David Zurawik on Fox Nation and the on-demand, subscription streaming service launched at the end of November.
I spent the better part of two days in Fox Nation, and I am in no hurry to return, believe me.
The on-demand, subscription streaming service launched at the end of November has promoted itself as a place where for $5.99 a month the most engaged and serious fans of Fox News can get even more of their favorite kinds of shows and hosts. Typical of its more heavily promoted fare: a cooking program with Steve Doocy, one of the hosts of “Fox & Friends,” and “What Made America Great,” a history program hosted by Brian Kilmeade, also from “Fox & Friends.”
That seems nice enough on the surface. But it doesn’t take long to notice a far more political, partisan and even propagandistic thread connecting much of the programming.
On Monday, my first day in Fox Nation, even I was surprised by the one-sided crush of pro-Trump, anti-Democrats-in-Congress messaging on the government shutdown and border wall, as well as the bare-knuckled attempts to stir the pots of racial tensions and religious differences.
And these are not minor themes or an occasional tone. From Diamond and Silk demanding the “Democrat rats” in Congress “do their jobs” and give Trump his wall, to a bellicose Tomi Lahren denigrating Black Lives Matter, this was red-meat, right-wing rabble-rousing too raw even for Fox News.
Lahren, a 26-year-old conservative firebrand with 1.24 million Twitter followers, is the current and future star of this digital platform, no doubt about it.
The “First Thoughts” and “Final Thoughts” commentaries from Lahren essentially bookend the day on Fox Nation at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m, respectively. The subscription service seems to be going out of its way not to compete in the evening with the top-rated, prime-time programming on the Fox News channel starring Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. (Fox Nation subscribers can only hear audio of those programs — and only after the programs have aired on cable TV.)
A feature titled “Meet Tomi” was one of the videos I kept coming upon as I tried to navigate around the Fox Nation site Monday. If you click on “Personalities,” one of the four main headings at the top of the homepage, you meet Tomi.
“Travel to beautiful Rapid City, South Dakota with Tomi Lahren, as she takes viewers around to see the great faces and great places she grew up surrounded by,” the teaser copy says. “From the local hot spots, to a tour of her high school and home, Meet Tomi is an in-depth look into the life of one of Fox Nation's stars.”
I first “met” Lahren in the summer of 2016 on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” when she and I were on a panel talking about a tweet she published and then took down in the face of a fierce backlash saying Black Lives Matter is “the new KKK.” See it here.
I was astounded by the historical ignorance and insensitivity in comparing a social justice movement to a terrorist organization that beat, maimed, burned and murdered people of color in an attempt to deny them their civil and human rights. I said on air how appalled I was that someone in the media would write such hateful words. I hoped she had learned something from the blowback and public discussion of it on CNN.
But there she was Monday on Fox Nation slamming away on Black Lives Matter in her “Closing Thoughts” commentary.
“That movement,” she said referring to Black Lives Matter, “undermined itself when it perpetuated the false narrative of ‘Hands up, don’t shoot.’ It undermined itself when members started burning and looting neighborhoods and communities in ‘protests.’ ”
She raised her hands to put the word “protests” in air quotes.
“That movement undermined itself when members remained quiet after the Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas when a black man set out to kill white cops and killed five,” she added, her intensity rising with each of the three charges she leveled against the group. “All of that and more undermine the movement.”
Who needs Russian bots and trolls trying to exploit racial tensions and divides in this country when you have Lahren and Fox Nation doing it with such passion?
Yeah, she learned something all right from that KKK tweet and the denunciation of it on CNN in 2016. She learned she could be rewarded by Fox for replicating that kind of behavior on this new digital platform.
She is tapping into the same “whitelash” that former President Obama aide Van Jones pointed to on election night 2016 in explaining Trump’s victory. But what made Lahren’s words so troubling to me is that she is speaking them to a new generation.
It’s not all race with Lahren. In her “First Thoughts” Monday commentary, she set herself as arbiter of who was and wasn’t rightfully able to call themselves a Christian and mocked congressional Democrats for doing so.
“Isn’t it funny how a government shutdown and a deep desire for open borders have suddenly spurred the Democrats to become so Christian, pro-military and pro-veteran?” she began her commentary Monday morning.
But do the Democrats really “give a hoot about the military and Jesus Christ?” she went on to ask rhetorically.
But she was only warming up for her slam on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for calling Trump’s wall “immoral.” She put air quotes with her fingers around the word when she said it.
“Apparently, she’s an expert on morality,” Lahren said sarcastically of the speaker.
“Actually, it’s Christian to establish boundaries,” she said, as if lecturing Pelosi. “And it’s Christian to enforce the law. And it’s Christian to deter families from trekking through the desert. And it’s Christian to protect your citizens.”
I am not sure where any of those acts, especially the one that involves “trekking through the desert,” is defined as distinctly Christian except in Lahren’s mind. But she delivers such dubious claims against Democrats, whom she rhetorically links to “far left lefties,” with an air of great outrage, righteousness and belligerence. That’s her act.
And then, there are Diamond and Silk, the YouTube stars who are weekly contributors to Fox Nation. The duo (Ineitha Lynnette Hardaway and Herneitha Rochelle Richardson) started the New Year off by blasting congressional Democrats for “playing games” instead of giving Trump $5.7 billion to build his wall.
One of the most pointed critiques of their commentary came from Jemele Hill, columnist for The Atlantic, who wrote on Twitter, “What in the Step It and Fetch It is this?”
Don’t come to Fox Nation looking for the steady flow of live content you get on Fox News. This is on demand, and like Netflix, what you find on your screen are tiles with program titles and personalities’ names. You click and play.
Most of the live content I found involved a camera pointed at hosts from Fox News Radio as they did their shows. There were lots of images of studios with microphones on the site.
Todd Starnes was featured from noon to 3 p.m. Monday.
Indicative of how far to the right he is on reproductive rights, here’s one of his tweets from Tuesday: “Foul, feminist monsters call unborn babies "medical waste."
His guests included Will Graham, the Rev. Billy Graham’s grandson, and Ken Ham, the Christian fundamentalist founder of the Creation Museum, which teaches a literal interpretation from the Book of Genesis as to how the world was created.
The show closed with a mini-sermon from Graham directed to listeners who might be feeling God had “given up” on them.
There were news updates throughout the afternoon, which featured a newsreader at a microphone. I lost track of how many times I heard a sound bite of Trump calling the allegation that he worked for the Russians a “whole big, fat hoax” in those updates.
As a business model, Fox Nation makes sense. Virtually everyone in news and information media wants a subscription-based digital platform. The prospects for survival without one do not look good, though television has been outperforming the dinosaur characterization put on it by many analysts for about three decades now and is still the principal storyteller of American life.
But if you get your money from subscriptions rather than ads, you are not so vulnerable to the kinds of advertiser boycotts Fox has faced with star performers like Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Ingraham and Carlson in recent years. Maybe that’s why Fox has come to this model ahead of CNN and MSNBC.
The digital platform as a complement to a strong prime-time brand also allows you a second revenue stream without a huge outlay as you can repurpose some material from your TV and radio operations and squeeze more content out of your talent — just what Fox Nation is doing with Doocy, Kilmeade, Dana Perino and others.
And there is quite a bit of content on Fox Nation in documentaries and nonfiction series. There’s more than I could explore in the time I had to report this piece, but, like the most of the talk on the platform, it skews heavily right wing. Again, a solid right-wing wall of political ideology and American history.
“Black Eye: Dan Rather and the Birth of Fake News” is one documentary title, while four hours of the “Scandalous” series was devoted to “Chappaquiddick,” the scandal surrounding Sen.Ted Kennedy when a car he was driving went off a bridge, resulting on the death of a woman from his staff who was riding with him.
I cannot judge Fox Nation as a business without subscription data, and in an email response to The Baltimore Sun, a spokesperson said Fox Nation is not sharing that information.
But my primary concern is not about the business of Fox Nation. It is rather the ideology and regularly combative tone that I encountered there this week.
If you don’t think that matters in your life, consider for a moment how Trump was goaded by right-wing media figures like Ingraham, Doocy, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh to shut down the government rather than move off his demand of $5.7 billion for his wall.
Fox News helped make us a nation of political silos, divided one from the other and often at war. Fox Nation is smaller in size, but culturally it’s a super silo hoping to bring a new generation inside its walls with its messages.
Fox Nation aims to be tribal and then some.
The video that greeted me after I subscribed ended with Doocy saying, “Welcome to the family.”