Jane Mayer’s much-buzzed-about piece in The New Yorker on Fox News suggests many things, including that the network helped Donald Trump win the Republican nomination and that it now serves as his unofficial propaganda arm. According to Mayer’s piece, Trump ranks Fox hosts on a scale from 1 to 10, according to their loyalty (Trump rates Steve Doocy as a “12.”).
Like many conservatives, I once believed that Fox News provided a much-needed service. Most journalists skew liberal, and, at the time, liberal “mainstream” news enjoyed a near-monopoly on news coverage.
Unable to infiltrate the mainstream media, conservatives created alternative media platforms, first with talk radio and then with Fox News. Unfortunately, these alternative outlets gave way to alternative realities, and eventually, to Donald Trump.
Without delving into all the unintended consequences the rise of Fox News has unleashed, it’s worth asking whether having his own Pravda is even good for Trump.
I don’t have room to debate esoteric questions like whether losing the presidency might have been good for him (though it certainly would have been better for Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Michael Cohen). But we can speculate that Trump might never have been elected had it not been for Fox News allegedly helping kill the Storm Daniels story and allegedly feeding him Megyn Kelly’s debate “gotcha” question in the primary (Mayer raises both allegations).
But having won the White House, would Trump have been better off without Fox? This is an unknowable counterfactual, but it’s certainly plausible that Trump might have governed differently in a different media environment.
According to Mayer’s piece, “Charlie Black, a longtime Republican lobbyist in Washington, whose former firm, Black, Manafort & Stone, advised Trump in the eighties and nineties, told [Mayer], ‘Trump gets up and watches ‘Fox & Friends’ and thinks these are his friends. He thinks anything on Fox is friendly. But the problem is he gets unvetted ideas.’”
Conservatives have long held that progressive students on liberal college campuses who never confront diverse viewpoints become intellectually flabby. A similar phenomenon is at work here. On its best days, Fox News has prevented introspection by reassuring Trump that there’s no need to doubt his gut. On its worst days, Fox News has made matters worse by introducing him to new conspiracy theories.
Trump is a fan of protectionist policies, and Fox News is nothing if not a protector. But another argument suggests that, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (author of Team of Rivals) put it, “By building dissent into his inner circle, a president is also more likely to question his own assumptions and to weigh various consequences, leading ultimately to more farsighted decisions.” Since Trump’s “inner circle” consists of the telegenic crew sitting around the “curvy” couch on Fox & Friends (not his cabinet heads), we have seen little “dissent” or “farsighted decisions.”
Speaking of dissent, it’s interesting that this story has come out on the heels of some major internecine squabbles on the right over the Never Trump website, The Bulwark, as well as the announcement that Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes were about to launch their own media site. The success of such an entity could force the administration to flesh out ideas and arguments, as well as adding some nuance to the conservative echo chamber.
This is a role that Fox News (with a few exceptions) has decided not to play.
Again, it’s hard to say whether Fox is a net positive even for Trump. On one hand, it’s possible that he will survive impeachment because of the network (as Richard Nixon might well have, had he had his own cable channel). On the other hand, it’s possible that Fox has enabled Trump to do some stupid things that might lead to impeachment in the first place.
Would Trump have started his term with infrastructure instead of a Muslim “ban” were it not for the protection of the Fox News bubble? Would he have fired James Comey in a pre-Fox world? Would Trump have signed a continuing resolution and skipped the government shutdown? Might Republicans have fared better in the House midterms without Fox pushing the migrant caravan story?
It’s possible that the Trump administration might have turned out better—for Trump!—if he were forced to face more intellectually honest resistance from center-right voices.
A propaganda outlet is useful for pumping up your base. But if that’s all it does—at the expense of persuading swing votes and crafting effective policies—it’s a small consolation.