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Donald Trump is right about Fox News—but not for the reason you think

The problem with Fox News is far bigger than Donald Trump


Gillian Branstetter

Internet Culture

Posted on Sep 25, 2015   Updated on May 27, 2021, 10:08 pm CDT

The growing fissure between Fox News and Donald Trump erupted into a full-grown split this week. After yet another Twitter tantrum against Fox host Megyn Kelly, the network called Trump’s attacks “stale and tiresome” and reportedly canceled all future Trump appearances on the network. In a classic you-can’t-fire-me-because-I-quit move, Trump tweeted he would be boycotting the network for “treating me very unfairly.”

That’s a privilege Trump has that few other Republican candidates can wield. Trump is heavily covered by every network, not just Fox, and could boost the ratings of any competitor just by showing up. He also has a powerful presence on social media (he recently compared his Twitter feed to “owning The New York Times without the losses”). Trump has inspired a similar lack of loyalty to the network among his fellow conservatives, who attacked the right-leaning network for its August debate: Mark Levin accused Fox News of taking advantage of loyal Republicans, and Rush Limbaugh even theorized Fox News conspired with the Republican Party leadership to “take out” Trump.

Such a revolt against the network is necessary, but not for the reasons Trump, Levin, and Limbaugh suspect. Conservatives everywhere should boycott Fox News for what it has done and continues to do to modern conservative thought. Almost two decades of Fox News dominance has skinned the intellectual roots of conservatism and left behind a husk of paranoia and growing cultural irrelevancy.

Conservatives everywhere should boycott Fox News for what it has done and continues to do to modern conservative thought. 

Fox News is the dominating feature in conservative thought today, controlling the narrative for most Republican voters and, therefore, the Republican Party. A 2014 Pew study found 47 percent of “consistent conservatives” cite Fox News as their main news source. Compare that to the same study’s findings that “consistent liberals” get their news from a variety of outlets: 15 percent from CNN, 13 percent from NPR, 12 percent from MSNBC, and 10 percent from the New York Times. Conservatives are more loyal to Fox News than liberals are to any one news source.

And what does that loyalty earn them? Fox News regularly misinforms its viewers while presenting them as enlightened and selective media consumers. A 2010 University of Maryland study found those who received their news primarily from Fox answered the most questions about public policy and current events incorrect of any other kind of news consumer. They answered incorrectly on whether the auto bailout was Obama’s idea (it wasn’t), whether most scientists dispute the evidence for climate change (they don’t), and even if their own income taxes had gone up (they are actually at historic lows). In fact, they answered worse than people who watch no news. A 2012 study repeated these findings.

After Mitt Romney’s loss to President Obama, many Republican leaders began to publically wonder whether the party was detaching itself from majority electorates by relying on an uninformed and outraged base instead of working to earn the trust—and votes—of growing minority populations. Sen. Lindsey Graham went so far as to say, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business in the long term.” In fact, Graham directly blamed Fox News for “making it harder to get people on my side” for immigration reform. Political scientist Lincoln Mitchell agreed, saying the network “keeps a far right base mobilized and angry, making it hard for the party to move to the center or increase its appeal, as it must do to remain electorally competitive.”

Trump is the polarizing effect of Fox News on conservative thought crystallized, spray-tanned, and brought to life. 

Bruce Bartlett, a former adviser for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, conducted an analysis of Fox News reporting and found the network made its viewers ideology more insular and hardened against critical thinking or factual analysis. “It can almost be called self-brainwashing,” Bartlett writes. “Many conservatives now refuse to even listen to any news or opinion not vetted through Fox, and to believe whatever appears on it as the gospel truth.”

Likewise, in his review of a biography of Fox News President Roger Ailes, the New York Review of Books’ Steve Coll cited the problematic alliance between the GOP and the network. “Fox owes its degree of profitability in part to its most passionate, even extremist, audience segment,” Coll writes. “To win national elections, the Grand Old Party, on the other hand, must win over moderate, racially diverse, and independent voters.” As Coll notes, moderate voters prefer the mainstream programming models of networks like CNN, “which Fox has already rejected triumphantly.”

Trump and his continued dominance of the GOP primary is the eminent evidence of Bartlett’s, Mitchell’s, and Coll’s points. He is the polarizing effect of Fox News on conservative thought crystallized, spray-tanned, and brought to life. Despite their current feud, Fox News has created Trump The Candidate by both treating him as a serious political commentator and teaching a large portion of the Republican base to accept entertainment and personality as grounded and informative. He’s reenergizing a part of the Republican Party the leadership has been trying to minimize, if not shuffle off altogether.

Trump could have, in theory, been a Democratic candidate—he has a long history supporting progressive tax rates and, at least for a time, supported a woman’s right to choose—but he went to the Republican Party in part because Fox News has made it so easy to be a “conservative.” Intellectual conservatism requires less yelling and insulting and more policymaking than Trump could ever muster, but the conservative base coddled by Fox News seems willing to forgo substantial debate in the face of a bloviating, entertaining bully—at least until earlier this week.

Conservatism as an ideology is suffering a deep and thorough winter, and Fox News is chiefly responsible. “These days, the right seems unable to rise above rabble-rousing,” writes John Cassidy the New Yorker. “It’s still got plenty of willing foot soldiers, and a lot of big money behind it, but where is the fresh thinking and intellectual direction? All that’s left is anti-government posturing, waving the flag, and Obama-bashing. And even in pursuing this limited agenda, it often gets its facts wrong.”

It’s an effect the Republican Party and its leaders should take seriously enough to reject the network outright. Not because it is biased, but because it is often wrong. As much as Fox News might like to reject Donald Trump (though Roger Ailes will be meeting with him to negotiate the feud), they have created the kind of Republican Party that would elevate someone like Trump to such a position of power and relevance in the first place.

The wounds Fox News has inflicted on conservatism as an ideology and the Republicans as a party may take a generation to heal. But by continuing to empower the network through appearances and general obedience to its authority, Republican candidates and leaders are complicit in the destruction of the values they desperately need to win. 

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Sep 25, 2015, 1:37 pm CDT