Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Trump propaganda is even worse than you think on Fox News these nights

It is popular in some circles these days to refer to Fox News as state-run TV. That’s because of the channel’s steadfast support of President Donald Trump and the special Twitter-buddy relationship he has with some hosts like the morning crew of “Fox & Friends” or the bellicose Sean Hannity, who holds down the 9 p.m. hour on the conservative cable channel.

But as much as I have been writing about Fox since the 2016 election as part of a right-wing messaging machine that Team Trump has been using its governmental powers to help expand, even I didn’t realize how dense the wall of pro-Trump propaganda had become during the prime time hours of 8 to 11 weeknights until I sat down in front of the screen one night this week and let the derision toward perceived enemies like Special Counsel Robert Mueller and servile worship of Trump seep into my pores.

If you think the 2018 mid-terms and the 2020 presidential elections are down the road, you are mistaken, my friends. The campaigning is taking place nightly on Fox with what amounts to attack ads against opponents and campaign ads for Trump coming from the mouths of Tucker Carlson from 8 to 9 p.m., Hannity from 9 to 10, and Laura Ingraham, who closes the deal from 10 to 11.

There’s no deviation from the party line as there was when Megyn Kelly was part of the Fox News lineup. None. This isn’t just state-run TV. This is what state-run looks like under authoritarian rule.

No theme was hit harder on Fox last week than the one-year anniversary of the Muller probe of Russian inteference in the 2016 election — and how allegedly out of control Mueller has been in conducting it.

Carlson got right to it at the very top of his show Tuesday night.

“It is this week the one-year anniversary of the start of the Robert Mueller Russia investigation, and at the end of that period, we have discovered there is still no evidence at all of collusion between the Donald Trump for president campaign of 2016 and the Russian government,” Carlson told viewers, as a graphic appeared showing Mueller’s face alongside Kremlin spires with a headline saying, “SHOW US THE EVIDENCE.”

You don’t have to listen very hard to hear the echo in Carlson’s words of the recurring Trump tweets saying “no collusion.”

Here’s one from Wednesday morning that the president posted shortly after a “Fox & Friends” interview with Rudy Guiliani slamming the probe.

“But Mueller’s many supporters in Washington don’t seem to care about that,” Carlson continued. “That’s because the investigation was never about Russia, obviously. The whole absurd fever dream was always a way for the ruling class to feel better about losing power in 2016. It was a way for them to avoid thinking about why Trump got elected. … Along the way, the investigation has provided Democrats with a full year of government-funded oppo research and destroyed the lives of a number of people who supported Donald Trump.”

Wow, “absurd fever dream,” “ruling class” and “destroyed the lives” — and he was just warming up. Really. Carlson spews unsupported claims and spits vitriol even better than Bill O’Reilly once did with his pinheads-and-patriots rhetoric for Fox in the 8 p.m. hour. In Fox circles, that’s high praise.

But no one can top Hannity when it comes to slavish devotion to this president and over-the-top attacks on anyone who dares to criticize him or threaten his reign. Hannity’s show is steeped in classic techniques of propaganda. Night after night, he comes to praise Caesar and bury Caesar’s opponents.

In his opening monologue, the Russian probe is referred to as “Mueller and his team of partisan witch hunters” by the bombastic host.

“Mueller has no business ever questioning the president of the United States,” Hannity insisted in his opening.”There’s no such thing as collusion. … Mueller’s clearly setting a perjury trap. No good lawyer would let the president be interviewed under those conditions.”

Given the widely reported close connection between Hannity and Trump, including sharing the same lawyer, the now embattled Michael Cohen, I wonder if we can rule out Trump ever talking to Mueller. That’s how we get insight into what our press-hating president is thinking these days: reading between the lines of what his friends on Fox are allowed to share with us.

But whereas Carlson’s strength is in his attacks, Hannity goes into full propaganda puppet-host mode in celebrating his political masters.

Pivoting in his opening from the attack on Mueller, Hannity’s hosannas to Trump started to flow as a banner saying “BORDER SECURITY” appeared onscreen.

“And also tonight, the president is continuing to keep his promises to you, the American people. the forgotten Americans, the men and women the media thought would never show up in November of 2016,” Hannity said, extending his right hand toward the camera like an evangelist reaching out to his flock of followers.

“And he is calling on Congress to do their job,” he continued. “Secure the border. Do it now. Take a look.”

Viewers then saw video of Trump standing tall at an outdoor podium, sun streaming down, the wind tossing his hair (I didn’t believe it could move either, but it was), as he said, “The first duty of government is to protect our citizens, and the men and women of DHS (Department of Homeland Security) are on the front lines of this incredible heroic fight. That is why we are calling on Congress to secure our borders … stop sanctuary cities, and shut down policies that release violent criminals back into our communities. We don’t want it any longer.”

Back to Hannity, who underscored the president’s message, saying, “No, we don’t. We need to protect the American people.”

And then, as one-third of the screen filled with a picture of the White House and a banner saying “TRUMP’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS,” Hannity started the serious shilling.

“Now, President Trump has already accumulated an amazing record of accompishments that every Republican, if they’re smart, can run on in November,” he began. “Look at the economy, record low levels of unemployment, optimism at an 11-year high, the president’s poll numbers the highest they’ve had in this presidency.”

And then the White House graphic was replaced with Trump’s visage superimposed over an American flag and the banner “KEEPING HIS PROMISES.”

The iconography defined propaganda.

As did the puppet-host then intoning the litany: “And there are promises that are kept on the Iranian deal, the embassy in Jerusalem, the tax cuts, on killing the Obamacare individual mandate. There are positive results all over the place. And by the way, it hasn’t even been two years.”

But you had not seen pure propaganda imagery until Hannity pivoted back one more time to the Meuller probe and the graphic changed from red, white and blue to dark, ominous looking red and black with Mueller’s face in shadows and the banner “WITCH HUNT UNRAVELING.”

“Also tonight, and this is major,” Hannity said. “The Russia collusion hoax is unraveling, as we predicted, right before our eyes.”

From the use of color for emotional tone, to the manner in which banners are used like an elementary-school reader to guarantee only one message can be taken from a host’s words, the graphics are remarkable in their messaging. I could probably do a column just on them.

But what really struck me as I bathed in the toxic political waters of prime-time Fox this week is the way the hosts were consistently addressing Repulican candidates along with viewers about the wisdom of sticking with Trump and his policies in 2018 and 2020.

I was being literal earlier in this column when I talked about Ingraham closing the deal.

Here’s the conclusion of her Tuesday show with that night’s “Last Bite” message for viewers.

“Republicans, do not screw up this golden opportunity to continue winning elections, because the ideas Trump has embraced are actually winning ones,” she said. “Don’t go back to your old ways. Don’t abandon them now. That was a loser.”

Losers and winning: the rhetoric of aTrump campaign ad being offered as the takeaway for viewers of “The Ingraham Angle.”

Trump reportedly wanted Ingraham to be his press secretary, the mouthpiece representing him at the podium in the White House. But this is even better, isn’t it?

He’s got her, along with Carlson and Hannity, five nights a week selling him and his policies to millions of viewers on a platform with the word “news” in its title.

Five nights a week, 52 weeks a year, and always on message.

How many campaign ads would a candidate have to buy to even start to make a dent in that?

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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