"Conspiracy theories are threaded into the Republican Party itself"
I spoke with Nicole Hemmer, an expert on right-wing media, about the broader context of Chris Wallace's departure from Fox News.
In his first interview since leaving Fox News for CNN, Chris Wallace told the New York Times what was already widely suspected — that the network’s post-January 6 drift toward conspiratorial commentary encouraged him to seek work elsewhere.
“I just no longer felt comfortable with the programming at Fox,” Wallace, whose new CNN+ show debuts today, told the Times. “I’m fine with opinion: conservative opinion, liberal opinion. But when people start to question the truth — ‘Who won the 2020 election?’ ‘Was January 6 an insurrection?’ — I found that unsustainable.”
Wallace’s comments drew some criticism. Fox, after all, was terrible long before January 6. It played a leading role in the rise of the Tea Party and birtherism. It functioned as a mouthpiece for Trump propaganda when he was in the White House. Wallace kept cashing Murdoch checks through all that.
But still, there’s something to what he’s saying. Most everyone with a shred of mainstream journalistic credibility who worked in an on-camera role has left the network. In related news, Fox’s highest-rated anchor, Tucker Carlson, recently lent his name to specials glorifying Kyle Rittenhouse and pushing an absurd conspiracy theory about the January 6 attack on Congress being a false flag. The network specializes in disngenuousness: Text messages released by the January 6 committee revealed that a number of Fox hosts (including Laura Ingraham, Brian Kilmeade, and Sean Hannity) texted Mark Meadows to express dismay about Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election — concerns very much at odds with on-air comments they made downplaying Trump’s role and trying to pin blame on leftists.
Wallace confirmed to the Times that Carlson’s January 6 “documentary” (“Patriot Purge”) disturbed him to the point that he complained to Fox News executives. But if Carlson was reprimanded, it certainly hasn’t been evident on his show, where, in recent weeks, he has parroted Kremlin disinformation while discussing Putin’s war on Ukraine.
To get an expert perspective on Wallace’s explanation for leaving Fox and its broader significance, I called up Nicole Hemmer, author of a history of right-wing media entitled “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She made a case that Fox’s drift away from anything resembling news content is more of a demand problem than a supply one.
“In some ways Fox has been a lagging indicator of where the conservative base is,” she told me. “Fox has been facing increasing pressure from the conservative base for quite some time now, and it always ends up moving to where the base is.”
A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.
What do you think Chris Wallace’s departure says in terms of the direction that Fox News is headed?
This is part of a longer-term shift that's been happening at Fox News. There has been a flight out of figures who were considered by audiences and by observers to be more focused on reporting, or less conservative, at the network — people like Greta Van Susteren and Chris Wallace and Shep Smith. These were people who were pointed at by Fox executives as, ‘Oh no look, we're very tough on Republicans and we're very fair balanced.’ Those people have left.
They didn't just leave after the 2020 election or after the insurrection, but there has been a pretty steady flight out particularly since the 2016 election, and it does seem like Fox News executives have really been okay with that — that when people like that leave, they lean in and replace them with more incendiary or pro-Trump figures. That has come in waves, and I think it suggests that for all of the proclamations by Fox executives that there is a firewall of church and state between opinion and news reporting, the news reporting function of Fox News is dwindling and it is not the part that is getting all the attention and all the money.
What do you think about Wallace’s claim to the New York Times that he left because Fox got worse in crucial ways since January 6? I think there’s definitely something to that, but it’s not like Fox wasn’t bad during the Trump years.
It’s certainly the case that the insurrection and Tucker Carlson's documentary — also his documentary on Kyle Rittenhouse — point to Fox News moving in an InfoWars-ish direction, although I do think that the movement in general is moving that way.
But I would say that it has been shifting by degrees for a much longer period of time. This might have been the breaking point for Chris Wallace, but other people have had their breaking points earlier. Again, we saw Megyn Kelly leave, we saw George Will leave, we saw Greta Van Susteren leave, we saw Shep Smith leave. All of those departures have been signaling for a while now that Fox has been moving more and more in a direction that people were uncomfortable with. This is just a sign of where Chris Wallace's discomfort was. I don't think that it has been a sharp turn for Fox News. I think it was just moving in the same direction that they had been heading for quite some time.
In Greg Sargent’s piece about Wallace’s interview, you noted this dynamic Fox finds itself in where it’s competing with even further right-wing outlets like Newsmax and OAN, and how as a result Fox is having to shore up its bona fides with the MAGA base.
It seems like Fox is winning that battle. Newsmax hasn’t sustained the ratings surge it had while Trump was trying to overturn the election, and OAN is in danger of going out of existence entirely. Are you surprised Fox has had so much success neutralizing the competition?
If you had asked me 14 months ago, I would've said that they would find success moving in that direction because in some ways Fox has been a lagging indicator of where the conservative base is.
I would take us all the way back to say 2012. You have Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, both former Fox News contributors who are running for president, who are attacking Fox News for being too mainstream, too establishment, too pro-Mitt Romney and not listening to the conservative base. Those kinds of attacks coming from the right on Fox News have only grown since 2012.
Obviously we saw it in 2016 when Megyn Kelly and Donald Trump got into it and Fox News seemed to be supporting Megyn Kelly. The center of gravity of conservative media shifted during that period more towards Breitbart than Fox News. Fox has been facing increasing pressure from the conservative base for quite some time now, and it always ends up moving to where the base is.
That’s what we’re seeing here. If you looked at where Republican members of Congress and viewers who shifted over to Newsmax for a brief period after the 2020 election, after Fox News had called it for Joe Biden — if you looked at all the signs, the base of the party and the audience of Fox News was moving further right much more quickly than Fox was, so of course there's no surprise that they ultimately followed where their audience was going.
You probably noticed last week that Fox News and Republicans like Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham worked together to smear Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson as being unusually soft on child porn offenders and therefore a threat to American families.
If you were advising Democrats, what would you tell them about how best to engage with these misleading, Fox-driven narratives, if they should do it at all?
It's very tricky, especially because Fox News and those kinds of conspiracy theories are threaded into the Republican Party itself. It's not just that Fox News is saying these things — it's that Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Josh Hawley and Senator Lindsey Graham are all saying these things.
Of course it's getting reported on because it's senators who are saying it. You have to respond to accusations that are out there with better information, but I do think that typically Democrats and activists have been far too reactive and not proactive enough at creating their own messages and pushing their own messages and interpretations and agendas and trying to wrest control of the news cycle. I don't think that they've been anywhere near aggressive enough in setting an agenda. They have to get better at that if they want to compete in a world in which Fox News and Fox News Republicans have so much power.