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Right-wing political and media figures regularly level the accusation of “elitism” at other Americans. But new revelations from Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News and the Fox Corporation over claims of election fraud are reminders that the most cynical elites in America are the Republicans and their media valets.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
- An anti-racist professor faces “toxicity on the left today.”
- I watched Elon Musk kill Twitter’s culture from the inside.
- Bird flu leaves the world with an existential choice.
Patronizing for Profit
Elected Republicans and their courtiers in the right-wing-media ecosystem deploy the word elite as an accusation, a calumny, almost a crime. To be one of the elite is to be a snooty, educated city dweller, a highbrow pretend-patriot who looks down upon the Real Americans who hunt and fish and drive pickup trucks to church. (It does not mean “rich people”; Donald Trump has gleefully referred to himself and his supporters as the “super-elite.”) The elites also support the production of “fake news” by liars who intend to hoodwink ordinary people into doing the bidding of wealthy globalists. They buy books and listen to National Public Radio and they probably read things like The Atlantic.
This shtick has been a remarkable success. Republicans have used it to convince millions of working people that super-educated gasbags such as Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Ron DeSantis are just ordinary folks who care deeply about kitchen-table issues that matter to their family and a secure future for their children, such as Hunter Biden’s sex life and whether public schools are letting kids pee in litter boxes.
In the entertainment hothouse, Fox News is the most prominent offender. The Fox all-star lineup, especially in prime time with Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham, is a parade of millionaires who work for Rupert Murdoch, one of the richest and most powerful men in this corner of the Milky Way galaxy. Every day they warn their viewers that democracy is in peril because of people who majored in gender studies. All of this nuttery is delivered with a straight face—or in Carlson’s case, the weird mien of a dog watching a magic trick.
It’s one thing, however, to suspect that Fox personalities see their viewers as mere rubes who must be riled up in the name of corporate profit. It’s another entirely to have it all documented in black and white. Dominion might not win its lawsuit against Fox, but for the rest of America, the process has produced something more important than money: an admission, by Fox’s on-air personalities, of how much they disrespect and disdain their own viewers.
According to documents from Dominion’s legal filing, Fox News hosts repeatedly exchanged private doubts about Republicans’ 2020 election-fraud claims. Hannity, in the weeks after the 2020 election, said that the regular Fox guest and top conspiracy-pusher, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, was “acting like an insane person.” Ingraham had a similar evaluation: “Such an idiot.” And it’s not like Murdoch didn’t share that sentiment: In one message, he said Giuliani and the Trump lawyer Sidney Powell were pushing “really crazy stuff” and he told Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott that their behavior was “damaging everybody.” (Fox reportedly banned Giuliani in 2021, putting up with him for weeks after January 6 and then shutting him down as the Dominion lawsuit gained momentum.)
There are few hours on Fox that manage to pack in more gibberish and nonsense than Carlson’s show, and yet—to give him one zeptosecond of credit—he took Powell apart in a segment on his show. In later months, of course, Carlson would continue to inject the information stream with various strains of conspiratorial pathogens, but when even Tucker Carlson is worried, perhaps it’s a sign that things are out of hand.
Of course, Carlson wasn’t worried about the truth; he was worried about the profitability of the Fox brand. When the Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich did a real-time fact-check on Twitter of a Trump tweet about voter fraud, Carlson tried to ruin her career. “Please get her fired,” he wrote in a text chain that included Hannity and Ingraham. He continued:
Seriously…What the fuck? I’m actually shocked…It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.
After the election, Carlson warned that angering Trump could have catastrophic consequences: “He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.” Murdoch, too, said that he did not want to “antagonize Trump further.”
Meanwhile, the Fox producer Abby Grossberg was more worried about the torch-and-pitchfork Fox demographic. After the election, she reminded Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo that Fox’s faithful should be served the toxic gunk they craved: “To be honest, our audience doesn’t want to hear about a peaceful transition,” Grossberg texted. “Yes, agree,” Bartiromo answered in a heroic display of high-minded journalistic principle.
In other words: Our audience of American citizens wants to be encouraged in its desire to thwart the peaceful transfer of power for the first time in our history as a nation. And Bartiromo answered: Yes, let’s keep doing that.
As Vox’s Sean Illing tweeted today, Bartiromo’s thirsty pursuit of ratings is a reminder that “no one has a lower opinion of conservative voters than conservative media.” More important, Fox’s cynical fleecing of its viewers is an expression of titanic elitism, the sort that destroys reality in the minds of ordinary people for the sake of fame and money. Not only does such behavior reveal contempt for Fox’s viewers; it encourages the destruction of our system of government purely for ratings and a limo to and from the Fox mothership in Times Square. (New York City might be full of coastal “elitists,” but that’s where the Fox crew lives and works; we’ll know the real populist millennium has arrived when Fox packs off Hannity and Greg Gutfeld and Jeanine Pirro to its new offices in Kansas or Oklahoma.)
Although it’s amusing to bash the Fox celebrities who have been caught in this kind of grubby hypocrisy, the elitism of the American right is a much bigger problem because it drives so much of the unhinged populism that threatens our democracy. Fox News and the highly educated Republican officeholders who use its support to stay in office know exactly what they’re doing. But they are all now riding a tiger of their own creation: As the conservative writer George Will has noted, for the first time in American history, a major political party is terrified by its own voters.
Fox, of course, has said that the Dominion filing “mischaracterized the record,” and “cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context,” and the network insisted in a legal brief it was merely observing its “commitment to inform fully and comment fairly.” Sadly, Fox will likely survive this disaster whether it wins or loses in court. Like the GOP base it serves, the network and its viewers have immense reserves of denial and rationalization they can bring to bear against the incursions of reality. “We can fix this,” Scott, the Fox CEO, wrote in the midst of this mess, “but we cannot smirk at our viewers any longer.”
But why not? It’s been working like a charm so far.
- Brian Stelter: I never truly understood Fox News until now.
- Fox hosts knew—and lied anyway. (from 2021)
- Six people have been killed in a series of shootings in Tate County, Mississippi.
- The five former Memphis police officers accused of killing Tyre Nichols pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder charges.
- The U.S. has finished recovering debris from the balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina, and so far, analysis of the remnants reinforce the conclusion that it was a Chinese spy balloon, officials said.
- The Books Briefing: What truly elevates poetry is not just what we write but also what inspires us to write it, Emma Sarappo argues.
Buttons Are Bougie Now
By Drew Millard
The 2022 Ford Bronco Raptor, among the most expensive offerings in the car manufacturer’s line of tough-guy throwback SUVs, features 418 horsepower, a 10-speed transmission, axles borrowed from off-road-racing vehicles, and 37-inch tires meant for driving off sand dunes at unnecessarily high speeds. But when the automotive site Jalopnik got its hands on a Bronco Raptor for testing, the writer José Rodríguez Jr. singled out something else entirely to praise about the $70,000 SUV: its buttons. The Bronco Raptor features an array of buttons, switches, and knobs controlling everything from its off-road lights to its four-wheel-drive mode to whatever a “sway bar disconnect” is. So much can be done by actually pressing or turning an object that Rodríguez Jr. found the vehicle’s in-dash touch screen—the do-it-all “infotainment system” that has become ubiquitous in new vehicles—nearly vestigial.
Then again, the ability to manipulate a physical thing, a button, has become a premium feature not just in vehicles, but on gadgets of all stripes.
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Read. Keep Valentine’s Day going with these books to read with someone you love.
Or read a new short story by Ben Okri.
To get away from politics and this entire decade, I’ve been binge-watching old episodes of 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s inspired send-up of life as a comedy writer at NBC. And I have come to realize that Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of Jack Donaghy—on the show, the vice president of East Coast television and microwave-oven programming for General Electric—produced one of television’s greatest characters. In lesser hands, he could have been just another corporate buffoon, a foil for the clever creatives, but 30 Rock never let Jack become a red-faced Theodore J. Mooney or Milburn Drysdale; he was vicious, funny, sentimental, cynical, both a backstabber and a good friend.
Of course, the reason he’s also a candidate for becoming my spirit animal is that he is from Massachusetts (as I am), worked his way through a good school (as I did), and now is happily and self-indulgently aware of his own obnoxiousness. (I’m working on it.) When Fey’s Liz Lemon finds Jack in his office in a tuxedo, he says: “It’s after six. What am I, a farmer?” When his flinty harridan of a mom reproaches him for not appreciating her, he doesn’t miss a beat: “Mother, there are terrorist cells that are more nurturing than you are.” I’m not sure any actor but Baldwin and his hoarse whisper could pull off those lines. But even years later, I find myself laughing out loud. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to dress for dinner.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.