Fox News has been conning older viewers for two decades. Now, it’s ensnared a president.
The foul fog of elder scam has fallen over the White House, looting Donald Trump of what precious little credibility remains in his possession. No need to panic, though—the perpetrator has been identified. It is Fox News Channel, which has been running its info con on senior citizens like Trump for 20 years, monetizing their gullibility by stuffing earwigs of bogus news into their skulls that they then swap with friends over coffee at McDonald’s—or in the case of the president, tweet out to his tens of millions of followers several times a week.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the president watches a lot of cable news, especially Fox, and tweets about it. But in recent days he seems to have been taken in or confused by several segments on “Fox & Friends,” “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and “Hannity.” For example, about a half-hour after a July 22 “Fox & Friends” item headlined “NYT Foils U.S. Attempt to Take Out Al-Baghdadi” ran, Trump tweet-blamed the “foiled” attempt to kill the terrorist leader on the New York Times and its “sick agenda.” The accusation was preposterous, of course, with CNN and most sane observers adjudicating in the Times’ favor.
But there’s more. On July 24, Carlson ran a segment about a Washington Post story that appears to have prompted a series of half-baked and ridiculous Baby Donald tweets attacking the paper. Did the president even understand the story that started his tweetstorm? After Sean Hannity’s July 24 segment on alleged election meddling by Ukraine, Trump blasted this blunderbuss of a tweet, savaging both Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, while hat-tipping Hannity: “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign – ‘quietly working to boost Clinton.’ So where is the investigation A.G. @seanhannity.” After careful analysis of the president’s behavior, I diagnose him to be as deficient in retention, semantic mapping and comprehension as many of his mentally wobbly elder brethren.
The steady Fox-to-Trump handoff has not gone unnoticed by Media Matters for America, the liberal agitprop outfit that despises both. Media Matters writer Alex Kaplan has charted the love Trump and Fox share, highlighting his habit of retweeting the network’s inaccurate pieces. Since the inauguration, Trump has retweeted “Fox & Friends” 28 times and Fox News 18 times. On July 10, for example, Trump shared a sham tweet by “Fox & Friends” that accused the FBI director he fired, James Comey, of leaking “top secret information.” The program ultimately issued a correction. The president did not.
That Fox has ended up gulling a president is a programming accident. When the late Roger Ailes conceived Fox News two decades ago, he hoped to create shows that attracted—is there a polite way to put this?—an older demographic that seeks news that reinforces its prejudices and rarely challenges them. And he succeeded. It was only by chance that Ailes ended up creating a network that appealed to this particular flighty, low-attention-span 71-year-old.
The Ailes demographic wants to be told that the world is going to hell, a message that harmonizes with the declining status and health many of them experience. The Ailes demographic wants simple and reductionist viewpoints on America’s cultural and policy dilemmas—from crime to immigration to taxes to war and trade. The Ailes demographic seeks the restoration of the social mores it remembers from its youth, and if the past can’t be restored, it wants modern mores castigated. And it wants to be frightened and outraged. Fox almost never disappoints them.
It was the network’s dumb luck that Trump aged into its core audience as he reached the White House. Like so many of his fellow senior citizens, Trump now spends his golden years huddled at the Fox hearth, shouting amen as it voices his resentments and disappointments. Only the hearth is in the White House. As news, real and not, travels from Fox’s lips to Trump’s tweets, we have the chance to see media history in the making. Presidents have, from time to time, courted publications to advance a White House agenda or steered the news by feeding tips to columnists and reporters, but never before has a president so consistently echoed an outlet’s message.
If Fox’s editorial plan is to entice a naive and old audience (its median age is about 68, older than CNN and MSNBC), its business plan is to sell the audience’s limited attention span to advertisers. Think of its prime-time shows as a sorting mechanism that delivers the elderly to opportunistic businesses. In a 2013 tirade, HuffPost’s Jon Hotchkiss complained that many of the network’s commercials pitch directly at the old, selling products that enhanced sexuality, for example, or questionable investments (gold coins) or iffy loan services. Others push products only the addled would buy. A $10 bag to bake potatoes? C’mon!
If not for the First Amendment, an activist Federal Trade Commission would charge Fox with consumer fraud against older Americans—not just for the ads but for the news. And their lead plaintiff would be Donald Trump.