Fox’s whitewash of Trump's QAnon endorsement helps explain how it happened in the first place

Trump Qanon Fox

Citation Molly Butler/Media Matters | Trump photo: Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons license

President Donald Trump’s Wednesday endorsement of the deranged and dangerous QAnon movement as people who “love this country” thrilled its supporters while horrifying observers, who pointed out that his validation of an extremist ideology linked to violent acts would swell its ranks. But during his first interview following those remarks on Thursday night, the president faced no questions about his praise for unhinged pro-Trump conspiracy theorists who claim that he is on the verge of unraveling a global pedophile ring of Satan-worshipping Democrats and celebrities. As Fox News host Sean Hannity provided the president with his typical mix of sycophancy and softballs over the course of the half-hour phoner, Trump’s embrace of QAnon never came up.

Hannity’s decision to ignore the story put a capstone on Fox’s lackadaisical response to the president’s praise for advocates of a bizarre conspiracy theory that the FBI has termed a domestic terror threat. Fox News political analyst Karl Rove garnered press attention on Wednesday for calling QAnon supporters “nuts and kooks” and saying the president “ought to disavow them” on Special Report, and that program ran a segment on the “conspiracy theory” the following day. But none of the network’s highly rated prime-time hosts have mentioned Trump’s remarks at all, and by Thursday morning, Fox & Friends was decontextualizing part of the president’s comment as an anodyne reference to his administration “saving the world.”

Trump backing the QAnon movement seems like a natural fit -- the president is a notorious conspiracy theorist who finds it nearly impossible to disavow even his most reprehensible supporters. But his praise for the group can’t be separated from Fox’s unwillingness to try to establish guard rails for the Republican Party by denouncing it. Trump relies on Fox for news and information, and its coverage constantly shapes his worldview. If Fox’s hosts had condemned the QAnon movement in the years since it first emerged, it’s hard to imagine that the president would be praising it today -- or that it would have metastasized through the GOP to the extent that it has.

But Fox has largely kept discussions of the QAnon movement and its violent and unhinged ideology off its airwaves, even as its spread within the Republican Party has ensured that the network has repeatedly ended up promoting its supporters. I noted last week, after one of its adherents received the GOP congressional nod for a blood-red district, that QAnon has been referenced on only eight broadcasts on the network’s weekday evening programming over the previous two years -- almost all passing references that failed to describe the conspiracy theory’s dangers. The network’s on-air talent have alternately denied knowing anything about the movement and played footsie with it, engaging with its followers on social media, downplaying its extremism, and even praising aspects of it on Fox shows. Meanwhile, the network’s executives hired a prominent QAnon-supporting influencer to host a cooking show on Fox’s streaming service. 

We know what it looks like when Fox tries to destroy the credibility of a movement with its audience, and that isn’t it. Fox hosts and personalities highlighted the Black Lives Matter movement during 288 weekday evening broadcasts over the same two-year span, building on racist and unhinged smears the network has deployed against its supporters since its founding. 

In recent months, as the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor drove new attention to Black Lives Matter’s campaign against racial injustice and police brutality, Fox hosts redoubled their efforts to delegitimize it. Network star Tucker Carlson, perhaps the Fox host with the most influence on Trump right now, turned his program into a nightly assault on the group. He called it a “totalitarian political movement” and denounced Republican leaders who expressed support for it.

Trump got the message. He repeatedly lashed out at Black Lives Matter this summer, at times in direct response to segments he was watching about it on Fox. The president was particularly aggrieved by an anti-police chant that members of a Minnesota-based Black Lives Matter group used during a march in 2015 -- one that Fox has highlighted dozens of times in the years since. 

If Fox had devoted even a fraction of the venomous demonization it launched at Black Lives Matter activists to QAnon conspiracy theorists, the network could have warned off its millions of viewers -- including the president -- from the movement. But Fox has not chosen that path, which would require trying to curb the excesses of the radicalized Republicans whose anti-Democratic fervor powers the network’s ratings. 

Instead, Fox sold out its viewers to a cult. The longer the network held its fire, the more vulnerable its audience was to the movement’s entreaties, and the harder it became to pry Trump supporters away from its conspiracy theories. Now QAnon’s ranks have swelled, its supporters have effectively become a key GOP constituency, dozens are running for Congress, and at least one will likely be elected to the House in the fall. With the president himself signing on as a validator, it may be too late to keep QAnon away from the levers of power.

QAnon may garner criticism here and there from some at Fox who, like Rove, find the spectacle of the president cozying up to “kooks” too much to bear. But I doubt very much that the network as a whole will engage in the full-spectrum denunciation needed to curtail QAnon’s growth. Instead, the days to come will likely bring a range of responses from Fox personalities, from ignoring the movement, to downplaying its importance and extremism, to condemning its critics for attacking Trump supporters. The press will be hammered for covering the story. Some network figures will claim that the QAnon movement makes some good points, perhaps even outing themselves as full-fledged supporters. Others will rely on whataboutism, with the president’s defenders pushing back against reporting on QAnon by demanding to know why the media isn’t asking Democrats to condemn antifa or Black Lives Matter.

Fox is a Republican propaganda outlet that is deeply devoted to Trump. As long as that party and its leader are standing by the QAnon cult, the network won’t dare to stand up to it.