Fox News is not a news organization. This has long been apparent: It has functioned, more or less openly, as a propaganda arm of the Republican Party for years, but to a certain extent, the company was able to keep this reality somewhat veiled. Its opinion shows—running from Bill O’Reilly to Glenn Beck to Sean Hannity to, now, Tucker Carlson—were agenda-setting, pushing the issues and narratives that have defined GOP politics for decades. But they were opinion shows; Fox also boasted a news arm that, while displaying a conservative bias was, nevertheless, a functioning journalistic entity. This was the arm of Fox News that made the early and ultimately correct call that Biden had won Arizona’s electoral votes in 2020.
For most of its history, this Theory of Two Foxes has dominated most of the writing and reporting about the Rupert Murdoch–owned conservative network: The opinion side always had more power—and its power was always growing—but there were some checks in place. Real journalists like Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith worked at Fox News. There was always tension between its divisions, but the mere existence of the news side acted as dose of reality to counteract Beck’s chalkboard ravings and Carlson’s smug monologues.
Fox News’s increasing radicalism over the course of the Trump era—and the related departure of many of the network’s most prominent journalists, including Wallace and Smith—left that theory in tatters. But it wasn’t fully destroyed until last month, when revelations from Dominion Voting Systems’s lawsuit against the company laid bare the fact that Fox was really nothing more than a propaganda network. Terrified its viewers would flee if they were told the truth, its hosts lied repeatedly about the 2020 election. Text messages and other documents released as part of that lawsuit show again and again that the network is a giant fraud, its hosts are liars, and all parties are fully aware of this.
For years, Democrats have walked a fine line with Fox News. The network has, unsurprisingly, been an antagonist for the party more or less since its inception—by the mid-’90s the cable news network had replaced Rush Limbaugh as the focal point of liberal scorn. But even though the knocks on Fox were accurate—there was nothing fair and balanced about the network; its right-wing bias was clear and obvious; it and its hosts had it out for Democrats—the critics often came across as whiners. Moreover, Democrats still had to make regular appearances on Fox—at least the newsier parts of it—a fact that caused many to tamp down their criticism. As a result, for most of its existence, the ire directed at Fox was more focused at specific opinion hosts than at the network itself.
But the Dominion disclosures have forced Democrats’ hands in ways that the tidy status quo failed to provoke. In a letter sent to Fox’s leadership on Wednesday, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries demanded its hosts publicly acknowledge that they deliberately misled their viewers about the outcome of the 2020 election. “Though you have acknowledged your regret in allowing this grave propaganda to take place, your network hosts continue to promote, spew, and perpetuate election conspiracy theories to this day,” they write. As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted, Democratic criticisms of Fox News are sharper and more direct than they’ve ever been before: The letter refers to its content as “propaganda”—a term that Democrats have largely avoided in the past.
The timing of this escalation is not incidental. Though it’s certainly related to the exchanges that have been released via the Dominion lawsuit, Democrats are also reacting to the fact that Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently gave Tucker Carlson tens of thousands of hours of footage from the January 6 insurrection. There is no question why McCarthy gave it to Carlson: He hopes that the right-wing opinion leader will turn it into conservative agitprop and bolster a series of false narratives about the riot at the Capitol—that the protesters were peaceful, that the narrative around that riot is not only overblown but politically motivated, that the real agitators were Democrats and antifa.
Carlson’s own text messages about the 2020 election—in which he repeatedly acknowledges that Donald Trump is acting unhinged—give all of this an air of the absurd. Carlson knows that the 2020 election was legitimate and that January 6 posed a serious threat, both to the body politic and to the movement of which he is a leader. His text messages to Fox producers and other hosts make that much clear. And yet it is Carlson who will lead the propaganda effort to weave a yarn out of the footage he—and he alone—has been provided by McCarthy.
Democrats have an opportunity to continue to raise the stakes. They possess receipts that they’ve never had before that prove Fox’s hosts do not believe what they peddle on their shows. But what should they do with this knowledge? And how do you make effective use of it in a hyperpartisan environment?
There is one pressing dilemma: Should Democrats still go on the network? For years, many have argued that the answer is no. The deck is stacked against you, after all—and this is a propaganda network. Fox News is increasingly devoted to making Democrats look not just crazy but also dangerous: Republicans are given softballs and Democrats daggers.
And yet there is a compelling argument that Democrats should continue to take their battle to Fox’s airwaves. “Go on looking for a fight,” Crooked Media’s Dan Pfeiffer told Sargent. “The press will cover what you say on Fox.” As a result, he says, this will facilitate “reaching people outside of the Fox audience.” Pete Buttigieg, despite his recent stumbles as a transportation secretary, proved very good at modeling a pugilistic approach to going on the network: Be willing to punch back and argue. Now Democrats will be armed with texts that show the network’s stars were lying to its viewers about January 6. Fox News has not been covering those texts—Democrats, however, can direct the network’s viewers to them by mentioning them on the air.
Fox News has built a devoted audience by spoon-feeding it exactly what it wants. It’s not clear if these tactics will drive a wedge between its viewers and its hosts, even though a divide between the two clearly exists. Still, Democrats have their best opportunity to fight back against the network’s craven lies in years. Ironically, this could mean that they spend more time in the belly of the beast—but the beast’s belly suddenly looks vulnerable.