In the upside-down world alternate universe created by Fox News, "real Americans" are under siege in "their own country" from nonwhite, non-English-speaking immigrants, Black and brown people more generally, and street violence orchestrated by antifa, the Black Lives Matter movement and other bogeymen
America's suburbs are being overrun by criminals (understood by default to be Black or brown), and patriotic Americans face relentless censorship and discrimination from the forces of "wokeness." Teachers and activists are spreading "critical race theory" in public schools, devoted to brainwashing white children into self-hatred.
"Socialism" is running amok and destroying America. Gay men and lesbians have ruined the institution of marriage, and trans people are sexual deviants who loiter in public bathrooms seeking to molest children — or, more to the point, seduce true American heterosexual manly men.
"Political correctness" is taking away (white) people's freedoms and oppressing them. Christmas is being destroyed. America's "Christian values" and origins are being disrespected. The country's pristine history as a "Christian nation" and the shining city on the hill are being "canceled" by leftist scolds, the 1619 Project and other America-haters. "Western civilization" (meaning some imaginary version of what used to be called Christendom) faces existential danger.
Social scientists and other researchers have repeatedly documented that Fox News viewers know less about empirical reality and current events than people who do not consume any news at all.
In the Age of Trump and America's crisis of democracy, matters have grown even more dire: Those who live in the Fox News universe (and that of the larger right-wing media) are also much more likely to believe in the Big Lie that Donald Trump "won" the 2020 election, that Joe Biden is a usurper, that the terrorists who attempted to overthrow democracy on Jan. 6 are patriots, and that violence in defense of "traditional American values" is legitimate and necessary.
Fox News takes the sociopathic values and policies of the Trump-ruled Republican Party, and the even darker currents below those, and seeks to whitewash them into normal and even idealistic political positions. As such, Fox News can legitimately be considered a public menace and a danger to America's collective safety and sanity.
In a recent conversation with Salon, documentary filmmaker and author Jen Senko discussed how Fox News is destroying families and other personal relationships:
A woman recently shared with me how her husband was a good, sweet guy and a really quiet person. Right before Trump ran for office and became president, he started watching Fox News and his personality completely changed. He would yell at her and their child more. He would criticize her, his wife, because she was a Democrat, yell at her, yell at her kid, start criticizing her. The husband was becoming emotionally abusive.
The woman who reached out to me was afraid that it was going to traumatize her child and that she might have to leave her husband. She was really sad about it because she had once been very much in love with him.
Another person who contacted me lost several members of her family to COVID. Her father still wouldn't get the vaccine. He got COVID, and still wouldn't get the vaccine — or said he wouldn't — and he died because Tucker Carlson and other people on Fox News were telling people like him not to get vaccinated….
I think they're in a trance. They are definitely not awake. They're almost on autopilot. They are going to accept anything they are told by Fox.
It hardly needs saying that there is no real "news" seen on Fox News — although some in America's political and media classes still pretend otherwise, for a range of personal and professional reasons. Chris Wallace's recent announcement that he is leaving Fox News after 18 years will be greeted by the mainstream media as another sign that "respectable Republicans" are turning against the fascist insurgency and that a "civil war" is raging on the right. In fact, Wallace and other "old school" reporters at Fox News have largely served as beards, lending cover and legitimacy to the channel's propaganda operation..
Many outsiders to Fox News, who still live in normal society, cannot navigate or decipher the power that Fox News holds over its public and the larger right-wing political cult. For that we have Andrew Lawrence, a senior researcher at Media Matters and a professional guide to the Fox News universe, who told me that he watches the channel so others don't have to.
In our recent conversation, Lawrence explained how Fox News functions in the Republican anti-democracy movement, and how its programs use fear, repetition and lies to condition its viewers into compliance, submission and a constant state of anxiety. He also discussed the role of white supremacy and white victimology in the Fox News universe, and in particular specifically the larger narrative being offered by Tucker Carlson and other highly-rated Fox news prime-time hosts.
Toward the end of this conversation, Lawrence offers his advice on how media consumers can lead healthier and more balanced lives in this time of 24/7 news coverage, an escalating democracy crisis and what feels like a never-ending torrent of existential danger.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Given American's escalating democracy crisis, how are you feeling? How do you make sense of this constant deluge of events?
There's been so much and there continues to be so much happening. It is day after day after day. It can be overwhelming. The whole situation can be depressing. I watch Fox News so that other people don't have to.
There are little blips of good news here and there. It's not all doom and gloom, but watching the things that we watch every single night at Media Matters is hard. We don't just look at Fox News — we go into the worst parts of the internet and keep tabs on extremist groups as well.
The right-wing attacks on democracy, to me, are entirely predictable. To cite one obvious example, the Jan. 6 coup attempt and attack on the Capitol was announced publicly in advance. There was no surprise, yet there is an entire media class that pretends to be shocked by the obvious. As someone who tracks right-wing media for a living, how do you make sense of this pattern?
I was recently thinking about the El Paso Walmart shooting. It was inspired by all this Fox News right-wing talk about an "invasion" along the Southern border from Latin and South America. The El Paso shooter put out a manifesto. Here at Media Matters we went back and looked at how many times Fox News had mentioned an "invasion."
Another example is how you can go all the way back to George Tiller, an abortion doctor who was murdered, and how Bill O'Reilly was labeling him "George Tiller the Baby Killer." This happened right up until his killing. There was a shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado, when Fox News was reporting that they were selling baby parts.
You have the invasion rhetoric. You have Tree of Life Synagogue [in Pittsburgh], where the shooter was a guy who thought George Soros was funding migrant "caravans," which was another main talking point on Fox News. There is inspiration for these events coming from right-wing media talking points, over and over and over again. It leads to serious acts of violence.
Jan. 6 is another example where there was a mob of people swarming the Capitol and Fox News hosts were treating it like a college football game in how they were hyping it up beforehand.
You said you watch Fox News so other people don't have to. Why are their viewers so dedicated?
What Fox News is doing is capitalizing on fear, more than anything. That is the formula for keeping their viewers enraged and engaged. Using the COVID vaccine as an example, Fox News understands that their audience has a distrust in the government and some type of "they" who, in their minds, hold power and are controlling things. Fox News leverages that more than anything else. What I have realized, especially over the last six months, is that Fox News is just a grift.
They're just grifting their viewers and they're going to say anything that they have to in order to keep eyeballs on their station for as long as they can. Fox News will say whatever they need to in the exact moment necessary to tell their audience what it needs to hear to keep watching
What are the long-term themes that Fox News is emphasizing in the Age of Trump?
The main theme on Fox News right now is that the only racism that exists is racism against white people. "They" are coming for white people. It's a constant theme throughout the network. I would say Tucker Carlson is a little bit more upfront about it. He'll do segments on supposed anti-white policies.
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You can see this common thread right now running through nearly every segment that Fox News does, which is that white people are in danger and that they are coming for you. I would say that is the main theme, more than anything. That's what keeps the viewers' eyeballs on the network all day, every day.
I focus on the prime-time Fox News shows and personalities. Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity in particular, they'll say things you won't hear on any other network. Why? Because what they are saying is not true.
For example, they claim that the COVID vaccine has killed tens of thousands of people. Fox News is the only place where you are going to hear such a thing. Fox News viewers then start to think, "If I'm not watching this show every single night, then I could die. It's life or death, if I watch this show or not, because they're the only ones who are going to tell me that the vaccine is killing people." Or Fox News is the only one that's going to claim that major cities are in complete ruins right now, and if I go there I might die. Fox News and their hosts are the only ones telling me that Cory Booker is coming for the suburbs. Those kinds of stories are what keeps the majority of Fox News viewers plugged in every single night.
What is the world like, according to Fox News and its viewers?
The world that they're living in is just constant fear. It is a constant theme of "They are coming for you." Black Lives Matter protesters are coming to your suburbs. They're going to be marching down your street. They're coming for your history. They're coming for your Confederate statues.
On a recent show, Tucker Carlson said that the government may force conservatives to take psychotropic drugs because they don't like their ideas. What is happening is supposedly a civilizational battle. It is always a battle for what they describe as "Western civilization." It's always just teetering on the razor's edge. "They" are about to win. They're going to take everything that's American from you and civilization, as we know it, is going to end.
Apocalypse is a constant theme on Fox News, all the time. I believed that, eventually, when the apocalypse didn't come, when Joe Biden didn't round people up and put them into FEMA camps, Fox News would stop with that story and would lose viewers from a lack of interest. That did not happen. The viewers just need more of it.
Tucker Carlson and Fox News recently featured a three-part series about Jan. 6 and the aftermath called "Patriot Purge." It was a masterful and dangerous example of fascist propaganda. Joseph Goebbels would have approved. What was your reaction?
It was sickening. Watching Tucker's series, it felt like something from a fictional movie, a dystopian movie where fascism has taken over the United States. Much of that "Patriot Purge" series was meant to whitewash white supremacy.
One of Tucker's biggest themes is that white supremacy doesn't exist. There's no such thing. When there is any criticism of white supremacy, Tucker tells his audience that is a criticism of all Republicans and all conservatives.
There is no connection between the truth and Tucker's Patriot Purge series. He features some of the most extreme actors tied to Jan. 6 and introduces them to the audience as though they are sympathetic characters, which in turn is getting the viewers fired up.
Fox News is the center of a much larger right-wing propaganda machine and echo chamber. How does it work?
Let's focus on "critical race theory" as an example. That came up out of nowhere. Nobody was talking about critical race theory before Fox News and Tucker Carlson and the right-wing political activists and strategists started talking about it.
They begin by saying that critical race theory is a huge problem. They say that people are pissed off about it. Fox News viewers are enraged, so they start going to school board meetings and yelling about their version of something called critical race theory — which is not being taught in these schools. But they're very upset about it. Fox News starts interviewing these people and calls them parents, even though the majority of them are Republican operatives.
It is all one big circle and feedback loop. Now you're sitting there as a viewer and you're saying, "Wow, these parents, they have kids in these schools. They're furious." And it just goes round and round and round again like that.
As for the right-wing media echo system and the bubble that they are in, there is nothing like it on the left. Fox News did some 1,900 segments on critical race theory. That goes out to other right-wing websites and personalities on social media who will take the message and make it go viral. They will hammer on a topic for months at a time if they need to.
These people are just making so much money off this stuff. There is just so much money to be made in conservative media right now. There is no equivalent on the left.
Another aspect of this echo chamber and loop is how they all just talk amongst themselves. Then the message starts to get out. There are people who do not watch the news, but they see it on television in the gym and that's how they get their information. Then what they see on Fox News is a huge problem and a crisis. Or they just see a Facebook post from one of their friends who heard something. That is how these "controversies" start to break out of the right-wing bubble and into the mainstream.
There are supposed liberals and progressives who will appear on Fox News. Their logic is that they will somehow win over or convince Fox News viewers to an alternative point of view by providing the truth. What are your thoughts?
All that liberals are doing when they go on the channel is to give the Fox News PR team a talking point: "We're reasonable. We'll bring on anybody." I think it's extremely damaging. I think it gives Fox News people a credibility that they don't deserve. During the 2020 campaign, Bernie Sanders did a town hall on Fox News and he got a standing ovation for his comments about Medicare for All. It was a big deal at the time and got lots of attention. The narrative was, "Oh, wow. Look at what he accomplished. Look at what he exposed all these Fox News viewers to." That was true in that exact moment. But then what Fox News focused on from the town hall was how Bernie Sanders made some comment about raising taxes.
Fox News trapped him: All they talked about was Bernie Sanders wanting to raise taxes. They didn't bring up the Medicare for All again. But that was one instance, for one moment. He didn't convince any Fox News viewers to support Medicare for All because after that, Fox News hosts and all their other guests — Ted Cruz and everybody else they bring on — is just hammering how universal health care is really socialism, and somehow that is going to be the end of America.
It's impossible to convince Fox News viewers to change their beliefs. Fox News has spent 25 years telling their audience, "We are the only ones that you can trust. Literally, everyone else is lying to you. We're the only ones you can trust." That has paid huge dividends.
What is the role of Fox News in America's democracy crisis?
They are the leaders. They're not just leading it, they're pushing for it. They want this type of division because they know it's good for ratings, because they know it keeps eyeballs on their network.
You watch Fox News for a living and take on all that stress and misery. What advice do you have for those Americans who are exhausted by the right-wing assault and by this never-ending torrent of bad news and the resulting feelings of doom? How do you stay level?
I'm very lucky. I'm very privileged. I grew up in a middle-class family. I'm white and straight. For me, I try to completely disassociate when I can and when it makes sense. I'm not saying don't stay involved, but if this is all you're doing and all you're thinking about is politics and current events 24/7, you're going to be miserable because there's so much awfulness out there. At some point you have to realize that you're just one person and you're doing everything you can. I try to embrace what is good out there as much as I possibly can when I'm not working, and when I'm not sitting there furious at my television.