Isaac Wright is cofounder of the Rural Voter Institute and a founding partner at Terrain Media Group. Previously, he served as Vice President of American Bridge and the Executive Director of the Correct the Record SuperPac. He appeared as a guest on Fox News Channel, CNN, POTUS Radio, Sky News, and other national and local programs.
Once, in the Fox News green room, a friendly Fox on-air personality kindly showed me a better way to place the pocket square in my jacket. He was polite, friendly, professional, and on other days I could have envisioned saying, “Hey, let’s get a coffee and catch up soon.”
Fox was always a strange environment for me when I visited. Having pleasant conversations with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then the White House press secretary, discussing our mutual Arkansas roots and favorite places in the Natural State to get burgers or catfish before she went live on air, I followed up in the next segment to debunk her comments. Or sitting in the green room adjacent to Kayleigh McEnaney trying to make awkward small talk, I then went on air opposite her to talk about the latest misdirection from the Trump White House.
Occasionally, I would run into a friendly face or catch an interesting conversation – like seeing another Democratic pundit I knew or just pleasantly listening as Republican pundits in the green room would open up to each other about their disdain for the Trump administration before going on air to discuss or defend Trump.
Tragically, my experience at and exposure to Fox sets me far apart from most of my Democratic colleagues, and it is not difficult to understand why. Most people don’t walk into the Lions’ Den willingly. I’m no Daniel, but it does beg the question of what Democrats can and should be doing to reach an audience otherwise – purposefully – off-limits to them. The war in Ukraine and the growing prevalence of Putin propaganda on the network bring a heightened importance to the responsibilities of pundits willing to go on the network, to those Fox personalities and staffers who truly value journalism, and to media and information consumers.
Admittedly, despite being a regular presence on Fox over the years, I’ve turned down lots of invitations from the programs of folks like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. Going into the Lions’ Den is one thing, going in when they’re rabid and unreasonable and spewing Kremlin talking points is something else. There’s a difference between spin and spreading disinformation – otherwise known as purposeful lying.
A respected colleague who regularly appeared on the Tucker Carlson show among others decided to go a different route and boycotted appearing on Fox News, referring to it as, “a cancerous propaganda organ doing lasting damage to our country,” which is not an unfounded view, and no one can fault him for his conclusions. I certainly doubt I changed many minds, if any at all, but I at least tried to present a speed bump to the misinformation convoy rolling down the Fox highway. Candidates like then-mayor Pete Buttigieg, Democratic strategists like Hillary Clinton advisor Phillipe Reines and elected officials like Congressman Eric Swalwell have talked about the need for this approach in the past.
Democrats need to shift their thinking. First, recognizing that this is a consequential moment in American history and global history and that Fox News has remained in the number one spot for cable news viewership for 20 years consecutively, Democratic pundits and non-partisan military and diplomatic analysts must closely examine their responsibility to be available to slow the Putin train. In the lead up to the 2020 campaign, this was the approach the Biden campaign took, and it is hard to argue against his success on Election Day.
Second, as Fox News fights its own war with the far fringes of the right-wing media ecosystem like Newsmax One America News Network or the Blaze, for both viewership and political support, Fox is staking its claim even further and further out of the pseudo-news business and deeper in the land of misleading propaganda with things like Tucker Carlson’s documentary of absurdity regarding the January 6 attack on America. Even before the Ukraine invasion, Fox was staking out even more extreme ground than it had previously.
I believe there are individuals in the employ of Fox News who do care about journalism at some level. They recognize their programs are supposed to be biased with a right-wing editorial perspective, but those individuals don’t believe in wholesale misinformation and disinformation especially from a foreign nation with a history of trying to destabilize our nation. More Fox employees must examine themselves to find the courage of their colleague, national security correspondent Jennifer Griffin, who challenges the network’s prominent Putin propaganda on a regular basis. Remember, even Fox’s own lawyers successfully made the case in court, in front of a Trump-appointed judge, that Carlson should not be taken seriously.
Third, we must work collectively as news consumers to respect the right to free speech while at the same time make wise decisions about what we consume as “news.” If you are a loyal Fox primetime viewer, it is unlikely you read this far into this very column, so we must understand how people and society can realistically impact information hygiene in our media consumption at large without infringing on free speech. For starters, if you have a small business restaurant with a TV on in the background, be conscious of what channels it plays. If you are a patron, ask to change the channel from Fox. If you are part of a corporation that advertises on Fox, look at images of intentionally targeted civilians, children, hospitals, and schools and ask yourself if you really want to fund the propaganda defending these war crimes. If you are part of our government, a serious discussion needs to be had if our military bases and offices should have the propaganda from our military adversary playing as though it’s news on televisions in shared spaces. If you know a Fox News viewer, read the great work that Media Matters does on a regularly basis debunking Fox and holding them accountable. And if you don’t know a Fox News viewer, get to know one. The partisan social self-segregation happening in society is part of the problem.
After examining these questions there is only one conclusion: Democrats, and non-partisan defense and diplomacy experts must rise to the occasion and meet the responsibility of carrying truth in a sincere and effective way on Fox. To accomplish this, we must send our best surrogates, and specifically those who are best at handling the unique environment of Fox. We may not directly move voters through this exercise, but we can reduce extremism and challenge false narratives in a way to at least keeps a dialogue going with some viewers who tune in with the earnest intent of finding news.