Crossing the Line
The power of Fox "News"
Storytellers are often in search of a moment that sets a scene, speaks to a particular drama, and touches on the broader narratives they wish to tell. One such moment occurred this past week in the wake of the Republican primary for an open Senate seat in Pennsylvania.
The scene is a stage at the Newtown Athletic Club on the evening of the primary. The lead actor is Dr. Mehmet Oz, the physician known for his TV stints who — backed by Donald Trump — has just wrapped up a particularly Trumpian run for office. It was all culture wars, “look at me, I’m a celebrity,” and bellicose bloviations.
There’s no shortage of what can be written about “Dr. Oz” (a lot of digital pixels have already been spent on his behalf) — the outrageousness of his opinions on many medical issues, his shameless appeals to the MAGA base, the suspicion he engenders among far-right voters who don’t trust he is one of them, to name just a few. The spectacle of Dr. Oz as a Republican stalwart provides a useful lens through which to view a party fueled by manufactured outrage instead of coherent ideas and trolling instead of governance.
Despite Dr. Oz’s name recognition and Trump’s seal of approval, as of this writing, it is still unclear whether he will win the nomination. He and his closest rival, former hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick, are locked in a race too close to call. There is an especially rich hypocrisy that the race will be decided by mail-in and absentee ballots, which apparently are fraudulent only when they wind up in a Democratic candidate’s tally.
But what I want to focus on today is something Dr. Oz said when he took the stage. Like most candidates, he observed the long tradition of thanking those who supported him. Nothing unusual there. But then he arrived at a name and described a level of support that drew some attention. I want to give it a lot more.
Sean Hannity, whom Dr. Oz paints as a close friend and confidant (almost a campaign consigliere), obviously needs no introduction. His nightly perch on that self-styled “news” network has been a source of abundant and well-warranted opprobrium over the years. So it might be tempting, with everything else that is going on, to chalk up this latest statement by Dr. Oz as another outrageous excess that merits an eye roll and moving on.
But let’s drill down a little deeper. Fox News is powerful in large part because it has the word “News” in its title. Its claim to be a corrective to the supposed “liberal biases” of the so-called “mainstream media” represents a marketing bonanza that has generated excellent revenue for owner Rupert Murdoch and eight-figure annual salaries for its primetime stars — most notably Hannity and Tucker Carlson.
Money is only one part of the story. There is also the power that comes with having a platform for propaganda. While Hannity was apparently back-channeling campaign advice to Dr. Oz, he was also using his TV slot to attack one of Dr. Oz’s political rivals — the even more extreme candidate Kathy Barnette, who surged at the final stages of the primary campaign only to fall short. After the polls closed, Barnette left little doubt about whom she is blaming for her loss:
Acyn @AcynOz: I want to thank Sean Hannity… He understands how to make a difference and he’s been doing that this entire campaign.. much of it behind the scenes… giving me advice on late night conversations https://t.co/E18ZHl973W
What is happening in Republican politics in Pennsylvania and beyond is chilling. These developments include the selection of Doug Mastriano as the Republican candidate for governor. Mastriano is a far-right Big Lie believer who was photographed outside the Capitol on January 6 and who, if victorious, would have the power to potentially “steal” the electoral votes of this battleground state in the 2024 presidential election. The threats to our democracy are many and dire. But once again, the pervasiveness of the danger can’t be an excuse to overlook Hannity’s actions or what they portend.
Needless to say, if a reporter at a news organization other than Fox supported a candidate with half as much complicity as Hannity did Dr. Oz, it would be grounds for immediate termination. Not surprisingly, at Fox News, Hannity's actions don’t even earn a slap on the wrist. As a citizen of the United States, Hannity has the right to support and advocate for any candidate for office. But as someone who claims the privileges and esteem of a journalist, this behavior is lightyears beyond the acceptable.
Since its founding, Fox News has always occupied a murky place between journalism and propagandist “entertainment.” On the one hand, it does employ some real reporters. Some of Fox's work can be considered news, albeit often filtered through an ideological lens.
But not the work of Hannity and his ilk. Not even close. And increasingly, as we have seen in the text messages between Trump and Hannity, there has been a strategic alignment between the messaging on Fox News and Republican politics. This is to say nothing of Tucker Carlson, whose hate-filled racist rhetoric around white "replacement theory" is animating the Republican Party and facilitating bloodshed like what we saw last week in Buffalo, New York.
Dr. Oz’s admission of Hannity’s help is stunning in what it makes clear. There is not even a fig leaf of a pretext of separation between the politicians and those who purportedly report on them. Fox News is an organ of the Trumpian Republican Party. It helps develop, test, and amplify messaging around such buzzwords as “critical race theory.” It gives its favorite candidates free airtime, and it runs what are in effect attack ads against candidates it doesn’t like, be they other Republicans or especially Democrats.
The people in front of and behind the cameras at Fox News certainly have heard this criticism. And they welcome it with glee. The fact that the mainstream press or Democrats would criticize them for acting like propagandists fuels their misplaced sense of victimhood. Even as they attack, lie, and work to sway elections, they claim that they are the ones under assault for their political beliefs. And they use this energy to further stoke their viewers into outrage.
Let me be clear: I believe our society is strengthened by having a variety of different news outlets and reporters, including from across the political spectrum. The more backgrounds and perspectives, the better (although I would argue that the biggest deficit in journalistic representation involves reporters of color). We need people who see and understand the world differently. We should all have our assumptions challenged.
It is also true that politicians of all stripes need to be scrutinized. If some of that comes from people who are overtly political in their world view, there’s a place for that as well. But if we have major media organizations actively working with political campaigns or serving as the mouthpiece for political leaders, then this is something entirely different. It is dangerous to conflate conservative media, which can be healthy for our democracy, with what is actually happening at Fox News.
What makes all of this even more ominous are the espoused beliefs of the modern Republican Party. It is a political engine built on lies, about election results, about the actions of the former president, and about issues like climate change. The talking points that dominate Fox News are so out of balance with the reality of our world. They cherry-pick and amplify small anecdotes of outrage to fuel national narratives they seek to embed in their viewers around such topics as race, guns, and immigration.
To try to bring a sense of perspective to what Fox News is doing is to risk coming into their sights. And they can unleash all sorts of hell. Oftentimes they pick on people without a public presence who find their lives turned upside down. Even those of us more accustomed to the public spotlight can find ourselves battered by their attention. They throw up a smokescreen of “bias” to excuse their actions.
Again, scrutiny is necessary for journalism. And it comes with the territory. But so are honesty and independence. It is one thing to advocate for policy positions you believe in or focus on stories you think are underserved. It is another to work actively in concert with political campaigns or use your media pulpit to develop and deploy political messaging.
The steady stream of hatred, racism, and vitriol emanating from Fox News deserves all the attention it receives. But just as insidious is this inside game and what it says about a media outlet that is a functional arm of the Party of Trump. The former president has created a landscape where the norms of our democratic institutions have been shattered, and media creations like Dr. Oz and Sean Hannity can conspire to push us further into the abyss.
As with all that we face, we can find resilience in recognizing the threat and calling it out. We should not let the abhorrent become acceptable. There can be pressure in persistence.
I also think that Fox News has created a dynamic that is now beyond its ability to control. They risk getting burned by the very base they have stoked for their own cynical gain. In resisting and organizing against the forces of division, we can secure our democracy in ways that could leave it stronger. The crises we face are not new. Turning back the tide, through the vote and the mobilization of action, can leave this country more just and better prepared for the challenges ahead.