It wasn't a good week for Fox News. On Tuesday night, Tucker Carlson, the network's torchbearer for white nationalism, ripped into Rep. Ilhan Omar, accusing the Somali-born Minnesota congresswoman of harboring an "undisguised contempt for the United States and for its people." "Ilhan Omar is living proof," Carlson continued his rant, "that the way we practice immigration has become dangerous to this country... She's a living fire alarm, a warning to the rest of us that we ought to change our immigration system immediately, or else."
Earlier that same day, a Yahoo News investigation reported that Fox News had never been able to identify the source behind a story that they still went on to run about the murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, a conspiracy theory planted in the U.S. by Russian intelligence agents that quickly made its way from fringe conservative websites right into Fox News' primetime coverage with regular features on Sean Hannity's show, the network's most watched program. It turns out that the network in service of the president obsessed with "fake news" has been airing exactly that on his behalf.
Such missteps and embarrassments would likely prompt most news organizations to alter course — or at least engage in some serious soul searching. But Fox News is no normal news channel. And since 2015, it's been readily apparent to whom the network has sold its soul. Yet this week's events make it even clearer how Fox News operates not as a legitimate news outlet, but as an unapologetic — and often sloppy — propaganda mill for the Trump presidency, a network as nearly committed to fearmongering and disinformation as the president himself is.
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Carlson certainly indicated he has no plans to change his ways. Following Carlson's Tuesday evening program, Rep. Omar responded to the attack, calling him a "racist fool." Plenty of commentators and Twitter users alike seemed to agree.
But Carlson was not cowed. On Wednesday night, he focused more than half of his show on going after Omar again. And why should he be? He has the support of President Trump who signaled his endorsement by retweeting wingnut Mark Levin's tweet blasting CNN for coming "to the defense" of Omar over Carlson. That's the sort of manufactured media dustup our TV-obsessed president loves. It also demonstrates again the tight connection between Trump and Fox News' most outrageous voices, a toxic relationship that fuels the worst impulses of both.
Since Trump has taken office, we've known well of that close connection. Early last year, a Trump adviser boasted to The Washington Post that Hannity was so thickly bound to the president that "he basically has a desk" in the White House.
Yet if Hannity has Trump's ear, as I've written before, Carlson has become his mouthpiece. And that may be an even more dangerous arrangement. On his nightly show, Carlson regularly channels the president's incoherent id and delivers it to his audience in prolonged racist and alarmist monologues. Carlson's prep school pretentiousness has always been part of his shtick, but it's proven especially useful in the Trump era as he expertly translates the president's ramblings into polished white nationalist screeds against the nation's demographic changes.
Carlson enjoys his primetime spot exactly because of his unguarded advocacy for Trumpism, not in spite of it. Although Fox once included a few Trump critics among its many personalities, the network cleaned house of any naysayers, like George Will and Megyn Kelly, once Trump won the Republican nomination in the summer of 2016. The overhaul of Fox News into Trump TV has been near totalizing with an endless loop of news stories, commentary, and counterprogramming now propping up, defending, and — when necessary — distracting from the atrocities of the Trump presidency.
Even in that unending shilling for the president — a parade of programming that on its worst days seems indistinguishable from the state-run media of the Soviet Union or North Korea — Tucker Carlson's show stands out for its unabashed puffery and paranoia. While Media Matters has traced what it calls Carlson's "descent into white supremacy" all the way back to 2007, the catalog of Carlson's offenses has grown especially robust since 2016. If most people clean up their ways when the spotlight is turned on them, Carlson — and Fox News more broadly — has shown the opposite inclination. Instead, Carlson — just like Trump — knows that a steady stream of racist grievances and conspiratorial thinking is what keeps their audience tuning in.
Trump's eyes are certainly on Fox News, and his Twitter feed shows a constant promotion of the network's stories, as media watcher Matt Gertz regularly documents. Still, even Fox News' most loyal viewer can grow disgruntled. On Sunday, Trump launched a Twitter rampage railing against the network's weekend anchors and its recent hiring of Democratic strategist Donna Brazile as a political commentator. As The Hollywood Reporter pointed out, Trump's Twitter takedown of Fox has become an almost monthly habit, but the president is unlikely to stop watching. Like an abusive partner, Trump knows just how to keep his loved one in line, peppering his gushing praise for the network with the occasional threat he'll leave.
As long as the network is fueling the president's agenda and ego on a nightly basis, that breakup will never happen. And getting rightly called out for racist attacks and journalistic malpractice only makes their codependency stronger.
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