Talking Points

Fox News was toxic long before Tucker Carlson's Jan. 6 movie

Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg, center-right pundits and co-founders of The Dispatch, have been getting some good press for quitting their longstanding gigs as talking heads on Fox News. The occasion of their protest is Patriot Purge, a revisionist and conspiracy-laden documentary about the Jan. 6 insurrection spearheaded by primetime Fox host Tucker Carlson. Hayes and Goldberg had hoped the cable news network would moderate its stances now that former President Donald Trump is out of office, but Carlson's decision to blame the FBI for the violence on Capitol Hill last January showed those hopes were misplaced. So, they concluded, resignation was the only acceptable option.

Distancing oneself from Carlson is definitely a good idea. But I'm not sure this move quite makes Hayes and Goldberg into either heroes (as many anti-Trump figures on the center-right and center-left would have it) or villains (as frequent Fox News contributor and Carlson guest Glenn Greenwald implies). That's because the resignations will do nothing at all to change Fox News' politically toxic business model, with which Hayes and Goldberg have been perfectly content to play along over the past decade and a half, participating in Fox's enormous damage to our political culture in the process.

Fox News boosters, inside and outside of the network's offices, like to describe this business model as "respecting the audience." Defenders of Rush Limbaugh's talk radio program used to say much the same about it — that all it was doing was tapping into an underserved audience and taking its concerns seriously. But that account is almost comically one-sided. Just as the capitalist economy doesn't simply give people what they already wanted but actively creates new desires and shapes consumer tastes, so right-wing media doesn't just respect the pre-existing views of its audience. It also actively intensifies and radicalizes those views by flattering the prejudices that underlie them and providing an endless stream of provocations designed to confirm their validity.

That's how the model works: Ratings rise and profits increase by giving viewers more red meat than they knew they wanted — a process that, over time, moves the Overton Window among American conservatives ever further to the right. Fox News is a machine for generating ideological extremism, in other words, and one to which Hayes and Goldberg were quite content to contribute, even for years after its ominous consequences for our politics had become obvious to all.

Better late than never? Absolutely. But never would have been better still.