The Fox Fix
By: By KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON
Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about that which has come to pass and that which may yet be, along with politics, language, and culture.
If you’ll forgive a little inside-baseball media stuff . . .
My friend Jonah Goldberg has just quit Fox News in response to Tucker Carlson’s Patriot Purge pseudo-documentary — not the event in isolation, but more of a straw-and-camel situation. I have some other friends who still work at Fox News and who are going to keep right on working there.
What to think about these situations?
In one sense, these questions are obvious: If a gig isn’t giving you what you need, then you quit. We’re all adults, and most of us have quit a job before — some of us have even been fired once or twice. I have a great deal more respect for Jonah Goldberg and his colleague Steve Hayes, who also resigned from Fox News, than I do for the cancel-culture types who spend their time trying to get other people fired. People who are willing to pay some personal price for their choices rather than trying to impose costs on others (often to their own personal benefit) are the people who have something to say that is worth listening to.
But there isn’t any particular obligation to quit, either. Journalism (and I suppose that we must consider cable-news punditry a mutant species of journalism) isn’t a preschool sandbox, and you don’t get cooties from playing with the wrong people. If you want to persuade people, then you will just have to grow up and suffer the indignity of being around people who see the world in a way that is at odds with your own views. Horrors.
Sometimes, the other side even does . . . good work. During my recent visit to the United Kingdom, I read a couple of issues of the New Statesman , which you might think of as a British socialist version of National Review . There was a good deal of interesting and entertaining work therein — better, I think, than any left-wing magazine in the United States, and better than most of the right-wing magazines, too. I don’t think you have to be a socialist to understand that. But I wonder how many on the right would be scandalized if I subscribed? Some people would see this as supporting socialism, rather than what it is, i.e., paying for a magazine I want to read. Socialist cooties — beware!
In reality, the politics of cooties has hurt both our journalism and our politics, and hurt them in precisely the same way. Instead of initiating conversations with people who disagree with us with an eye toward persuading them, we spend most of our time talking to like-minded people. As a practical matter, politicians in our time get more juice out of rallying their partisans, inflaming their grievances and valorizing every prejudice, no matter how petty, than they do out of giving speeches to skeptical or disagreeing audiences; in precisely the same way, much of our contemporary journalism is oriented toward flattering readers and listeners rather than challenging them, reassuring them that they hate the right people for the right reasons, and that their hatred is not only justified but sanctified. And if Fox News is a gigantic corporate grievance farm, MSNBC is no less so, and neither is National Public Radio or, angels and ministers of grace defend us, Teen Vogue . There is a reason no beat reporter in this country doing real journalism earns a tenth of what a marquee cable-news mouth-hole does.
(Never mind, for now, the absolute phoniness of these champagne populists presenting themselves as the tribunes of the working classes of the “Real American” heartland against the predation of “coastal elites” or “oligarchs.” Almost every one of them lives in Manhattan, the D.C. metro, or that New York City suburb known as Palm Beach, Fla. None of them chose to make a living or a life in Oklahoma, a Spanish-speaking border enclave, or some economically dead mill town in Ohio. Rush Limbaugh could have landed his Gulfstream G550 back home in Cape Girardeau any time he liked, and Rachel Maddow spent years opining about the plight of the poor while going home to a West Village loft she bought from a rock star. The tribunes of the plebs don’t so much as get downwind from actual poor people or poor communities, unlike, say, your favorite evil elitist correspondent.)
I’ve written for the New York Times and the Washington Post , among others. I did a piece for Playboy back when that was a magazine that sometimes published interesting political writing, and I even had an article in the Atlantic once. That doesn’t mean I love everything on the Times op-ed pages or the Post ’s, or everything that Playboy or the Atlantic ever did. It doesn’t even mean that I think those pages are particularly good. (The Times is a hell of a lot better at covering real news than it is at curating opinion columns.) I write for them because sometimes I have something that I want to say for a readership that isn’t National Review ’s. That’s the same reason you have seen me on MSNBC or CNN or heard me on left-wing podcasts and whatnot. I don’t want to sound cynical, but journalism is a product that gets moved like any other product, and I’m interested in shelf space. I don’t shop at Walmart very often, but, if I were in the business of selling peanut butter or flipflops, I’d want to be on those shelves, irrespective of what I think about Walmart’s corporate politics, its management, or the other products for sale there. Fox News is still pretty good shelf space for people in the television business, and I don’t blame people for continuing to work there, even if it is something that I myself would not choose to be closely associated with.
I have worked for a number of very different journalistic institutions in my life, and all of them at some point or another made editorial decisions with which I disagreed. That includes — definitely — the ones where I was in charge. Everybody makes mistakes, everybody has blind spots, and — one hopes — everybody learns. You never step into the same river twice, and the news is one of those rivers. If I refused to work for any outlet that had ever made an editorial decision with which I disagreed, I would have nowhere to work. I’d have had to quit (or, I suppose, fire myself) in protest a hundred times.
It is a superstition — and a very stupid one — that to work at a newspaper, magazine, news channel, or book publisher is to endorse everything that it puts out. This is absolute nonsense. The populist, middle-American pretensions of its hosts notwithstanding, Fox News is part of a vast, sprawling multinational media conglomerate. Fox News and its corporate sibling, News Corp, have an interest in everything from book publishing (HarperCollins) to the Wall Street Journal to British tabloids to the New York Post . Sean Hannity and Bart Simpson are fruit of the same orchard (the family resemblance is impossible to miss, even if Disney now owns the smarter show) as are books by Quentin Tarantino, Dave Grohl, and Lebron James, among others. I very much doubt that any one person, Rupert Murdoch included, even knows what the editorial output of that machine looks like in toto . Nobody has enough time to keep up with the antics of both Tucker Carlson and Nigella Lawson.
(Disclosure stuff: I’ve appeared on Fox News from time to time, along with many other cable-news channels, but have never been a paid contributor. In the wider Murdoch orbit: I write regularly for the New York Post , have written for the Wall Street Journal , and published a book with HarperCollins a few years ago. There may be other connections that I’m not remembering. I fill out a lot of W-9s.)
In some contexts, publishing work you disagree with — even work to which you object — is a positive good. That’s what book publishers and magazines are there for. And, at some level, they still know this: Ronan Farrow made a show out of walking away from Hachette over the publisher’s professional relationship with Woody Allen, but — for Pete’s sake! — Hachette publishes Adolf Hitler, having brought out a new edition of Mein Kampf in 2017. And that is a worthwhile project — somebody should keep Mein Kampf in print. Ignorance is not bliss. Simon & Schuster publishes Albert Speer, among other distasteful figures, and Penguin keeps the Marquis de Sade in print. We have a First Amendment to ensure freedom of speech and of the press precisely in order to protect the publication of material to which people object, that they find wicked, unpatriotic, dangerous, or obscene. Everybody who celebrates the work of Galileo should bless the memory of Lodewijk Elzevir, the Amsterdam publisher who brought out his books after smuggling the manuscripts out of Italy at considerable risk. Margaret Caroline Anderson and Jane Heap went to jail for publishing James Joyce in the Little Review , work that was judged obscene by American censors high on Comstockery.
None of this is to say that Fox News and Tucker Carlson are the House of Elzevir and Galileo or the Little Review and Ulysses . Far from it. Fox News’s problem isn’t ground-breaking literature — it is irresponsible horsesh**. I know Tucker a little, and I couldn’t tell you why he does what he does. I don’t think it’s the money, which he doesn’t need, and it isn’t because he is stupid, which he is anything but. He is, among other things, a very fine writer. Tucker Carlson has genuine gifts, but so did Elmer Gantry.
From my point of view, the case against Fox News isn’t that it is dangerous or that Tucker Carlson’s work is likely to incite anybody to violence. (Maybe it will, but I doubt it. This country may generate a few school-shooters every year, but I don’t think it has the energy for a sustained intifada .) The case against Fox News is that it is tedious, repetitive, and lurid. Aesthetically and emotionally, it more often resembles pornography than it does, say, the commentary of Paul Harvey. One Fox insider says that some had stuck it out until the end of the Trump administration, confident that the network would make a return to something more like normal. That hasn’t happened. But for shareholders and on-air talent alike, the money is hard to walk away from.
Here’s a case for comparison. My friend and National Review colleague Andrew C. McCarthy spent a considerable part of the post-9/11 years articulating a view of presidential power that is, in my view, bananas . Not only bananas, but positively dangerous if extended to its logical conclusion. This isn’t from malice — this is McCarthy’s good-faith reading of the law. Would the world have been better off if National Review hadn’t published this work? I don’t think so. I disagree with McCarthy on many issues, but he publishes interesting work on important subjects. And he isn’t the only one who believes what he believes — it is not as though these ideas would simply go away if National Review hadn’t published them. (This is broadly the same reason I am happy to see National Review publish work I disagree with from figures I don’t particularly admire, such as Senator Josh Hawley.) We are better off when ideas are contested among intelligent and responsible parties rather than left to irresponsible demagogues. (If you doubt that, consider the likelihood that Donald Trump would be a retired game-show host, and not an ex-president, if Republicans had bothered to take immigration issues halfway seriously.) And I have always hesitated to set myself up as a censor because there exists the possibility that, in any given case, I might be wrong. I have been wrong before, and I expect to be wrong again.
I don’t imagine that in 100 years, anybody will be saying, “ Thank goodness Fox News put out that Tucker Carlson video !” I don’t think that people will have opinions about Tucker Carlson at all in 100 years.
(As Jay Nordlinger points out, journalism is a thing for a day, not a thing for eternity — daily is right there in the name: journalism , from the Latin diurnalis , “daily,” cf. diurnal , Old French jornel , Italian giornalismo , Portuguese jornalismo , etc.)
These controversies focus on figures such as Tucker Carlson because they are famous. It is easy to get people to pay attention to celebrities and, as a business proposition, attention pays. But Fox News demagogues are more a symptom than a disease — as with the case of our vast and popular pornography industry, the social problem is not that the providers exist but that there exists such a large, slavering, rapacious market for the goods they are selling. I suppose I was a little ahead of Jonah Goldberg in this: I started turning down Fox News invitations when Sean Hannity began willfully misrepresenting National Review . I still have some funny emails to Fox News producers in my “ Sent ” box ( “ I’d set myself on fire in Times Square before appearing on anything associated with Laura Ingraham”) but there never was a dramatic public break. There was never really a call for one, and I don’t think very many people would have cared if there had been. I’m a print dinosaur, an Eisenhower man, and an anti-populist — not exactly the stuff of which modern cable-news punditry is made. I don’t want to be associated with Hannity et al. for the same reason I wouldn’t market my work on PornHub. Donald Trump, it is worth remembering, appeared in a handful of porn films: He knows his audience, and he always has. I know mine, too.
Understandably, people care a great deal more about Jonah Goldberg’s exit from Fox News. You can tell that Tucker Carlson and others care about it by how much, how loudly, and how bitterly they are talking about how much they don’t care. That’s familiar stuff, too: Every sub-Fox News nobody over at AR15RedStateJesus.com has written 500 blog posts and tweets about how “irrelevant” National Review is, and they’ll write 500 more this year. As the philosopher said, “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da.”
“This is war,” they tell us. It isn’t, of course, not by a damned sight, and thank God for it. But if you want to think of our recent national convulsions as war , then you should think of the cable-news gang as war profiteers . They have convinced millions of Americans that they are part of a great crusade, without quite disclosing that they are part of a great crusade to make sure that Sean Hannity never has to fly commercial and that Rachel Maddow can afford sustainably grown cedar planks for her weekend retreat in Massachusetts. And don’t think for a second that Hannity and Maddow aren’t in the same business and on the same team — if you believe otherwise, you are a sucker and a mark.
I don’t blame people for wanting to make money — I do my best to make some, too — but there are times when I think I might respect these entrepreneurs a little more if they just sold heroin.
Milton Friedman’s left-wing critics denounced him for having advised the government of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Friedman’s response was, in my view, persuasive: He said he gave the Chilean government good advice, and that the Chilean people would have been better off if the Pinochet regime had followed Friedman’s advice more closely. I have friends who worked for the Trump administration, and they gave the administration good advice, making it less destructive than it might otherwise have been. (Do I need to explain to anybody that these cases are not exactly equivalent or precisely parallel? I hope not.) Fox News in its current configuration is best understood as the Trump administration in exile. Part of me wants to take my own advice, elaborated above, on the understanding that there are no perfect institutions, that we have to work with what we have, that we are better off with decent and intelligent voices being heard in those rooms and around those tables. Another part of me questions whether it is possible for an honorable man to continue to be associated with something like Fox News — or, more consequentially, with the Republican Party. Of course, they need good advice. Of course, the American people will be better off if they listen to that good advice. Are they inclined to listen? Are they even able to act on good advice? About that, I have my doubts.
Jonah Goldberg has raised a question. It is a question worth asking, and it will be worth remembering who answers it and how.