Senate Republicans respond to Fox incentives with bigoted, frenzied attacks on Judge Jackson

Fox’s stars rewarded the worst offenders with airtime

Picture of Judge Jackson with a Fox logo

Citation Andrea Austria / Media Matters

On Thursday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) opened the final day of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing for a seat on the Supreme Court by stating that over the previous two days of questioning, Jackson had faced “attacks” from some of the committee’s Republicans that were “unfair, unrelenting and beneath the dignity of the United States Senate.” Those despicable antics came, at least in part, because of the incentives Fox News creates for ambitious Republican politicians. The senators pushing the most bigoted and over-the-top lines of questioning have garnered appearances on Fox News’ popular and powerful evening shows.

When President Joe Biden nominated Jackson in late February, some on the right argued that Senate Republicans should be careful not to go too far in their criticisms of the nominee. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board wrote that the hearings should be “respectful” and avoid the “politics of personal destruction.” National Review’s Andrew McCarthy, a Fox contributor and prominent right-wing commentator on the judiciary, likewise advised Senate Republicans not to be “strident” but to “show the nation that it is possible to oppose a nominee without trying to destroy her character.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) seemingly had a similar idea, saying that his caucus would not engage in “baseless smears and shameless distortions.”

But as establishment conservatives argued that Senate Republicans should remain measured in their critique of Jackson, Fox’s propagandists were portraying her nomination as a civilization-threatening cataclysm. 

“This nomination is a major threat to your liberties, and senators should treat it as such,” Fox host Laura Ingraham said on her first show following the announcement. She urged every Republican senator to vote against Jackson, commenting, “This is about saving the country that we love.” Fox star Tucker Carlson similarly described her nomination as Biden’s attempt to “defile” the American system during a monologue that same night.

That level of Fox fervor — which continued in the weeks leading up to Jackson’s hearings — sent a strong signal to ambitious Republican senators: Joining in could win them approval from the network’s hosts and opportunities to build their brands with airtime on highly rated Fox shows.

And so we had the absurd spectacle of Jackson’s questioning. Several Republican senators, including Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), aggressively went after Jackson using the debunked smear that she gave light sentences to child-pornography offenders, drawing cheers from QAnon conspiracy theorists. Graham in particular interrupted her repeatedly and stormed out at the conclusion of his questioning (for the second day in a row), while Cruz also used his time to ask the judge if he could “decide I was an Asian man” and to quiz her, using props, about “critical race theory” in children’s picture books. Cotton, meanwhile, accused Jackson of being “sympathetic to a drug fentanyl kingpin” and threw a tantrum over her answers.

That behavior paid dividends for the senators. On Tuesday night, following the first day of questioning, Cruz went on Hannity while The Ingraham Angle booked Graham. After Wednesday’s questioning, Jesse Watters hosted Cruz, Sean Hannity hosted Hawley and Graham, and Ingraham invited Cotton. (Carlson inexplicably hosted Outkick’s Clay Travis and podcaster Jason Whitlock to discuss the hearings.) 

These segments followed a formula in which the hosts aired clips of the senators’ questioning earlier that day, teed them up to reiterate their points, and praised them for their work. 

On Wednesday night, for example, Ingraham concluded a monologue by arguing that Republicans senators voting to confirm Jackson while Biden’s poll numbers are low would be a “violation” of their “basic sacred duty.” 

She then brought on Cotton to criticize the judge’s purported lenient sentences, which he had highlighted during the hearing that day. At one point, she told the senator, “Just so people who didn't watch the hearing today, I want them to see what you're talking about, so they understand how important this is.” She then aired a clip of him questioning Jackson and gave him a chance to follow up on his point at the hearing. 

“Senator, great job today,” she later commented.

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Citation From the March 23, 2022, edition of Fox News' The Ingraham Angle

Cotton had performed for Fox’s hosts in hopes of winning an opportunity to perform for their audiences — and it worked, just as it did for Hawley and Cruz and Graham. 

As their colleague Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) pointedly commented at the hearing on Thursday (while ostensibly criticizing proposals to televise Supreme Court proceedings), “I think we should recognize that the jackassery we often see around here is partly because of people mugging for short-term camera opportunities.”