to the right -- including by claiming on air during the 2008 election that Barack Obama was advocating socialism, a charge he admitted he did not believe. Rather than firing Sammon for lying to its audience, Fox curtailed his on-air appearances but let him keep his senior job overseeing the network’s news coverage. Most recently, he was the point man in Fox’s effort to get the Democratic National Committee to let the network host a presidential primary debate, an attempt that ended Wednesday when the DNC announced that it would not partner with Fox in light of Mayer’s story.
Mayer points to two cases in which Fox considered taking a big swing at a major scoop. It’s instructive to consider them as a pair. First, during the 2016 presidential campaign, a FoxNews.com reporter put together the story that Trump had had a sexual relationship with the adult film actress known as Stormy Daniels and that a payoff and nondisclosure agreement had been arranged to prevent her from detailing the affair. Second, in 2017, a second FoxNews.com reporter developed a story suggesting that the murdered Democratic staffer Seth Rich, rather than Russian intelligence operatives, had stolen the DNC emails that were leaked during the campaign.
The former story, which would have been damaging to Trump, never ran. The latter, which benefited his claims that he had not been helped by Russia, did. The Rich story quickly unraveled, eventually forcing Fox to issue a retraction. The network also claimed it was conducting an internal investigation, but to this date no results have materialized and no employee held accountable.
That’s how things work at Fox. It’s long been a propaganda outlet, and now it’s merged with the White House. It is toxic, and no number of tough Wallace interviews or Smith viral monologues can redeem it.