After the lessons media should have learned from their cheerleading before and during the disastrous Iraq invasion in 2003, I did not expect to see the windbags of war back on TV in all their gung-ho bluster as tensions mounted with Iran.
But there they were, back on the Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network like a bad dream from 17 years ago urging President Trump to use “full force” and unleash “holy hell” on Iran after it fired missiles into an Iraqi base that housed members of the U.S. military.
Thanks to three years of serving as a kind of state TV for the Trump administration, no media outlet had a better line into the White House than Fox during this time of heightened tension and possible war in the wake of the murder of an American contractor in an attack by Iranian-backed militia in December and the U.S. assassination of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3.
A responsible news organization might have used its access to try to meet the needs of millions of Americans for accurate information and balanced analysis about the facts of the assassination and what the fallout might be. But instead what Fox mainly gave its audience of millions was prime-time hosts ratcheting up the tension with a steady stream of White House talking points, biased analysis from some of the very people who led us into a war in Iraq in 2003, and rabid politicization of events aimed at discrediting the president’s Democratic challengers.
I say mainly, because there was an important dissenting opinion on Fox from host Tucker Carlson who criticized the Trump administration for heightening tensions in the wake of the assassination of Soleimani. America looked to be “lumbering into war" with no real debate, he warned.
Good for Carlson, but let’s not get carried away with one prime-time voice ― and that belonging to the guy who said immigrants make us “dirtier” as a nation.
Overall, it was a sorry performance from Fox. Even Bret Baier, the anchor Fox supporters often point to as proof that the channel is not all propaganda and bias, did his bit for the home team suggesting those who criticize the administration’s actions are suffering from “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”
The network’s actions are more dangerous than ever with an administration that feels free to shut out much of Congress, most of mainstream media and many Americans by denying the most basic kind of access to information traditionally offered by White House briefings and press conferences. Even some conservative members of Congress denounced the administration for its lack of specificity in a briefing delivered on Capitol Hill on Wednesday about the intelligence behind, and timing of, the drone attack that killed Soleimani.
As long as Fox News does Trump’s bidding, the president and his inner circle talk only to Fox. And we are left to watch the likes of Sean Hannity in the hopes of understanding what the White House is thinking, through the talking points fed to the president’s favorite prime-time cable-TV host.
Here’s what Hannity had to say Tuesday night in the wake of news that Iran had fired missiles into an Iraqi base that housed Americans. No members of the U.S. military were injured.
“Do they actually think they can attack Americans and get away with it?” Hannity asked. “I think they need to think again. Do they actually think that they can kill our brave men and women abroad in our embassy and get away with it? Do they think they can fund terrorism all around the globe and get away with that? Do they think they can commit economic terrorism and try and impact the free flow of the lifeblood of every economy in the world and get away with that?”
But he was only warming up his threat machine.
“There is a massive price to pay. You don’t get to do what they did tonight. They have now been begging — the president wanted to talk and wants peace — and they are going to get hit hard. Their hostility will now be met with the full force of the greatest, most advanced, most sophisticated military this world has ever seen. As a former CIA station chief, Dan Hoffman, pointed out: Any hostile action by Iran would be regime suicide.”
And here’s Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Hannity’s Tuesday night show demonstrating what diplomacy sounds like in the Trump-Fox echo chamber.
“Let me say tonight, if you’re watching television in Iran,” Graham said, “I just got off the phone to the president. Your fate is in your own hands in terms of the regime’s economic viability. You continue this crap, you’re going to wake up one day out of the oil business.” Graham was referring to threats made by Trump and supported by Graham that the U.S. might target Iranian oil fields and refineries.
Meanwhile, on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on the Fox Business Network, radio show host and former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka was promising that Trump will “unleash holy hell” against the “murderous mullahs" of Iran.
Fox has irresponsibly offered a platform during this tense time to some of the very people most responsible for leading America into war in 2003.
Talk about a time-warp nightmare, Fox brought back two of the leaders of the George W. Bush “Shock and Awe” gang: Karl Rove, Bush’s key adviser during the war and chaos that followed, and Ari Fleischer, Bush’s spokesman. Even Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter whose byline appeared on some of stories that helped the Bush administration sell the lie that Saddan Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, appeared on Fox. (Where’s former Vice President Dick Cheney when you need him?)
The channel also offered an uncontested platform for some of the most partisan talk I can imagine at such a time of heightened emotions
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley led the way on this front saying on Hannity’s show, “The only ones that are mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership and our Democrat presidential candidates.”
I didn’t see any Democratic leaders or candidates “mourning” Soleimani’s death.
Fox had the biggest ratings Tuesday night in the immediate wake of the Iran airstrikes with 5.7 million viewers for Carlson and 5.74 million for Hannity, according to Mediaite.
I have been covering Fox News since its inception in 1996, and the one thing I do know is owner Rupert Murdoch cares about nothing as much as ratings. Part of the response from the channel’s executives and PR department to almost every criticism I have ever leveled against Fox News is that it’s the highest rated cable news channel.
So, here’s one takeaway I hope Fox News management is left with from this week: Intelligent dissent such as Carlson delivered can be just as successful with viewers as blind cheerleading and lockstep propaganda in service to the president.
And here’s one for the rest of us: We are now in a very dangerous place at such moments of possible war thanks to the unprecedented relationship between the Trump administration and Fox News. Information the American people need and have a right to be given is provided and laundered only through those media outlets that have proven their willingness to act as proxies for the White House.
For Murdoch and the people he has running his channel, the decisions they make might be all about ratings and ideology. But for members of the military and their families, the actions taken by the White House and blindly supported by the windbags of war can be a matter of life and death.
CNN showed the fears, tears and dislocation at U.S. military bases this week as troops were deployed to the Middle East. There was no talk of unleashing “holy hell” on Iran here. Just hopes and prayers for safe returns.
We need to constantly remind our audiences of the tremendous pain and cost of war ― as well as the history of past disasters like the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We need to continue to do everything we can to push back against this dangerous dance the Trump administration is doing with right-wing media as it tries to control the flow of information to Congress, mainstream media and the American people.