The Fox News verdict, and how publics are becoming audiences everywhere

Foxes are known for their willingness to chew through a leg to escape a trap. Fox News has lost some of its teeth following its libel trial settlement, with Dominion Voting machines taking a whopping $788 million from the news channel. The deal, more than a magic billion in Australian dollars, has many priorities, but it allows the Murdochs—Rupert and Lachlan—to avoid compelled testimony about the network’s relentless manufacture of stories of a stolen election.

The lead-up to the trial made clear the changed nature of the network since its launch at the height of the Clinton years in 1996. Created as a conservative rallying point alternative to the ‘liberal’ US media—an accurate enough charge in limited progressive terms—the network’s balance of centre-right and reactionary right messaging helped regroup the US Right to retake the White House and hold Congress in the Bush years, and then to retake Congress in the Obama years, with the Tea Party movement.

Such wild success was the beginning of its failure. Fox’s brilliant kinetic style, tabloid and cartoonish, made popular an essentially mythical approach to news—concrete stories, heroes and villains, and long-running sagas, many of them involving elite leaders, the Obamas and the Clintons above all. As their older audience became a much older audience, the model shifted from a broad audience watching for a few minutes a day to a smaller audience watching for hours a day. Fox’s mythical style relied on certain features of age—a retreat from earlier, more tolerant views of broader society, a persistent sense of threat—and fed the need such a condition created for real enemies.

This rapidly became a vicious circle in programming, with the more conventional news programs of the day losing ground as the Fox ‘after dark’ programs roared ahead (the Australianism ‘Sky After Dark’ was never used, largely because that title is a reference to a vanished series of soft-porn exploitation movies, ‘Australia After Dark’, which were hugely popular in the 70s and 80s). The Tea Party constituency that Fox, faced with the failed election of 2012 and the US public’s refusal to concur with its view of Obama, had largely helped to create out of a fairly sparse social movement demanded ever more, ever harder and more concrete mythologising. The falling cost of professional quality cable TV production meant that Fox soon had competition on its right—the One America Network, the Blaze TV networks attached to shadowy political groups and social movements touting what would become the Great Replacement Theory, and the beginnings of QAnon stepping into anti-Semitism with their George Soros obsessions and advertising gold bullion, survivalist rations and adult diapers.

The Fox leadership would have hoped that a mainstream conservative such as Ted Cruz would have won the 2016 Republican primaries. The rise of Trump provided the moment when Fox had no choice but to abandon its political aim—to build a counter-insurgent public—and retreat to the necessary task of building and maintaining an audience. By committing to the latter, they dissolved the former. In doing so, they were contributing to the wider process by which this was occurring. But it would have occurred without them, and its underlying conditions—the atomisation of shared public life with its orientation towards truth claims as the condition of public debate—were dictating the process, far more than Fox News was shaping it.

The collapse towards concrete mythologising as a discourse principle on the Right marked the coming-apart of a ‘conservatism’ in the Burkean/Russell Kirk sense—a movement in which concrete tradition, anchored in an ethos but not bound by its asserted identity, is integrated with rationally oriented program-proposing and policy-making, drawing off a commitment to values of universal right. This formula, as a mix capable of ceaseless adjustment, is consecrated in the founding American documents themselves. Trump’s departure to myths of paranoia, a lost golden age and an appeal to barely concealed ethnonationalist unity made the movement, and the network, a stranger in its own land, which won in 2016 due to its opponents’ strategic ineptitude and was roundly defeated in 2020, when earlier mistakes were not repeated.

In doing this, Fox News gave up the defensive position it had been founded on—that of regrouping right forces scattered by the demographic and cultural wave headed by Clinton, the first Baby-boomer generation president. The early 1990s were the years in which ‘political correctness’ as a term migrated from its literal and positive use in radical circles to become a term of disparagement, which recruited opposition to that which it opposed simply by being said. Its appearance had represented recognition of the first wave of what we now know as ‘progressivism’; the Gen X 20-somethings of the 1990s had been taught by Boomers who transformed the curriculum in a post-60s liberated culture that had been recommodified in the 1980s, and cut off from the possibility of making a full social transformation through political revolution. The transformational imperative flowed into culture and institutions, and as the industrial economy on which the working class relied was shipped to the Global South, Fox News was in part where that culture—which had been on the left throughout the New Deal and the postwar era—went to die, in the ressentiment that is a defeated class’s consolation prize.

But Fox News’s defeat, a source of cheer for progressives, is merely one aspect of this greater retreat from the public sphere. Left-liberal network MSNBC, in pursuit of a similar long-duration audience, has become a shrill American progressivist site, disgracing itself with conspiratorial ‘Trump-Russia’ collusion coverage. Twitter, long touted as part of the alternative to broadcast, unidirectional media and for some time a buzzing (private) public sphere, has, due to relatively minor ineptitude by its new owner, lost any sense of being a first destination for breaking news or debate over such. Nothing touted as its replacement has gone anywhere at all. Commercial network television is losing the audiences it required to fund A-list programs, but even the streaming services cannot corral sufficient smaller audiences to break even.

Even public broadcasters have lost their capacity to live up to their adjective. The ABC was long a destination for left and campaigning journalists (and an Arena editor, Allan Ashbolt, was instrumental in its transformation into a critical and progressive, but pluralist, broadcasting outfit) who nevertheless understood that they had to mediate between their own values and the more conservative ones that dominated much of the population. Now, with a ‘progressive class’ of around 30 per cent and an era of smaller audiences, its cohorts of young producers with firm progressive views have no check on their own un-reflected-upon worldviews. The circle thus matches, on the progressive side, the Fox feedback loop of a progressive mythologising. The symmetry is little recognised because progressive mythologies are ‘concrete’—or fixed—myths of abstract, universal values on matters such as borders, bodies and sex and gender, identity and the like.

It is that paradox on the progressive side that gave Fox News and other groupings an almost inexhaustible supply of fuel, with which it has now burnt itself down (though it will survive). It is a moment on the way to a place we are not at yet: the fully post-public society. Do we get there, or do events that have a categorical sweep beyond a media sphere within—a global economic faltering, a new pandemic or things yet unknown—create the conditions of regrouping, by dictating forms of representation rather than being dictated by it? We don’t know what traps we are walking towards, or what we may need to give up to escape.

About the author

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle was founding co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series). He is a well-known essayist and is writer-at-large for Crikey. His most recent book Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism was published by Black Inc. in 2019.

More articles by Guy Rundle

Categorised: Arena Online

Tagged: ,

Comments closed

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.