Update (10/21/19): This post has been updated with new polling data showing the impact of Fox’s impeachment coverage on its viewers.
Forty-five years ago, President Richard Nixon resigned. His impeachment at the time seemed almost certain, as key Republican senators had signaled they would no longer support him. But Nixon’s acolytes did not blame their president for his gross corruption and mind-boggling criminality. Instead, they blamed the press -- the “enemy,” as Nixon had described it -- for hounding him out of office.
Over two decades later, Roger Ailes, one of those Nixon retainers, founded Fox News. As the network has gained power and influence, it has played many roles -- an attack dog that savages progressive policies and individuals, a counterweight to a media that conservatives consider unbearably liberal, a radicalization engine that brings a bigoted ideology from the fringes into the homes of millions of Americans, and a propaganda machine that champions conservative politicians.
Over the past week, we’ve seen another one of Fox’s roles. As it has become clear that President Donald Trump used the office of the presidency to suborn a foreign government to investigate one of his political opponents -- triggering a formal impeachment inquiry -- Fox has been serving as a bulwark against the repetition of Nixon’s fall.
The network -- “news” and “opinion” sides alike -- is relentlessly lying to its viewers. Its personalities have: offered a response to the release of a memorandum chronicling Trump’s demands that was indistinguishable from the White House’s talking points, mocked Democrats for focusing on the story, claimed that they are exaggerating in a rush to impeachment, suggested that Trump was “duty-bound” to ask the Ukrainian president to investigate his political opponent, and sought to redirect attention to the purported corruption of Democrats. They’ve sought to smear the whistleblower -- whose complaint brought the scandal to light -- as a “partisan hack” who has endangered the country with his “snitching” and is part of a “coup.”
Fox’s propaganda has not gone unnoticed at the White House -- Trump has frequently incorporated the network’s commentary into his response to the burgeoning crisis. The president sent 51 tweets or retweets lifting up Fox’s programming or the comments of its employees about the story between its emergence last week and 9 a.m. EST Thursday morning.
The network’s effort to create a fantasy world for its viewers has serious implications. “If Fox chooses to lie to its audience about what’s happening that makes it challenging for GOP members to respond to reality rather than to Foxality,” Vox.com’s Matt Yglesias noted. “And if most Republicans embrace a complete false version of events, most non-Fox television news will embrace a ‘partisans arguing’ frame that naturally dulls the impact on non-Fox viewers who just generally disagree with Democrats about stuff.”
Indeed, Fox’s disinformation campaign has effectively mobilized its audience against impeachment. As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted in a post on the results of a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, “98 percent of Fox-citing Republicans oppose impeaching and removing Trump -- opposition that’s ‘essentially unanimous,’ as PRRI puts it. By contrast, 90 percent of non-Fox-citing Republicans oppose impeaching and removing him -- which is overwhelmingly high, but suggests that among this group, at least, Trump could suffer losses on the margins as the inquiry turns up worse revelations.” Sargent concluded that the study shows Fox is “having a real impact, and could even help Trump survive.”
Richard Nixon didn’t have Fox. Donald Trump does. And that may make all the difference. That’s no coincidence -- it’s what the network was created to do.