Fox News’ audience believes its “deep state” attacks

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Fox News host Sean Hannity opened his show last Friday by accusing the FBI under former Director James Comey of engaging in a criminal conspiracy aimed at preventing President Donald Trump’s 2016 election through a purportedly illegal investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia. “And according to my sources, tonight, good news is in the horizon,” Hannity concluded. “James Comey, I warned you, you have the right to remain silent.”

These sorts of conspiracy theories have taken hold with Hannity’s audience, according to new poll from Navigator Research. The group’s memo reports that “the Fox News echo-chamber” has created “an alternative reality in American politics,” with Republicans who watch Fox News a few times a month or more showing significantly more radical views than others on a host of issues.

Notably, the poll shows a staggering divide between Republicans who watch Fox and the rest of the public on the question of whether Trump is the victim of a conspiracy at the hands of what Fox personalities call the “deep state.” Among GOP Fox viewers, 79 percent say that “people within the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies are trying to sabotage President Trump.” That’s compared to 49 percent of Republicans who don’t watch Fox, 24 percent of non-Republicans who watch Fox, and 8 percent of non-Republicans who don’t watch Fox.


It’s possible that the network simply attracts viewers predisposed to believe that the president is being assailed by forces within the federal investigative and intelligence agencies rather than convincing them that is the case. But whichever way the causality arrow points, Fox has been serving up this kind of conspiracy theory to its audience on a nightly basis for years.

While this sort of coverage has permeated Fox’s programming, Hannity -- perhaps the most fervent Trump supporter at the network -- has led the way. In May 2017, as special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to oversee the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Hannity began identifying the “deep state” as a key part of what he called the “Destroy Trump Alliance,” a shadowy cabal of Trump foes. The Fox host argued that the “deep state must be purged” because its members “are now the biggest threat to this republic, and of course, the free election of Donald Trump.”

Hannity’s program began revolving around a single, terrifying idea: The Mueller probe is a sprawling conspiracy that justifies Trump using any means to stop it -- including the prosecutions of the “deep state” officials who started it. Nearly 200 Hannity segments over the first year of Mueller’s investigation alone included claims that top federal law enforcement officials involved in the creation of the probe had broken the law.

And Hannity has begun claiming that he’s going to get his way. After the Senate confirmed William Barr as attorney general, Hannity declared that according to his sources, “things are happening as we speak.” He went on to identify dozens of crimes he said had been committed by 10 “deep state actors,” including Comey, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

While Hannity has been the ringleader, he’s been joined by a large cast of fellow travelers at Fox who have adopted the same storyline. From Jeanine Pirro’s calls for a “cleansing” of the FBI and Justice Department, to Lou Dobbs’ calls to imprison Mueller, to Gregg Jarrett’s declaration that the FBI’s pursuit of Trump’s associates made it akin to “the old KGB,” Fox’s airwaves have been filled with over-the-top denunciations of the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies.

That effort has extended to Fox’s so-called “news side,” where the network’s reporters have played their typical role. Congressional Republicans put sensational spin on documents they released to undermine the special counsel’s probe by suggesting that the DOJ was out to get the president. The story doesn’t really add up, but the network’s “news side” journalists run with it, and soon the opinion side’s talkers have something new to freak out about. From an anti-Trump “secret society” at the FBI to a memo that was supposedly going to bring the Mueller investigation to its knees, Fox keeps falling in line.

Fox’s spin on the Mueller probe has largely been quarantined to its own airwaves, and as the Navigator Research poll shows, contained to its own audience. But the overwhelming support among Fox viewers for the notion that the president is being sabotaged by the FBI and intelligence agencies is nonetheless quite concerning. Fox is inculcating Trump’s base with the notion that the results of the Mueller probe are invalid. That could have a drastic effect as the investigation moves toward its conclusion.