I wrote to you in Monday’s newsletter about the difficult straits that conservative media outlets are sailing through these days. After a pair of billion-dollar defamation lawsuits were filed in recent weeks against former President Donald Trump’s lawyers and media allies, channels like Fox News and Newsmax are looking over their shoulder.
But they can’t just ignore the fact that Trump is on trial this week, and that the House’s impeachment managers have presented an emotional, highly detailed case against him. Or can they?
Close observers of conservative media have noticed something uncommon happening. “The interesting thing about the impeachment coverage is that there’s no consistent narrative that the conservative media is pushing, which is extremely atypical,” Angelo Carusone, president of the left-leaning Media Matters, said in an interview.
Matthew Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters, added that as a result, “no one is really filling the void as the leader in the right-wing media right now. It’s much more fractured than we’ve seen in recent history.”
On Fox News alone, there has been a wide array of responses to the trial. During the day, its news anchors have steadily covered the trial, but the same can’t be said of its evening hosts. Sean Hannity has spent a good deal of time analyzing the proceedings, picking apart Democrats’ arguments. By contrast, Tucker Carlson proudly declared that he hadn’t watched any of the first day of proceedings, dismissing the trial as unconstitutional. Carlson has busied himself with other story lines this week, including pushing incendiary theories about the death of George Floyd in May.
Early Wednesday evening, as the House managers presented never-before-seen footage of the assault on the Capitol, bringing their prosecution to a newly emotional peak, the Fox host Jesse Watters cut away from the coverage. “The political math doesn’t add up,” Watters said. “Democrats don’t have the votes, yet they’re still pressing ahead.” Juan Williams, the lone liberal commentator on the show, was outraged. “I’m kind of shocked,” he said. “Come back, join the conversation. Pay attention to the news.”
Other conservative outlets are doing their best to avoid covering the trial, too. Drudge Report, for instance, is a conservative website whose editor, Matt Drudge, has no love lost for Trump (they fell out years ago), but he hasn’t been relishing the opportunity to cover the trial, either. Impeachment proceedings have rarely occupied the website’s top spot, even as most mainstream media outlets focus heavily on it.
This afternoon, OANN.com, the One America News Network’s home page, carried a lead headline about the business dealings of President Biden’s family — and hardly any major stories about impeachment.
Still other conservative news sources are boldly going all in on backing up Trump’s false claims. Despite the looming threat of legal repercussions, as indicated by the recent lawsuits, Newsmax is “using this as an opportunity not just to cement themselves as right-wing media, but as pro-Trump media,” Carusone said.
By continuing to push arguments that the election was stolen or in some way disrupted, he said, “it’s actually galvanizing that audience and cementing the relationship” between Trump’s staunchest followers and the far-right media. The lead headline on the Newsmax home page at one point this afternoon? “Trump’s Team Hits Back: Impeachment Trial Is ‘Political Vengeance.’”
But Gertz said that it seemed clear who has the attention of Trump and his legal team. “This afternoon’s defense is basically an extended Sean Hannity monologue,” he said. “His lawyers are basically mimicking the messages that Trump has been watching on his favorite show: that the process is unconstitutional, that it’s cancel culture, that Democrats are using violent rhetoric too. They’re all just hallmarks of Hannity’s coverage.”
Asked to provide a comment, a representative for Fox News said the network’s coverage of the trial spoke for itself, and pointed to a number of instances in which Fox anchors and guests had pushed back against claims of election fraud.
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