By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post
Back in March, President Trump said something out loud that many of his supporters — even if they secretly agreed — would prefer to downplay.
“The things they had in there were crazy,” he told “Fox & Friends” about a covid-19 relief bill that included provisions about making voting easier. “They had levels of voting that if you agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in the country again.”
Eight tumultous months later, the effort to extinguish, or tamper with, voting integrity is at the heart of his last-ditch efforts to claim a win. “STOP THE COUNT,” Trump nonsensically tweeted Thursday morning.
And no surprise: Fox News is pulling out all the stops to help. The powerful Murdoch-controlled network, which handily won the election-night ratings war, is giving this evidence-free argument everything it’s got; especially on the prime-time commentary shows that feature Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
But the network’s vaunted news coverage, which Fox likes to claim is, in the old motto, “fair and balanced,” is doing its part, too; though in a lower key.
Almost anything would be a lower key, though, than Hannity. On his Wednesday night show, a headline screamed “Corrupt Institutions,” as he was busy hammering the supposed disgrace in Pennsylvania’s vote counting.
“Tonight every American should be angry, outraged and worried and concerned about what happened in the election and the leadup to the election,” he raged.
Meanwhile, in reality, the Pennsylvania count was going on with remarkable transparency and competence. As my Washington Post colleague Karen Heller reported from Philadelphia: “There they were, a battery of temporary workers in hazmat-like safety vests of yellow with orange and gray stripes, sipping soda and slurping coffee, working under blue signs that read ‘Scanners,’ ‘Sorters,’ ‘Envelope Review,’ ‘Adjudication,’ ‘Flattening’ and ‘Extractors.’”
The Philadelphia City Commission, in charge of elections, “is making the system so transparent that it’s live-streaming the drama.”
But on Hannity’s radio show, his guest, the disgraced former Fox host Bill O’Reilly, was suggesting sending in the FBI to stop that count.
And Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo, as always, was willing to go the extra mile for Trump. She was fretting Wednesday about whether the Trump administration “has the policing in place to make sure that America will feel we have gotten a safe and fair election.”
Carlson, for his part, complained that the “outcome of our presidential election was seized from the hands of voters” and given over to “clearly corrupted city bureaucrats.”
This is a tried-and-true strategy for Trump and his allies, of course; and really the only one left at this point. The elements are all too familiar: No necessary adherence to the truth. (Yes, we call that lying these days.) The use of tiny, dubious facts blown up to make a false whole. The reliance on emotionally loaded words and misleading catch phrases like “The Russia hoax,” or the “migrant invasion.”
“Propaganda works through repetition, market saturation, synchronized messsaging,” wrote Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of a book about authoritarian leaders and their methods, “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.”
Fox News touts its non-commentary shows, the news programming that dominates the day, as right down the middle. And you’ll hear this directly from the anchors themselves.
“We cover both sides,” Bret Baier said Wednesday in keeping with Fox’s party line, a form of propaganda in itself.
In general, Fox’s election coverage itself has been measured and restrained; Chris Wallace’s presence tends to helps with that. And, to her credit, news anchor Martha MacCallum could be heard pushing back on Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s illogic about how to count the vote in Pennsylvania.
Separately, Fox’s decision desk, in its early call of Arizona for Biden, made it much tougher for the president to claim victory on Tuesday night. And there was plenty of Trump pushback on that, but to no avail.
So it’s not a uniform picture at Fox. But that doesn’t change the overall reality.
Baier on Wednesday managed a slam at the mainstream media treatment of Trump: “There’s so much hate; some networks wouldn’t even take his rallies.”
And the news shows often feature commenters like Trump campaign adviser David Bossie to argue in bad faith: “I can tell you right now that the lawyers are warming up in the bullpen, and they’re going to make sure that it’s one vote for one person.”
Evidence that it isn’t? There isn’t anything to back that up.
“It’s just vote-counting takes time, and they’re counting the votes,” Michael Gilbert, a University of Virginia Law Professor, told Al Jazeera. “I see no evidence of fraud. I see zero evidence whatsoever of an election being stolen.”
Nor is there a shred of consistency in Trump’s legal complaints. University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong, hilariously, summed up the litigation: “As I understand the state of the race, Trump is seeking various forms of relief in his lawsuits, ticking off the weirdness: Recount Wisconsin; stop counting in North Carolina; count faster in Nevada; count backwards in Pennsylvania, count only the ballots he likes in Georgia, don’t count Detroit.”
I’m sure that we could find someone at Fox to find a reason for each and every one.
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.