A week inside the Fox News bubble: From daytime sanity to prime-time Hannity

Dave Maclean

One of the most startling things about Fox News is just how quickly it managed to embed itself in American culture.

Despite being younger than, say, Logan Paul, it has an outsized level of clout which has only increased with the election of Donald Trump.

By all accounts, the president sits glued to the cable channel at night, rapt by the prime-time line-up of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and co.

I’d planned to spend a week inside the Fox News bubble, consuming only their output - my news apps were deleted and replaced with Fox, my delivery of the New York Times was squirrelled out of sight when it arrived, and I put some noise-cancelling headphones on to drown out CNN in the newsroom in favour of Fox.

On Monday, CNN the daytime news anchors appeared weary, but over on Fox Bill Hemmer looked ahead to another crazy week of a politics with a twinkle in his eye: “Who knows what’s gonna happen this week?” he chuckled.

Fox’s daytime output, and indeed their web and mobile output, is relatively down-the-line and straightforward. On the news app for example, politics stories felt relatively spin free on most days, and the news agenda often quickly transitioned into feel-good stories after a couple of political offerings.

But daytime sanity quickly transitions to prime-time Hannity - and friends.

The tension between the two appeared to come to a head this week, with Shep Smith - a relatively objective daytime news anchor - quitting suddenly after repeatedly clashing with the opinion

On Wednesday, for example, viewers were told with breathless intensity by Sean that America is reaching fever pitch. “This isn’t good for the country,” he warned.

His attempt to tamp down this apparent ‘country in chaos’ was unique, though - alleging that a fully fledged coup is taking place.

One of the tropes used by those who claim the existence of a fifth column is to portray the alleged enemies within as both supremely powerful and laughably weak.

And you see it time and time again played out on Fox with reference to the Democrats. They’re a sinister cabal who are about to tear up the constitution and remove the most powerful man in America, but also the whole thing - as stated by Hannity - is an “unconstitutional clown show”.

There are also messages dispensed to the Republican establishment - one evening’s show ended with an ominous-sounding warning to Republicans on the impeachment process: “You must not take part.”

Yet it’s not just outrage offered, it’s comfort. A bedtime story and glass of milk to right-of-centre voters worried about the torrent of negative headlines.

“This will only strengthen the president going into 2020” is a familiar refrain. It’s often delivered with a dose of flattery to the audience; they know what’s up. The elites don’t. “Americans are extremely smart, they’re very sophisticated,” said Hannity one night. “They’re smart enough to shop at Walmart and Costco and save money. People know the difference between an actual crime and a three-year witch hunt.”

Then there are the interviews that aren’t really interviews.

Rudy Giuliani pops up, in which he’s allowed to talk for up to three minutes at a time without any interruption or probing from Sean.

“The Salem witch trial,” he claimed, “would be fairer than this.” No pushback. “It’s process without due process.”

Without any interrogation, it turned into a sermon. Which was duly clipped up into bitesized videos to tumble across social media.

At times, things get confusing. Monday saw the channel obsess over the China-NBA row. Most of their obsessions fit, in some way, into a culture war narrative between left and right, but it’s hard to imagine many people on the mainstream left who’d attempt to justify China’s actions. Both Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson couldn’t stop talking about it.

It was back to type on Tuesday, with Tucker launching into a monologue about ‘woke capitalism’. Brands polishing up their image with a bit of social responsibility was spoken of like a high crime or conspiracy. “Once corporate America flattered its customers,” he opined, “now they dare you to be as virtuous as they are.”

A world view that sees enemies everywhere is presented nightly. Politicians, other nations, even your favourite brands want to bring you down.

It’s the political support for Republicans that’ll come into sharp focus as we head into 2020. And despite Mr Trump grumbling about Fox from time to time, they really do have his back.

On one day last week, Tucker popped up with the closest thing to the playground defence of “I know you are but what am I?” that I’ve seen so far in US politics.

He offered up what he called “the Rosetta Stone of politics”, that whatever the left accuses the right of doing, the left is already doing itself.

If you drill that into enough receptive brains, though, you’ve got a go-to strategy on your hands that’ll deflect every Democrat attack.

But the power of Fox isn’t just its roster of paid stars, but its ability to amplify the voice of an abundance of figures in the Conservative sphere.

There’s a fascinating ecosystem in existence, whereby fringe or forgotten figures on the right can get a reputation boost by Fox News appearances - boosting their exposure and social media profiles and continuing the spread of the message.

The powerful way in which this all connects together can be illustrated with the appearance of retired intelligence office John Kiriakou, for example. He popped up on Tucker Carlson’s show to talk about the whistleblower who triggered the recent Ukraine investigation into Mr Trump. (He also spent time behind bars six years ago for disclosing the identity of a fellow CIA officer to a reporter.)

Mr Trump clearly watched it, tweeting a quote saying the whistleblower was in fact a Democrat shill.

Kiriakou then quote-tweeted Trump to thank him for the tweet - adding: “Please pardon me!”

The answer to all of this, though, is not to encourage friends and relatives who enjoy Fox News to give it up altogether, but to expand their sources of news. One source of news - whatever its slant - is dangerous, and left-of-centre news organisations can be just as myopic in their own obsessions with impeachment, whilst developing blind spots to the excesses of those seen to be on their side.

Instead, broaden their horizons. Show them that Hannity is not the world. And that they need not go to bed every night fearign that America is filled with hidden enemies waiting to pounce.

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