Fox News: Saviour of Democracy?
Our rocky relationship with truth is leading to more extreme news sources.
By Phillip | 11/18/2020
In a world with increasingly few solid facts and instead many, often contradictory narratives, the Fox News decision desk acted as the last safeguard of hope against the surrounding forces of “Fake News.” Indeed, they did not disappoint, calling Arizona for Biden, earlier than any other news organization. Right-wing news sites like Newsmax and One America News have staked out territory to the right of Fox: Newsmax remains adamant that the election is not over yet. Even President Trump has speculated that he might start his own media venture, perhaps simply out of spite for the Arizona call. Although Fox News may be the unlikely hero, Republicans will continually search for a network that will only give them the good news and the next autocratic figure may be more likely to tweak the results.
In 2016, after Clinton lost the election, liberals sought some kind of way out, hopping from recounts to faithless electors, but the truth was that Donald Trump had won and everyone — the candidate, establishment Democrats, and all news sources — confirmed this fact. It was important that all these people told the truth because if there was even a sliver of hope, many would latch on to it and pursue this alternative reality. Confirmation bias is not partisan — we al search for forms of media that confirm our existing values and thoughts.
While Fox’s decision desk most likely decreased the flow of Republicans attempting to credibly claim victory on election night based on initial vote counts, their call also drove conservative watchers to alternative news sources which were even less reliable. Increasingly we seek out information that makes us happy, and Fox News found a way of making conservatives unhappy. Could it be the next network to be dropped by the right? With the threat of abandonment, Fox has little monetary incentive to preserve its remaining veneer of journalistic integrity in favor of appeasing its conservative base.
Months before the election, Trump set about delegitimizing the results. He complained about the record levels of fraud that mail-in ballots would cause and dissuaded his supporters from using them. In addition, Republican legislatures in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin refused to let early votes be counted before election day. Then, Trump repeatedly made statements that only votes processed by election night should count — despite the fact that votes that were counted later were typically cast before other ballots. These statements, despite their hypocrisy and ridiculousness, have an effect: nearly 70% of Republicans believe that the election was not free and fair.
Public officials and figures on Twitter echoed a common sentiment: “The media will not decide this election!” Indeed, when networks and their decision desks project states and eventually a winner, they do not know anything more than anyone else. They are simply using publicly available vote totals and mathematical modeling to project the winner of a race. Nothing other than norms and shame prevent networks from making outlandish calls that an authoritarian president could take advantage of.
If your whole information ecosystem, including party elites and media, tells you that the election was stolen and rigged, then you will likely believe them. Given the way that the new media sources and the Republican Party seem to be appeasing Trump and their base, I was surprised that there was not more election violence and more of a coherent effort to take control of the government in a coup. Perhaps both Republicans and elected officials are only half-hearted in their belief in this conspiracy theory. Perhaps Fox News and our tenuous relationship with decision desks were just enough to maintain the legitimacy of the results.
The Arizona call, although premature, changed the narrative around the election. After surprisingly convincing wins in Florida, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas on election night, many feared that Trump would declare victory based on leads in enough states to reach 270 electoral votes. In fact, during his election night speech, he claimed he won three states he would go on to lose (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia) and said, “as far as I’m concerned, we’ve already won it.” By winning Arizona, Biden made a big gain — in a Sun Belt state that a Democrat hadn’t won since Ross Perot split the conservative vote in 1996 — and reminded Americans that he still had many paths to 270.
Over the past four years, an internal struggle has been held at Fox News, a microcosm of the Republican Party. Many don’t remember a time before Fox was saturated with Trump propaganda, but there was a time — the two frequently clashed during the Republican primary in 2015 and 2016. Today, their primetime hosts such as Laura Ingraham, Jeanine Pirro, Tucker Carlson, and Sean Hannity are a stark contrast to the professionalism of their conservative-leaning reporters and decision desk leaders such as Arnon Mishkin, Chris Stirewalt, and Chris Wallace. In fact, the network was spewing contradictory messaging on whether President Trump had lost or not on election night and the days following, demonstrating the network’s partial efforts to preserve journalistic integrity.
Cracks in the wall began to appear — the wife of ousted son James Murdoch tweeted that she agreed with the statement that the Murdoch family should put the country over profits and make clear that there was no widespread fraud. Fox News, along with all other major news outlets, eventually acknowledge Biden’s victory. However, this should not be overstated, as some parts of Fox continue “leaning heavily into the possibility of mass voter fraud, where [virtually] none exists. They are bringing on so-called whistleblowers who imply that [the election] was rigged, while also covering the transition” (Brian Stelter).
If our democracy is temporarily secure, we have Trump to thank. A real, intelligent autocrat would be much more able to truly suppress the vote and tamper with the counting. They would only allow election data to be published through the White House website and manipulate the numbers, as the current administration has done with the Coronavirus numbers. All of these decisions would be upheld by the 6-3 Supreme Court long after the election. If this new authoritarian comes along in 2024, they will find a Republican Party that is increasingly willing to sell its soul and democracy for power.
Senator Mike Lee of Utah recently tweeted, “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” Other Senators, even some who saw the threat of Trump from afar, have undergone a stark transformation. In 2016, Senator Lindsey Graham called Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” but now makes appearances on Fox to advocate invalidating election results and appointing new electors who would support Trump.
Over the past few months, establishment Democrats were increasingly onboard with the idea of reforming our democracy if they controlled the legislative levers of government. Now that rests on two Senate seats in Georgia. If Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock lose, then Joe Biden will not be able to abolish the filibuster, give statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico, or pack the court. Republicans retain power in the places necessary to entrench minoritarian rule, such as state legislatures which will control redistricting until the next census. In perhaps the last remaining election for the blue wave to peek over the levy, we came just short. Finally, conservative media is engaged in an all-out race to the right, simultaneously radicalizing their audience and being radicalized by it. All this bodes well for the competent autocrat who may become the next face of the Republican party.