In January of 2007, I had an out-of-body experience. No, it wasn’t during an ayahuasca retreat with a kindly shaman. Instead, I was floating above my cubicle in the Hart Senate Office building where I worked as a spokesman for then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). As my mind disassociated from my human form, I watched my body shiver with rage as a senior Fox News executive told me not to worry about their report that Obama was educated in an Indonesian Madrassa. “Calm down, young man,” he told me. “Fox and Friends is just an entertainment show; it’s not real news.” How any viewer is ever supposed to grasp that distinction when half of the network’s name is literally news remains a mystery to me.
Yes, it’s true, “madrassa” is technically just an Arabic word for “school,” but bobblehead doll-turned-morning-show-anchor Steve Doocy helpfully noted that madrassas “teach this Wahhabism which pretty much hates us.” Later, when a viewer called into the show to ask whether this means Obama “doesn’t consider terrorists the enemy,” Doocy’s partner-in-smears Brian Kilmeade responded, “Well, we’ll see about that.” And thus began in earnest the Birther chapter of the Democratic Party’s tortured, abusive relationship with Fox News.
Fox News was founded by Rupert Murdoch in 1996. Murdoch hired a television producer turned Republican media consultant named Roger Ailes to be Fox’s CEO. At a glance, hiring a man who worked for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush might seem like an odd choice to helm a network that professes to be “Fair and Balanced.” But Murdoch knew that Ailes was an expert in one thing – scaring the shit out of white people.
Ailes cut his teeth selling Nixon’s racist Southern Strategy, and helped mastermind the notorious Willie Horton ad, which blamed Michael Dukakis for a brutal assault and rape committed by a black prisoner who was out on a weekend furlough. The only soul-searching Ailes ever admitted to doing over that ad, as he later told Rolling Stone, was whether to “depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand—or without it.”
Long after Ailes’s death, that knife is still clenched in Fox’s fist, slicing up liberals to entertain an audience that dwarfs both CNN’s and MSNBC’s. Fox’s programming ranges from conservative bias, to outright propaganda—including moments of comical sycophancy. New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi reported that Trump and prime-time host Sean Hannity talk on the phone nearly every week night, like prepubescent school boys recounting hallway flirtations with their crushes.
But most of it isn’t funny. Tucker Carlson’s top writer spent years writing anonymous posts on a virulently racist, sexist, homophobic message board. Even after Fox followed CNN and MSNBC in declaring Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 election, the network welcomed guests who attacked their own network for calling the race. And despite the oft-repeated refrain from Very Serious People in Washington that Fox’s “hard news” operation does credible journalism, that division spread misinformation on air every single day between January 1 and April 30, 2019, according to a four-month long investigation by Media Matters.
Very Fair. Very Balanced.
This bias has been obvious for decades. During an interview with CNN in October 2009, Barack Obama’s then-White House Communications Director Anita Dunn correctly observed that Fox “operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party.” And she was right: Among other things, Republicans used Fox to spread conspiracy theories about #BENGHAZI starting in 2012—and they ultimately dragged the mainstream media into the fever swamp.
But fast-forward to February 2014, and there’s Obama himself, sitting down for a disastrous Super Bowl interview with Bill O’Reilly, a volcanic mashed-potato heap of white resentment, who, after being fired for being too sexually predatory even for Fox, is best known for his falafel fetish.
What happened in between? Well, we lost our nerve. We were bullied by the Washington axis of media elites (the ones forever spotted in Playbook attending a never-ending book party circle jerk) who play along with Fox’s ridiculous “Fair and Balanced” lie. For example, in 2009, when the Treasury Department made the watchdog who oversaw the 2008 Wall Street bailout available to every network except Fox News, the Washington bureau chiefs of the five TV networks got together and boycotted the interview unless we included Fox, too. Boycotted! The press corps didn’t muster this same principle when Trump singled out news networks for disloyalty, or privileged Fox over all other outlets, or stopped conducting White House press briefings, or called journalists the “enemy of the people.” But when Obama was in office, the DC press corps beat its chest with righteous indignation (from Both Sides, of course) until we agreed to treat Fox as a legitimate news organization.
So what should Joe Biden’s team do about this problem when it inevitably returns? Learn from our mistakes. Approach Fox News with eyes, not arms, wide open. Call Fox what it is: an extension of the Republican Party. Say it often. Repetitive messaging works—just ask Lyin’ Ted and Low-Energy Jeb. Reject the absurd insistence that the network has a “real news” division. Yes, Fox’s decision desk called Arizona and the election for Biden, but those nerds are stuffed in a boiler room while people like Jeanine Pirro and Karl Rove haunt the hallways and rule the airwaves.
Instead, Biden’s team should develop closer ties with progressive outlets like The Nation, The Young Turks, and yes, Crooked Media. Give them scoops and access and grow their audiences and influence the way Trump’s team has nurtured fringe rags like Newsmax and OAN. More importantly, Biden should supersize his White House digital media team. When the Obama administration created a video blog called West Wing Week to give the public a behind-the-scenes look at the White House, some members of the press corps sniffed that it was propaganda. That was silly even back then, but caving to those self-interested critiques today would be politically disastrous. The filter these journalists think they provide is shredded beyond repair. More people get their news from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube than from sites with professional editorial standards, and conservative voices dominate that landscape. Biden’s team needs to fight harder on Facebook than it does in the White House briefing room.
I’m not arguing Democrats should never go on Fox News. I too enjoy watching Mayor Pete run circles around Fox personalities stunned by coherent pushback. But I was frustrated during the Democratic primary when Pete and Bernie Sanders agreed to participate in nationally televised Fox News town halls in the middle of an organized campaign to pressure advertisers to pull their ads from Fox shows. Elizabeth Warren put it best: “Fox News is a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists — it’s designed to turn us against each other, risking life and death consequences, to provide cover for the corruption that’s rotting our government and hollowing out our middle class.” Amen!
This isn’t just a problem in the United States. Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has enabled the rise of Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom and right-wing governments in Australia, and spread disinformation about climate change and the coronavirus. Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull correctly noted that Murdoch’s companies “turned this issue of physics into an issue of values or identity.” Millions of Americans didn’t take the coronavirus seriously enough because of Fox. Studies suggest many of them died as a result.
So while highly paid Fox executives might be okay with pushing disinformation and calling it entertainment, and some journalists might continue to pretend Fox correspondents are just like them, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have to take Fox News to madrassa—by refusing to take them seriously as news professionals. According to a November 2019 Pew survey, 43 percent of the country trusts Fox News for political and election news. It should come as no surprise that this number is about the same as Donald Trump’s approval rating, but it also reflects a near total failure by Democrats and the media to accurately brand them. We have to start that process now to blunt the distorting effect this cancerous institution has on our politics and our ability to respond to the nation’s next crisis. It’s time to stop caring so much about being balanced, and start caring more about being fair.