Talking Points

The Jan. 6 texts and the rot at the heart of Fox News

So now we know: Although Fox News' primetime message for much of the past year has been that Democrats are wildly exaggerating the seriousness of the insurrection that took place on Capitol Hill last Jan. 6, major figures at the network — including Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Brian Kilmeade — spent that fateful afternoon fretfully texting then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, insisting he get then-President Donald Trump to intervene to stop the violence.

That Fox's on-air talent lies to its audience is hardly surprising. But this fresh revelation of bad faith teaches us something more important. It shows quite clearly that the practical effect of the network in the media ecosystem is continually to shift the Overton Window — the range of politically acceptable speech and deed — further and further to the right. It does this by laundering words and deeds that once would have been almost universally condemned for their radicalism.

The process couldn't be clearer. Fox News' business model is to serve as a propaganda service for the Republican Party. This led the network to spend most of the Trump administration defending the former president from his critics as forcefully as possible. But the network had a problem when Trump refused to accept the results of the just-completed 2020 presidential election, which Fox's own election analysts had called for then-candidate Joe Biden. Evidence of fraud failed to materialize, and even Republican-appointed judges refused to take the president's side in court.

It was in this context that Hannity, Ingraham, and Kilmeade expressed their concern to the White House on the afternoon of Jan. 6, as misinformed supporters of the president forced their way into Congress to demand a halt to certification of the election. Trump never backed down, but the Fox personalities still wouldn't criticize his irresponsible rhetoric on air. That necessitated a reconfiguration of the network's position, eventually producing the constellation of claims with which viewers are still barraged whenever the insurrection is discussed in prime time: The unrest was just a protest by American patriots; it was a false flag operation set in motion by the FBI; it wasn't a big deal, but Democrats won't stop talking about it because of their obsessive Trump Derangement Syndrome; and so forth.

The effect of this reframing is to normalize and mainstream events that formerly seemed shocking. That's how Fox News ends up moving the Overton Window inexorably to the right — by treating anything said or done by members of an increasingly radicalized GOP as perfectly reasonable and justified.

Even when it involves trying to overthrow American democracy itself.