Fox News' dangerous dance with QAnon


House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) spent part of his Friday morning on Fox & Friends, reeling off attacks on Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), and congressional Democrats. But thanks to the typically placid questioning from the program’s co-hosts, he escaped without having to comment publicly on the issue currently roiling his caucus -- McCarthy’s ongoing support for Marjorie Taylor Greene, the QAnon conspiracy theorist who won the party’s nomination for a Georgia congressional seat on Tuesday.

Fox’s failure to press McCarthy about Greene reflects the network’s unwillingness to challenge QAnon, an all-encompassing extremist ideology which postulates that President Donald Trump is on the verge of uncovering a worldwide satanic pedophilia ring composed of Democratic leaders and celebrities. Fox and its cadre of right-wing stars could have tried to prevent QAnon’s rise -- and as an overwhelmingly powerful force in conservative politics, they may have been able to do it and have a responsibility to try. But instead, they have alternately ignored and flirted with QAnon, even as its supporters have multiplied and infested the Republican Party. 

The group’s core tenets are dangerously unhinged, the coronavirus conspiracy theories pushed by its supporters are a public health threat, its adherents have been linked to violent attacks, and a leaked FBI memo warns that its members may commit acts of terrorism. But its massive scope -- it boasts social media communities numbered in the millions and a global presence -- and its pro-Trump nature makes it a rising player on the right. At least 70 of this cycle’s Republican congressional candidates have endorsed or given credence to the conspiracy theory or promoted QAnon content, and 19 of them have already secured places on the ballot this fall.

If QAnon’s ascent is not stopped, its supporters could duplicate the tea party movement’s path, moving from fringe outsiders to Republican Party power brokers. And Greene’s primary win seems to have spurred a gut check for some on the right, because McCarthy had refused to support her primary opponent, and her heavily Republican district means she is likely to win her seat. The editors of the generally pro-Trump National Review called McCarthy’s embrace of Greene a “travesty,” and at least some House Republicans seem to agree, albeit anonymously. 

That apparently hasn’t swayed McCarthy -- even after Media Matters revealed that Greene was also a 9-11 truther, the conservative outlet The Dispatch reported that his office said the minority leader still “looks forward” to her victory. But Fox & Friends had the opportunity to get him to discuss his support for a QAnon candidate personally and on-camera, and the hosts passed. 

That’s symptomatic of how the network has handled QAnon more broadly in the years since it first emerged from the right-wing message boards. When Fox supports or opposes a movement, it’s generally not hard to tell -- just contrast the seemingly endless fawning coverage the network gave right-wing protests against coronavirus stay-at-home orders with its unhinged attacks on activists protesting racism and police brutality this year. 

But with QAnon, Fox has been almost entirely silent. The movement has been referenced on only eight broadcasts on the network’s weekday evening programming over the past two years, according to the Nexis database. In every single case, it was a fleeting mention in which the speaker did not describe the conspiracy theory (on multiple occasions, the mention occured in a clip from another network that the Fox host was criticizing). 

Both the network’s stars and its executives clearly worry about becoming too closely associated with QAnon. Sean Hannity claimed in a recent interview that he has “no earthly idea what it's about at all,” while Jesse Watters issued a statement distancing himself from the movement last month after he drew controversy for using his weekend show to hype the “great stuff” the movement has uncovered. 

But you also don’t see prime-time hosts like Tucker Carlson using their shows to actively try to convince their viewers not to become QAnon followers, or otherwise warning them about that dangerous extremist ideology. There are three reasons you probably won’t see that anytime soon.

First, the QAnon cult is now large enough that it overlaps with a solid swath of staunch Trumpists, which is also the network’s devoted viewership. At this point, Fox hosts would risk alienating their audience if they were to criticize QAnon. The movement is particularly enamored of Hannity’s program, which shares similar themes regarding Trump’s fight against the purported “deep state.” And as QAnon has increasingly merged with the president’s base, the network in turn has ended up repeatedly promoting its believers.

Second, Fox is a cog in the Republican Party’s propaganda apparatus, and while it has at times challenged the GOP establishment from the right, it has shown zero inclination to act as a guardrail against the party’s extremists. If Republican leaders like McCarthy are willing to accept someone like Greene serving in Congress, you aren’t going to see Hannity’s ilk side with anonymous GOP members of Congress criticizing that judgement.

If these arguments seem familiar, you might recall something similar happening during the 2016 election, as Trump came to subsume both Fox and the Republican Party.

And indeed, third, Trump himself is hanging over the entire debate. While he dodged a direct question about Greene’s QAnon support on Friday, he has endorsed her as a “future Republican star,” and one of his top campaign aides lashed out at Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) when the congressman criticized QAnon. Is it so hard to believe that the president, who made his political bones as a birther, claimed that Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) dad helped kill President John Kennedy, accused MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough of murder, and is constantly portraying himself as the victim of a conspiracy by the media and “deep state” might be willing to embrace QAnon directly at some point? That certainly has to be a risk that would weigh on the minds of Fox’s personalities.

So instead, as QAnon believers continue to spread throughout the Republican Party, we are likely to see more criticism of the QAnon critics. Fox hosts will downplay the importance of the movement. They will say that the danger is being blown out of proportion by Democrats and the media and anti-Trump conservatives -- a hoax, if you will. They will claim, like Watters did, that QAnon’s supporters make some good points. They will argue that it’s all just an attack on Trump’s supporters. They will argue that Democrats push conspiracy theories that are just as bad as QAnon. And have you seen how QAnon triggers the libs?

Once you’ve championed Trump, it's incoherent to try to establish a hard opposition to conspiracy theories, no matter how baroque. And so, with little to no pushback from Fox, QAnon will continue to spread through the network’s audience, and will gain a foothold in Congress for years to come.