Joe Biden’s press conference and the Fox “news side” racket

Hannity and Biden

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

At a press conference Tuesday, Fox News correspondent Douglas McKelway told presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden that “some have speculated” he is experiencing “cognitive decline” and asked if the former vice president had been tested for it. Biden replied that he is “constantly tested,” adding, “I can hardly wait to compare my cognitive capability to the cognitive capability of the man I’m running against.”

Who are the anonymous “some” whose speculation led to McKelway’s question? One clue comes from his colleague Sean Hannity’s prime-time program. On Monday, Hannity alleged that Biden “can barely string two sentences together” and challenged the “mob and the media” to ask whether Biden has dementia. On Tuesday, at least seven different Fox programs covered the “cognitive decline” exchange at the presser, including Hannity, who lauded McKelway’s question and demanded that other reporters follow up on it.

This is Fox’s “news side” racket in miniature. Fox executives frequently try to defray the controversies created by the bigoted right-wing propagandists on its “opinion side” by talking up the purportedly credible reporting of its “news side.” But as the McKelway case demonstrates, the network’s reportorial corps largely exists to advance the stories its demagogues are obsessed with. From Uranium One, to Benghazi, to the migrant caravans, to the purported Justice Department conspiracy against President Donald Trump, to the president’s dealings with Ukraine, the “news” personnel find ways to fuel the “opinion” hosts’ efforts to bolster Republican politicians. Trump’s reelection campaign makes this pattern all the more acute because Fox has effectively merged with his White House over the course of his presidency, with star hosts like Hannity playing dual roles advising the president on policy and communications strategy.

Here’s how the racket’s been working with the Biden “cognitive decline” smear. 

Trump and his campaign apparatus have spent months promoting the notion that Biden, who is 77 and has a stammer, is experiencing dementia. On Fox’s prime-time hours, it’s simply treated as an obvious fact that Biden is “struggling” and has “lost it” -- a refrain constantly referenced and returned to whenever Biden makes news. To bolster their attack, the Trumpists rely on a combination of using snippets of video to weaponize Biden’s occasional verbal stumbles and trying to gin up purported gaffes with deceptive editing. It’s reminiscent of Fox’s effort to use out-of-context video clips and images to advance conspiracy theories during the 2016 campaign suggesting that then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was seriously ill.

At the same time, Trump supporters at Fox and elsewhere have been attacking Biden for purportedly “hiding in the basement” because he is not doing rallies while the nation is experiencing a pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus. Their implication is that his campaign is hiding him from voters to avoid scrutiny of his mental status. This attack, which has spread to Fox’s “straight news” personalities, relies on ignoring the variety of events Biden has been doing in recent weeks. For example, minutes after Biden gave a speech last week on the coronavirus response that Fox declined to air live, chief political anchor Bret Baier claimed that “Democrats are warming to Biden just staying in the basement.”  

Fox’s “news side” exists to resource the “opinion side” on issues like this, and Biden’s press conference provided just that opportunity. And McKelway is the sort of hack that you send to do this sort of job when you’re a propaganda outlet whose purpose is reelecting the president

Roger Ailes hired McKelway a decade ago after the then-local news correspondent became a conservative cause celebre for a bogus report criticizing President Barack Obama and “far left environmental groups.” A right-wing ideologue who regularly attacked Democrats on his (now-deleted) Twitter feed, McKelway drew criticism from within Fox after he sent an email to colleagues trying to defend Trump’s infamous comment that there were “very fine people on both sides” following the August 2017 neo-Nazi Unite the Right rally and resulting counter-protests, as The Daily Beast detailed. He was subsequently dispatched to cover the Democratic primary in spite (or because of) his past attacks on the candidates.  

McKelway played his part to a T, and Fox’s propaganda machine swung into gear. The exchange with Biden about “cognitive decline” quickly vaulted to the top of Fox News’ website and has since been discussed on Fox programs including The Daily Briefing, Bill Hemmer Reports, Your World with Neil Cavuto, Special Report, Hannity, The Ingraham Angle, Fox News @ Night, Fox & Friends FirstFox & Friends, and America's Newsroom.

For his part, during a turn on Bill Hemmer’s program, McKelway claimed, “There’s speculation -- and it is widespread, there’s no hiding it anymore -- that based upon several gaffes that Biden has made in recent months and even in recent years, that he is experiencing the first effects of some sort of mild dementia or cognitive impairment.” 

And that’s the difference between Fox’s “news” and “opinion” side. The “opinion” side speculates; what makes it “news” is reporting that other people are speculating.