Comment: Fox has gone all outrage, all the time; it’s working

The cable news channel has regained its ratings by stoking outrage. Tom Hanks’ ‘cancellation’ proves it.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

You may have a hard time understanding how Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head and Tom Hanks are connected, but that probably just means you haven’t been watching nearly enough Fox News recently.

The cable network, which suffered a shaky existential moment after Donald Trump lost his re-election bid, has recovered its purpose; and its ratings.

These days, Fox is all-in on culture wars and outrage-stoking.

The latest is a ridiculous fuss that began with a recent guest essay by Tom Hanks in The New York Times, in which the actor reflected on how he was not taught about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, in which hundreds of Black people were killed by a white mob.

That essay prompted NPR’s Eric Deggans to write a response last weekend headlined “Tom Hanks Is a Non-Racist. It’s Time for Him To Be Anti-Racist.

Deggans praised Hanks, using words like “wise” and “wonderful.” He began: “First I must note how much I love Tom Hanks as a performer, Hollywood citizen and all-around stand-up guy.” And he went on, in a measured way, to urge that Hanks should now go further: “After many years of speaking out about race and media in America, I know the toughest thing for some white Americans — especially those who consider themselves advocates against racism — is to admit how they were personally and specifically connected to the elevation of white culture over other cultures.”

Always poised for an unnecessary fight, Fox News went to town on this, claiming that simply by virtue of receiving a mild critique from another writer, Hanks had now been unjustly “canceled.” It’s the scare word getting applied to almost anything these days, meant to evoke a beatdown from some unforgiving woke mob. The estate of Dr. Seuss decides to stop publishing several obscure books because of racist imagery? Cancel culture! Hasbro considers marketing its plastic toys in a more gender-neutral way? Cancel culture!

So you can imagine what glee Fox commentators took in this perceived rebuke of an Oscar winner. “Cancel Culture Comes for Tom Hanks,” warned an on-air teaser.

“Being white in America apparently has a lot of pitfalls,” commiserated anchor Bill Hemmer. And contributor Joe Concha of The Hill chimed in about “perpetual protesters” for whom, “no matter what Tom Hanks does, it will never be enough.”

Deggans pushed back: “Fox News associating my column with cancel culture is disingenuous and inaccurate. And now I have a new deluge of Fox fans who haven’t read my column objecting to something I haven’t said.”

But so it goes. Accuracy is not really the point here. Nor is anything that can even loosely be called “news.”

Last fall, shortly after the election, as Fox teetered slightly— briefly losing audience share to Newsmax and One America to its right, and to CNN and MSNBC to its left — I had the quixotic notion of suggesting something that the network might do.

With the cable network’s great hero Donald Trump moving off center stage, I thought perhaps Fox might want to pursue more hard-edged reporting about serious subjects. Beef up the news report; tone down the rhetoric.

If they did it from a conservative perspective, fine. But they could at least make their programming about the news, not hyperpartisan commentary.

It was probably always a pipe dream. But now it’s clear: Fox has gone entirely the other way.

The news programming at 7 and 11 p.m. has been replaced with opinion shows. Donna Brazile, a former Democratic National Committee chairwoman, left Fox News for ABC. Juan Williams, a solitary moderate-to-liberal voice on the afternoon talk show “The Five” was moved out of that slot. And partisan voices like Greg Gutfield and Dan Bongino have been elevated.

“Instead of trying to broaden their audience, Fox News is narrowing it and digging in,” Susan Estrich, the attorney who represented Fox co-founder Roger Ailes when he left the network in 2016 after settling a major sexual harassment suit by Gretchen Carlson, told the New York Times last month.

Take the network’s nearly constant harping against the supposed dangers of teaching American schoolchildren about systemic racism, which is now nightly telegraphed using the faculty-lounge jargon of “critical race theory.”

The clear purpose — the only purpose — is to stoke outrage and division among viewers who may think they’re getting meaningful news content.

When Fox’s biggest star, Tucker Carlson, riled up his audience over critical race theory supposedly being taught in a suburban Maine school district, it added to a near panic already underway, reported NBC News. Jeff Porter, a schools superintendent, described intense turmoil after a national conservative group started a campaign to prove that his district was teaching CRT. Billboard-sized lawn signs, hate mail, efforts to get school board members to resign; it all added up to a school system “almost held hostage” by the battle, Porter said.

Fox has mentioned critical race theory almost 1,300 times in the past few months, according to a new study from Media Matters, the progressive media-watchdog organization.

But this is only the latest example of what Fox is up to. Back in April, Carlson was urging his viewers to call the police or Child Protective Services to report child abuse if they saw children wearing masks.

From a ratings perspective, it’s working. After that shaky moment, Fox again rules the cable-news roost.

But, as always with the way Fox spreads its toxic ugliness, there is a real downside; if not to its bottom line, then to the way Americans function, or don’t function, as citizens.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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