Conservatives have spent several decades waging a remarkably successful campaign to reinforce their coalition by turning it against the mainstream news media, a potential source of critical information. Fox News benefited greatly from this endeavor, assembling a sizable audience in part by convincing viewers that mainstream outlets could not be trusted as their journalists were deceitful leftist partisans. The resulting feedback loop requires a steady flow of new outrages that are often based on either appalling ignorance of or deliberate disinformation regarding basic journalistic practices.
Fox host Tucker Carlson’s attempt last week to rile up his viewers with a nonsensical argument that The New York Times had colluded with the FBI appears to fall in the latter category, an intentional effort to hoodwink his audience and bolster his network’s hate campaign against the press.
On Thursday, the conservative newspaper The Washington Examiner reported that Times reporter Michael Schmidt had “fed information” to the FBI in a March 2017 email regarding a story his colleagues were working on about the bureau’s Russia investigation. The Examiner obtained the email from the pro-Trump organization Judicial Watch, which called it evidence of “FBI-Media Collusion.”
This argument made no sense: The “information” Schmidt supposedly “fed” the FBI was about the agency’s own investigation; the journalist emailed a press aide at the FBI, so a request for comment was implied if not stated; and the information in the email was published in the Times days later. Reporters at the Times and other outlets pummeled the Examiner for scandalizing routine journalistic processes, and the paper eventually published a lengthy correction in which it apologized for failing to adhere to its “normal standards and procedures.”
But before the Examiner effectively retracted the sinister implications in its story, Carlson amplified it to his audience of millions.
The Fox host argued that Schmidt had been caught engaging in “profound collusion” with, and “political consulting” for, the FBI, saying, “Schmidt wasn't seeking comment for a story; he was only supplying information. He was the source, in other words.”
“The Schmidt kid just seems like a total lackey” for the bureau, Carlson told Mollie Hemingway, a Fox contributor and right-wing media critic. “I mean, so why does he get to call himself a reporter? If he is calling to pass information on to the FBI, doesn't that make him -- I don't know what it makes him. A source? A snitch? But it doesn't make him a reporter, does it?”
He did not return to the story on Friday and let his audience know that the Examiner had effectively retracted it, apparently preferring to keep his viewers misinformed.
Carlson wasn’t the only Fox host to push this nonsense. Sean Hannity, the co-hosts of Fox & Friends, and Lou Dobbs Tonight guest host David Asman all promoted the story, with the latter two drawing the attention of President Donald Trump, an inveterate Fox watcher who treats journalists as a hate object and constantly tries to delegitimize the press. “This shows the kind of unprecedented hatred I have been putting up with for years with this Crooked newspaper,” he tweeted in response to a clip from Carlson’s show that re-aired on Fox & Friends. “Is what they have done legal?”
Carlson knows exactly what he’s doing. Unlike his fellow Fox prime-time hosts, he has actual experience in journalism outside the comfortable confines of the right-wing echo chamber. Carlson’s two-and-a-half-decade career in the news media includes stints writing for local newspapers and national magazines, and hosting programs at PBS, CNN, and MSNBC. That resume informed Carlson’s famous 2009 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, in which he begged conservatives to create their own reporting institutions whose “primary objective” should be to “deliver accurate news” -- holding up the Times as an exemplar (the audience responded with jeers and boos).
Carlson’s experience suggests that when he tries to spin basic acts of journalism into nonsensical conspiracy theories, he’s engaging in a campaign of deliberate disinformation. And his bad-faith argument of sinister “collusion” between journalists and the administration becomes a farcical masterpiece when held up to the actions of Carlson and his network, which has effectively merged with Trump’s White House and become a state media outlet.
The last week alone, amid Carlson’s criticism of Schmidt for acting as a “lackey” and a “snitch,” brought several fresh examples of Fox’s perverse alignment with the Trump administration.
The Daily Beast reported Wednesday that Carlson had been privately counseling Trump on how to respond to rising tensions with Iran.
On Friday, a judge unsealed months of chummy text messages between Hannity and former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort. Among the revelations from the 56 pages of chat logs, the Fox host shared information with Manafort and described them as being “on the same team,” while Manafort suggested possible lines of attack Hannity could use on his show and said he deserved a Pulitzer prize.
And The Washington Post reported Sunday that in 2016, inveterate Trump sycophant Jeanine Pirro learned that Trump aide Roger Stone, scheduled to appear that night on her Fox show, was planning to resign in protest of the then-presidential candidate’s disgusting sexist attack on then-Fox host Megyn Kelly. According to the Post, Pirro “got word back to” Trump, allowing him to save face by firing Stone before he could quit.
None of these revelations, which would likely sink an employee at any other network, are likely to spur concern at Fox over the excessively cozy ties between its employees and the president. After all, when Pirro and Hannity spoke at a Trump political rally last year, Fox offered no apology or promise that the behavior -- an ethical calamity anywhere else -- would not be repeated.
Meanwhile, the network’s attacks on other journalists will continue. Fox media criticism is based on denouncing the press by falsely attributing to real journalists the unethical behavior its own hosts practice. That’s simply part of its business model.