Bret Baier; Megyn Kelly (Getty/Scott Olson/Jim Watson/Photo montage by Salon)

What I learned about the "circle of doom" while watching Fox News all election night

Spending election day with Fox leads us to trace the media's long path to getting a reality star elected president.


Melanie McFarland
November 9, 2016 9:00PM (UTC)

Around 3:15 p.m. PT, near the beginning of Fox News' official election night coverage, anchor Megyn Kelly revealed that her greatest fear. “Some of the tension of the evening," she said, "is the circle of doom that hovers above us.”

What Kelly was referring to was the spinning “digital chandelier” looming above the anchor desk, nicknamed "the Chandi," monitored by reporter Shannon Bream. Kelly and her co-anchor Bret Baier pointed it out while singing the praises of the Fox News Channel’s dizzying new state-of-the-art studio, complete with a 46-screen digital display and a media wall measuring 9 feet tall and 30 feet wide. Contributors Chris Wallace and Brit Hume admitted that the rotating ring of images on the floor around the news desk gave them a touch of motion sickness.

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At last, six hours into watching Fox News anchors and reporters cover the end of the 2016 presidential election, I had something in common with them: nausea. That kicked in long before officials began saying the words half of the country only thought we’d hear while in the throes of a paranoid delusion: President-elect Donald Trump.

Right at that moment, a metaphorical circle of doom dropped on a very shocked half of the country.

Flash forward another six hours, and Trump was on the verge of clinching the election, Monica Crowley was all ecstatic grins over the turn in Trump’s favor. Sean Hannity praised it as a modern-day political miracle.

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Baier asked the panelists, “The reason why we’re here is 1) Donald Trump hit a chord with people who were fed up with Washington, 2) Hillary Clinton did not mobilize President Obama’s coalition. She underperformed with African-Americans. Can we say that tonight?”

Sure, they also could have said that the pollsters didn’t take a wide number of demographic factors into account or that this was the first presidential election following the dissolution of the Voting Rights Act, which led to reports of active intimidation and voter suppression in battleground states. Or they could have discussed vast swaths of the electorate’s overwhelming sexism and racism — much of it bald-faced but even more remaining stealthy while waiting for the opportunity to wield its poisonous influence.

Ha! No they couldn’t. This is Fox News we’re talking about. Baier, Kelly and the rest of their Fox friends spent the majority of the day in a state of quivering, cautious giddiness that seemed unrealistically optimistic in the morning, when most polls put Democrat Hillary Clinton’s chances of victory upwards of 70 percent.

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By day’s end? “Here’s the French ambassador moments ago,” Baier said at 9:26 p.m. PT, reading his mobile phone. “'After Brexit and this election, everything is now possible. A world is collapsing before our eyes. Dizziness.’”

The rest of the team, which included Hume, Wallace, Juan Williams, Dana Perino, Greg Gutfeld, Karl Rove and digital politics analyst Chris Stirewalt, responded with a hearty laugh.

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For a long time so many of us — myself included — thought Republican Donald Trump's candidacy was an obscene joke. Even until the final weeks, long after we'd stopped laughing, it seemed impossible to conceive that America would elect a former reality TV star with zero political experience and a shady business record besmirched by lawsuits, bankruptcies and racial discrimination. A man who all but boasted about exploiting loopholes to escape paying income tax; demonized Muslims, blacks and Latinos; boasted about sexually assaulting women and won the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan. Surely America would not hand the highest office in the land over to that guy.

Even Fox’s on-air personalities leaned into this idea on Tuesday morning. Martha MacCallum and Bill Hemmer were downright sullen as the West Coast polls opened, although the coverage was still decidedly Trump focused. The pair refused to sweeten America’s coffee with unrealistic optimism.

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Instead that task was left to Bream, who ventured inside Trump’s campaign war room during the 9 o’clock hour to spice things up with an exclusive look at its doughnut buffet.

“This is what’s powering the team! Check out these! We’re trying to think of another word for them besides doughnuts, because these things are like a meal!” Bream gushed. “They’ve got things inside, there are multiple layers to them. And if you look behind us, Sean Spicer is here from the RNC. Wave, Sean!" she said. "We don’t know how many doughnuts he’s had.”

This banality was soon eclipsed by the Great ChapStick Debacle, when Fox anchor Shepard Smith dropped his lip balm while Wallace was speaking to him. To Wallace’s horror, Smith retrieved it immediately. “What? Should I leave it on the floor for someone else to pick up? “

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“You could wait until the break,” Wallace countered, leading Smith to insist, “I need it! It’s ChapStick!”

“You have a little ChapStick fetish, don’t you?” Wallace asked his colleague.

“Fetish? Do you know what that means?. . . I’m taking antibiotics!” Smith protested. “I have an ear infection. And now America knows.”

Yes, it was downright adorable as the day began.

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Later in the evening, as Fox News contributors began to sort through exactly what in the hell had just happened, Hume parsed the exit poll data by delicately mentioning that white voters stuck together. “They came home to him. They stuck with him," he said. "They’re still by far, by far, the biggest complement of our electorate.”

And that’s about as close as anybody on Fox came to saying the word “racism” or explicitly acknowledging that racial lines played a significant role in this election. Much of the language danced around the issue or simply coded it; Crowley referred to Trump as a “movement candidate” and called the election’s outcome a victory for “the unprotected class.”

(Whereas over on CNN, Van Jones made headlines with his impassioned monologue calling the election a “whitelash against a changing country.”)

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Williams, bless him, was not so easily convinced. “I’m just telling you, I’m not sure this is good for America,” he said. “Dana [Perino] says the rest of the world will adjust to this quickly. I don’t think so.”

Rove countered by urging Williams and Clinton voters still reeling from shock at having elected a professed pussy grabber, not to prejudge him. That's right. At the end of this long, demoralizing slog was Turd Blossom, counseling Democrats to forgive. “It’s incumbent on all of us to give him a chance to succeed,” said Rove, who served as a senior adviser to former president George W. Bush.

Williams questioned that reasoning, considering Trump capitalized on a “nationalist, white appeal that has brought out some extreme elements in our society.”

Ah, but Hume countered, those are just campaign tactics. “Richard Nixon played very rough with people," Hume said, noting that the former Republican president had "accusations that they were Communists and all that." He added about Trump, "Let the guy have a fresh start.”

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Right, because as history tells us, Nixon really settled down and took it easy on the left and African-Americans once he got down to the important work of being president.

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Fox News did not only rely on its anchors and reporters to push the Trump agenda. The ads on Election Day were just shy of resembling a propaganda reel from “The Hunger Games,” especially a heartwarming commercial featuring frames of cowboys on horseback, smiling factory workers and plump tomatoes, reminding us of all the ways in which Koch Industries touches our lives. (Ah, a reminder of the richness that has fueled the Koch brothers, men who have funneled millions of dollars into right-wing candidates across the counter via a variety of corrosive super PACs. Give the world a Koch, America.)

This was not as strange as the frequent ads for the video game “Dishonored 2,” which allows gamers to play assassins seeking to kill an evil queen.

The median age of the typical Fox News viewer is older than 60, so this is obviously a ploy to give viewers gift ideas for the grandkids. Meaning, Election Night is Black Friday for Fox News’ coverage of the (fabricated) War on Christmas.

****

Once upon a time, I watched “The Apprentice.” I never was a fan, but I understood its central appeal. “The Apprentice” embodied the aspirational ideal of American capitalism, promoting the suggestion that by employing original thinking, strategy, leadership and hustle, anyone can reap the business world's rewards.

It also played upon the element of Republican Lee Atwater’s political strategy that peddled the myth of upper-class accessibility that says we must allow the rich to flourish in the hope that someday we'll be rich, too. According to one of Trump's favorite sales pitches, if he can be a self-made millionaire (albeit one who got millions of dollars in startup funds from his father) then so can a cab driver who has his level of moxie.

I even interviewed Trump about that ingredient prior to the show’s 2004 second season — a detail I forgot about until this surreal, nightmarish night of all nights.

“What's the No. 1 barrier to achieving success?” I asked him back then.

He replied, “Not being smart enough.”

Notice he didn’t say educated or elite. The word he used was “smart.”

And that’s the sting of it, really. Over the coming days pollsters, television journalists and reporters at traditional media outlets will come to terms with being outsmarted by a man uses the word “bigly,” can barely grapple with the caprices of international diplomacy and has fueled countless late-night talk show punch lines —  except, that is, on Tuesday night.

The media can blame its massive case of being outwitted, outplayed and outlasted on a number of factors but must begin with its willingness to merrily roll along as Hollywood and Jeff Zucker, the head of NBC who green-lighted “The Apprentice,” began to burnish Trump’s image more than a dozen years ago.

The Trump of 2004 did not appear to be a man who wanted to run for president. What he desired instead was to capitalize on the success of his book “The Art of the Deal,” which he shilled at every opportunity on his reality show, to build a successful brand. That’s what it looked like from all outside indications, anyway.

We know now that behind the scenes lurked a hostile work environment for women. But what does that matter now, especially since Hume, Rove and everyone else at Fox is asking us to give the man a clean slate? Surely he’ll respect the Oval Office, right?

“The Apprentice” was lucrative for Trump, but not as helpful to his image as his slapping his name on gigantic, glowing letters on skyscrapers in major cities throughout the country. Trump? He’s the guy with the glittering gold penthouse in the great shiny building in Manhattan. He has a line of steaks and golf courses and the Miss Universe pageant, and Mar-a-Lago — all the right trappings to convince the men and women on the streets that he’s a man who knows how to create success, how to win.

That image was certainly not lost on Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone, whom Fox anchor Neil Cavuto interviewed on Tuesday afternoon. “You can say a lot of bad things about Trump,” Langone said. “But look at every building he built. He gets 'em done. They’re beautiful.”

“Oh, he’s a business genius!” Cavuto agreed effusively.

(This cause my memory to flash back to around 10 p.m. on Monday night, when Comedy Central aired Lewis Black’s 2016 stand-up special in which he reminded his audience that Trump bankrupted a casino. “I mean, that’s impossible,” Black said.)

In case the real estate conquests, infomercials and the unscripted TV boardroom slugfests weren’t convincing enough, there was his well-documented bromance with Billy Bush of "Access Hollywood" and an odious hosting stint on “Saturday Night Live.” Later, once Trump started bullying Republican contenders on the primary circuit, cable news covered his boorish grandstanding with enthusiasm with Fox News leading the charge and CNN breathlessly following. By the way, the latter is now run by Trump’s old NBC buddy Zucker.

Even without Zucker in its offices, NBC broadened its Trump campaign contribution by giving the candidate a cuddly appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” after he amped up his racist rhetoric.

Making a president out of a reality star was a lucrative business for everyone involved — everybody except the viewers, who suffered mightily as meaningful discourse was pushed aside to make ratings hay out of partisan bickering.

By numerous estimates, Trump received billions of dollars in free advertising as cable news networks halted the news cycle and trained their cameras on empty stages and podiums, sometimes for more than an hour, waiting for Trump to show up anytime he announced a press conference. This often occurred at the expense of covering Clinton’s or Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaigns and their supporters.

Network news teams played along, too, with CBS CEO Leslie Moonves admitting to The Hollywood Reporter that the presidential race “may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS," reveling in the ad money that covering Trump and his Republican contenders brought in.

This was a recurring theme long after wackiness ceased to be entertaining, but at that juncture Trump turned against every media outlet that wasn’t Fox News. Even then, for a time he’d only deign to grace Sean Hannity's show with his presence. The pliant entertainment industry and news media didn’t merely propel Trump to the presidency; they let themselves be the victim of an old-fashioned pump and dump.

Now that Trump has won, surely he’ll be much more magnanimous about spreading the love within Fox News. Other networks, maybe not so much — unless they sell his steaks.

****

Watching Fox News make the journey from muted uncertainty to a place of full-throated braggadocio as the odds tilted away from Clinton and toward Trump was a wild, depressing way to end a crazy, deflating election. And while it was clear that the president-elect isn't exactly beloved by the network's election night team, Fox News led the charge to get him there. At the end of the day, Fox News is plainly content to align its fortunes with Trump's presidency for the next four years or so.

By the time it was all over but the crying at Clinton’s election night gathering in Manhattan’s Javits Center, Baier was calling the turn of events “Brexit, supercharged.” Hume, replying to the French ambassador’s quote, quipped. “The fact that the French don’t like it is good news to me.”

Hume went on to praise Trump for hanging in there, in spite of all the odds stacked against him. Yes, he said that.

“He endured slings and arrows from people that were indisposed to like him,” Hume declared. “And he took criticism from the press on a level we’ve rarely seen. And it’s going to continue.”

Fox News contributors are experts at the advance-retreat narrative, behaving as if months upon months of the network’s positive publicity coverage and negative-skewing coverage of his top Democratic opponent somehow did not bring all of us to this place. Even Kelly, who won a bit of grudging respect from the likes of Samantha Bee for standing up to Trump, attempted to paint a rosier picture of Trump by recalling how gracious he was when they finally met for the widely touted one-on-one interview following a bitter, sexist feud that he had sparked

But then Kelly pushed it by saying Trump for the most part gave the press access. There are simply too many recorded examples of reporters' intimidation and written accounts of being blacklisted for that to hold water. Mind you, that statement assumes that a person has a willingness to remember such things, if he or she paid attention in the first place.

We would not be engaging in such a worrisome test of our democracy’s resilience if voters were really looking at the news or important issues.

The media’s mistakes were profound, numerous and went unchecked for long enough to tilt a presidency into the hands of an inexperienced, unqualified candidate best suited for low-stakes reality contests. Should any kind of good come out of this hard lesson that we’ve only started to learn, let it be that there's a need for a reinvigorated, refocused press — one that recognizes its role to cut through the partisan cacophony and serve the people's interests.

Fox News, in spite of any earlier unreasonable hopes, offered no signs of turning toward sobriety, though Hume did offer utter a bit of sage perspective at the end of a long, weary day that smacked of optimism.

“This country was built to deal with such vicissitudes, such changes, such shocks,” he said. “The republic will endure, no matter what.” As for whether it’ll take a shape that we’ll recognize or even like, it’s too early to call.


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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