The faith of the Fox Nation: Belief in opinions trumps hope in news

A new PRRI survey shows just how much sway Fox News holds over Republicans who watch as their primary news source

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published October 21, 2019 8:55PM (EDT)

Shepard Smith   (AP/Richard Drew)
Shepard Smith (AP/Richard Drew)

A longtime sticking point among Fox News employees is their insistent differentiation between its news division, where employees practice actual journalism, and its opinion division, where employees practice actual nativism, spew misinformation, and have been actively campaigning for Donald Trump’s re-election since 2016.  Inside the organization, they claim to believe that the news side is separate from the opinion side, and insist that the audience can tell the difference.

News anchor Shepard Smith once characterized comparing the two as “apples and teaspoons.”

“Everybody’s got a job to do,” Smith told the Huffington Post. Sean Hannity, he went on to explain, “is trying to get conservatives elected. And he wants you to listen to him and believe what he believes. And I’m disseminating facts.”

Of course, he said this in 2016. A little over a week ago, Smith walked away from Fox at the end of his Friday, Oct. 11 broadcast, signing off with a declaration of, “Even in our currently polarized nation, it’s my hope that the facts will win the day. That the truth will always matter. That journalism and journalists will thrive.”

Say what you will about Smith, or the fact that the surfeit of positive coverage he’s received since his departure conveniently downplays the fact that he spent 23 years with an organization that has been steadily ramping up its divisive rhetoric and peddling dangerous lies to benefit the bottom line. The man is not in the practice of making haphazard statements.

This specifically refers to his usage of “hope” in that statement, not “I have faith” or “I believe.”  Hope is a beautiful word, but it’s also named for the tiny, squeaky little thing at the bottom of Pandora’s box — you know, the weakling that could only emerge after all the demons had escaped, and could not have done so without a helping hand.

Belief and faith are far more powerful because they require no proof or data to legitimize them. Fox News runs on the two concepts, which is why its hardcore audience isn’t referred to as “viewers” but Fox Fans that come together as the Fox Nation.

And it is that faith that is holding sway over a significant chunk of the electorate, as the Public Religion Research Institute validates in the findings of its study, released on Monday.

Conclusions published in “Fractured Nation: Widening Partisan Polarization and Key Issues in 2020 Presidential Elections” are drawn from a survey of more than 2,000 Americans and include a number of insights about the politically driven rancor tearing our country apart. But a few key findings specifically call out the influence of Fox News.

For example, the study indicates that 55 percent of Republicans who view Fox as their primary news source say there is nothing Trump could do to lose their approval. Only 29 percent of Republicans who don’t view Fox as their primary news source feel this way.

Those same Republicans oppose Trump being impeached and removed from office to the tune of 98 percent. The study goes further, asking questions beyond the scope of Trump and the 2020 election. For example, Fox Fan Republicans feel that society punishes men simply for being men (68 percent) and has become “too feminine” (73 percent). In the Fox Nation, white people face discrimination at the same rates as black people (77 percent) and immigrants are invading the United States (78 percent), and therefore they favor more restrictive immigration policies (96 percent).

That last part bears mentioning since, as you might recall, around this time a year ago Smith gained praise and generated headlines during the height of the Fox News-enabled frenzy over the migrant caravan for going against the loud messaging from Fox News’ prime time panic block, driven by Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, and Hannity.

“The migrants, according to FOX News reporting, are more than two months away if any of them actually come,” Smith said. “But tomorrow is one week before the midterm election, which is what all of this is about. There is no invasion. No one is coming to get you. There is nothing at all to worry about.”

This was based on fact, which against belief, is powerless.

Smith, it has been widely reported, will pop up elsewhere after he sits out a non-compete. Indeed, he’s likely to have greater success at another news organization than the likes of Megyn Kelly. You may recall the caravan of racist remarks from past broadcasts of “The Kelly File” that haunted her throughout her short tenure at NBC and eventually, inevitably, resurrected right around Halloween by way of her blackface remarks.

Smith, in contrast, wasn’t perfect but at the very least he was out front debunking some of his former co-workers more outrageous untruthful claims. The problem is that the average Fox viewer didn’t believe him, or believe in him as passionately as they believe in Hannity, Carlson, Ingraham, Jeanine Pirro, and the rest of the opinion squad.

So for now, there are no tea leaves to be read about whether Fox Corp. executive chairman and CEO Lachlan Murdoch may have his version of a “come to Jesus” moment now that Smith has left the building.

Rest assured he won't. Not while Fox News continues to generate about $1 billion a year in profit and tops the overall cable ratings in prime time. Not while Fox News is widely credited for holding sway over the political direction of a Republican leadership fearful of what abandoning Trump may mean to their careers, one that knows the network speaks directly to their constituents and lets them know what, and who, to believe.

What Fox News can do, however, is mark this transition to the post-Smith era by being  more honest about its role in the public discourse. Let go of the claim that there’s a difference between the news  side and the opinion moneymaker. Admit that it’s all part of a single goulash of skew designed to derail conversations about political, social and cultural developments its audience deems to be inconvenient to its world view.

Yes, there are still those at Fox News who actually practice as close to solid journalism as one can at the organization, such as “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace and “The Story” host Martha MacCallum. This week, in fact, Wallace roasted acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney when Mulvaney attempted to walk back last week’s comments at a press conference that confirmed the White House held back aid to Ukraine on the condition of launching a political investigation into his Democratic rival Joe Biden and the former Vice President’s son, Hunter.

But even Chris Wallace refrains from calling out fellow Fox News colleagues directly for promoting spin and circulating lies, as Smith did in response to Carlson’s attacks on him and other Fox contributors. According to Vanity Fair reporter Gabriel Sherman, Smith’s reward for taking a stand against Carlson was a reprimand from management, which a spokesperson denies occurred.

And he and other journalists surely realize that they play second fiddle to prime-time hosts every time Trump drops by “Hannity” for yet another prime-time massage appointment – his 13th such interview with the host since he’s taken office, and by Media Matters’ count, the 64th nationally televised interview on a Fox-owned network since his inauguration. Trump knows where the believers worship, after all.

So what are we to make of the channel’s journalism arm, and whether the actual good-faith efforts made by its practitioners who care about fact-based reporting will matter? Fox News media president Jay Wallace told Variety that the 3 p.m. ET/ noon PT news hour Smith once anchored will remain devoted to hard news.

He also indicates that the network isn’t in a rush to replace Smith. (Its slate of interim news anchors in the time slot includes Brit Hume, Shannon Bream, Bret Baier, John Roberts, and Bill Hemmer, as well as Wallace and MacCallum.)

This isn’t an unusual practice for TV news organization to take its time when replacing an anchor, which among mainstream news organizations can be an inexact science at best and in the most ideal of circumstances.

Still, it bears watching closely to see what stripe of anchor Fox slides into the seat Smith abandoned. Talk of a sea change at the network has been brewing since Lachlan Murdoch took over for his father, Rupert, and amidst reports of a “civil war” within Fox News, some are watching closely to see whether the network’s support of Trump and messaging about impeachment changes.

It likely won’t, and if it does, it’ll be an abrupt about face in proximity to some news about the Fox Corp. business taking a hit – which is not likely to happen in the short term. You can read this in a recent Hollywood Reporter interview with Murdoch, who answered the reporter’s question about whether “the scourge of misinformation out there [bothers him]” by redirecting the blame toward social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

“In New Zealand, when Facebook streamed the mass shooting, one of the things they said was, ‘We can't control everything that's on our platform,’” Murdoch observed, before adding, “Is it a good platform, then? If you can't control it? That's not an excuse, right?”

There wasn’t any evidence — not any that made it to print, at least — that the reporter pointed out the misinformation disseminated by Fox’s prime-time pundits that Murdoch and his executives have control over, but did little to quell or push back against.

That white nationalism is a hoax, for example, or that immigrants make America “dirtier.” Smith used to do what he could to counter such ugly amplifications. We're betting the next permanent anchor in his midday news chair won’t follow in that tradition, opting instead to adhere to the company’s religion and its lucrative role in playing to the faithful, regardless of how preposterous and damaging their belief may be.

By Melanie McFarland

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

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