A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
Right now anything is possible, but a Joe Biden win is probable. Reporters and anchors up and down the dial are being careful with their language, adding all the appropriate caveats and hedges, but virtually all the data is pointing in the direction of President Biden. Which is why the Fox factor is so important right now.
Fox News is the preferred media outlet of President Trump’s America. The president views the world through Fox goggles. His base is the Fox base. His rants and raves come straight from what he hears on his favorite TV shows. So Fox’s editorial choices have outsized importance right now. Here’s what you need to know: Fox viewers are being misled about Trump’s chances of winning the election in the following ways.
– The network is so chock full of pro-Trump commentary and rally coverage that viewers come away with the impression that this race is a whole heck of a lot closer to 50/50 than it actually is.
– The network’s highest-rated shows are portraying Biden as “sleepy” and crooked and corrupt. They are painting Kamala Harris as an un-American, un-electable radical.
– The network’s talk shows are constantly suggesting that a minority of people are actually the “silent majority.” Case in point, Sunday’s “Fox & Friends” featured Trump voter after Trump voter at a diner in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The segment was not at all representative of a blue state.
– The shows are also emphasizing state polls that are outliers.
– And about the lies: I was about to write that Trump’s lies are being treated with kid gloves, but that’s insulting to gloves. The lies are barely even touched at all.
Fox’s coverage is one of the reasons why Trump’s base might believe that any Biden victory is a fraud, a crime, a hoax. For all the talk of anxious Democrats refusing to believe the polls, there are lots of aggrieved Republicans who feel the same way, due to distorted right-wing media coverage. That’s the Fox factor…
Fox’s weekend narrative
One of the banners during Tucker Carlson’s special Sunday hour asserted “BIG ENTHUSIASM FOR TRUMP DESPITE CONFLICTING POLLS.” Sean Hannity’s show carried the same message: “MASSIVE ENTHUSIASM FOR TRUMP.” And on Laura Ingraham’s show too: “TRUMP CLOSING THE GAP IN KEY BATTLEGROUND STATES.” All night long, the hosts insisted that the race is tightening. Bret Baier said on Carlson’s show that “in these battleground states, it is narrowing and narrowing fast.” Is it, really, and can anyone say that for sure? I asked CNN’s Harry Enten, who responded, “This race has been fairly consistent for a long period of time.”
– Important reminder: Nearly 100 million votes have already been cast…
Concerns about Fox’s Election Night coverage
Will Fox play it straight on Election Night or will the coverage be bent in Trump’s favor? Whenever I am asked this question, I point out that the network’s political anchors and journalists are in charge of election coverage – not Trump’s flacks. Anchors like Baier and Martha MacCallum care about their reputations. So do the decision desk staffers, led by Arnon Mishkin, who is well-respected by his peers. Mishkin is not going to cave to pressure. In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Wallace asked him, “What role will politics play in making any calls on election night?” Mishkin’s answer: “Zero. Arithmetic is more important than politics when it comes to making a decision. You’ve just got to check your preferences at the door and decide who has won this thing.”
That’s what he will do. My concern is not about the Election Night coverage per se. It’s about what happens on Wednesday and beyond, in the event of a nail-biter election, when the stars of “Fox & Friends” and “The Five” and the prime time shows all repeat Trump’s talking points. The fire-breathing partisans will be a lot louder than the sober number-crunchers. And that could have a really destabilizing impact. If the journalists at Fox are saying “be patient” and “let the votes be counted,” but the higher-rated propagandists are saying “Biden is trying to steal the election from Trump,” the Fox base will dismiss the former and trust the latter.
All eyes on the Murdochs
No matter what happens this week, Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch will have the ultimate responsibility for keeping the network tethered to the truth. They must not let the network’s talk shows devolve into “rigged” conspiracy theories and civil war talk. As Philip Bump said on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources,” the Murdochs have “a strong moral responsibility” in the coming days.
>> In his Monday NYT column, Ben Smith says “the approaching election has executives around Lachlan Murdoch, Fox’s chief executive, preparing to battle on several fronts: with left-wing critics, with what senior executives fear could be regulatory retribution from Democrats and perhaps most of all from James Murdoch, Lachlan’s more liberal brother and critic, according to a person familiar with the company’s plans.” He also notes that Lachlan has “no real control of the network’s high-profile talent…”
Trump or Biden, Fox wins either way
I hope this point came through loud and clear in my recent book “HOAX:” Heads, Fox wins, and tails, Fox wins. The network’s base is so loyal that it doesn’t matter whether a Republican or a Democrat holds the White House. Historically a Democratic presidency has been embraced by Fox… the network casts itself as the “voice of the opposition…” and that’s exactly what will happen again if Biden prevails.
>> “Talk Radio’s America” author Brian Rosenwald tweeted the other day: “Conservative media has always thrived w/Democrats in power. Rush Limbaugh even admitted as much after Bill Clinton won. People are afraid, they feel voiceless, they’re angry, & it’s generally easier to be on the outside throwing stones. You similarly have seen some of the most fruitful periods for liberal media come when Democrats had the least power 2004-ish & again in 2017-2018.”