Ideas

Ideas | David Scharfenberg

Help us, Fox News. You’re our only hope

Blue Vintage TV on the isolated white background
Globe staff photo illustration/getty/apimages

IT’S THE FALL of 2018, and everyone can feel a crisis approaching. But it’s not at all clear how to stop it.

Special counsel Robert Mueller has nearly completed his probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and damaging revelations about President Trump’s inner circle keep coming.

The economy is softening. Polls suggest Democrats are poised for big victories in the midterm elections. And the president’s bellicose tweets are ratcheting up tension with a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Advertisement

In the past, the political establishment has found ways to bring crises to a close. After the Nixon White House finally gave up the “smoking gun” tape of the president mulling a Watergate cover-up, a solemn delegation of congressional Republicans told him he’d lost his support on Capitol Hill. A day later, he announced his resignation.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

A few years prior, when revered television anchor Walter Cronkite delivered a somber verdict on the Vietnam War — the US military was “mired in a stalemate,” he said — President Johnson reportedly turned to an aide and said something like, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” A few weeks later, LBJ announced he wouldn’t seek re-election.

Historians caution that Johnson’s “Cronkite moment” may be apocryphal. But the story has endured because it seems plausible: Until now, we could imagine a president yielding to an authoritative voice speaking hard truths.

In Trumpland, though, truth is negotiable, and there are hardly any authoritative voices left. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will never talk the president out of the Oval Office. And there is no Cronkite who can reach a Trump base deeply distrustful of the “liberal media.”

It’s that base that matters — the roughly 40 percent of voters who have stuck with the president tweet after jaw-dropping tweet. And there’s only one one institution that can reach them — just one that can hold the president accountable to the audience that matters.

Advertisement

The only authoritative voice in Trump’s divided America is the voice that helped drive us apart in the first place. If we’re to have a “Cronkite moment,” or something approaching it, it’ll have to come from Fox News.

At the moment, Fox News is using its megaphone to shout a full-throated defense of the White House. Flip on the network at any given moment, and you’ll find Sean Hannity and the chatterboxes of “The Five” dismissing the latest story of Russian interference in the presidential election as just another confection of the “Destroy Trump Media.”

The network has tens of millions of reasons to keep up the defense: There’s a lot of money to be made, right now, feeding Trump’s supporters and skewering his critics.

There’s also a question of legacy. Fox, founded in 1996 as a right-leaning alternative to CNN, played a singular role in the rise of the president. The channel’s fusion of news and opinion, its war on the East Coast media, its relentless attacks on Washington and egghead expertise — all of it laid the groundwork for Trump’s campaign.

And Fox was giving the real estate magnate priceless exposure to Republican voters long before the campaign began — his “Mondays with Trump” segment on the morning gabfest “Fox & Friends” started in 2011 and ended only when he got into the presidential race. “Look,” said Newt Gingrich, needling the hosts of the show during an appearance last year, “you could say that Trump is the candidate ‘Fox & Friends’ invented.”

Advertisement

But however intertwined they might be, a Trump-Fox schism is hardly unimaginable. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that the network employed one of Trump’s most prominent critics.

Former Fox anchor Megyn Kelly famously pressed the candidate on his degrading comments about women during the first Republican presidential debate. And the question kicked off a months-long feud, with Trump implying Kelly was menstruating during the debate, tarring her as a bimbo and a liar, and boycotting a subsequent Fox-sponsored forum.

Kelly emerged as a media star. After the election, she left for NBC News. But that was only after Fox offered her a reported $20 million per year to stay on. Had she accepted, the woman who made her name confronting Trump would have been prominently featured in Fox’s primetime lineup.

The media mogul she left behind, Fox chief Rupert Murdoch, has been uneasy about the president from the start. When Trump kicked off his presidential campaign with warnings of Mexican “rapists” and “criminals” streaming across the border, Murdoch issued a rebuke on Twitter.

He was probably less interested in protecting the dignity of Mexican immigrants than the respectability of the Republican — and Fox — brands. But his shot at Trump suggests a willingness to criticize the president if he puts the conservative cause or the news channel’s bottom line in real jeopardy.

There is already a business case to be made for a shift in tone. Fox, long the king of cable news, has seen its ratings slip as it downplays the controversies engulfing the Trump administration. When conservative viewers have to go elsewhere for coverage of a Republican administration, that’s a problem.

Elsewhere in the Murdoch empire, there are clear signs of discontent. His most prominent American newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, recently published an editorial titled “The Trumps and the Truth” eviscerating the first family for its clumsy, deceptive statements about the Russia imbroglio. The political realities of Washington “will destroy Mr. Trump, his family and their business reputation unless they change their strategy toward the Russia probe,” the paper said. “They don’t have much more time to do it.”

There have even been flashes of criticism on Fox. Host Shepard Smith recently raised eyebrows with his own harangue about the Trumps’ handling of the Russia affair. “The deception, Chris, is mind-boggling,” he said, in an on-air discussion with the network’s Chris Wallace. “Why are we getting told all these lies?”

Imagine if Fox started featuring a few more prominent voices raising questions about the president. Imagine the criticism mounting as the president’s behavior started to seriously jeopardize the electoral prospects of dozens of congressional Republicans.

What if the frustration came to a boil? What if someone at Fox had a primetime moment, multiplied by the millions on YouTube — a can-you-believe-he-said-that condemnation of a president gone too far? The sound of millions of media bubbles bursting would be deafening.

What would come next?

It may all sound like an impossibility; we’re conditioned to believe that the partisan press can’t be critical of its own team. But it can. Indeed, we’ve seen it before.

Globe staff photo illustration/getty/apimages

Fox News, with its heavy emphasis on conservative commentary, may seem like a rude break from the nonpartisan ideal that took hold in mass-market American journalism in the 20th century. But overt partisanship from a news outlet is really just a return to form.

The dominant medium of the 18th and 19th centuries — the newspaper — functioned a lot like Fox News does today, says Tom Leonard, author of “The Power of the Press: The Birth of American Political Reporting.” It was sharp-elbowed, even tribal.

Readers “wanted reinforcement,” he says. “They wanted a sense of ‘here’s who we are and here’s the people that aren’t like us — here’s the people that we should be suspicious of.’ ”

Whether Democratic or Whig, editors were in a deeply symbiotic relationship with their parties. They let politicians edit coverage of their own speeches. And when those politicians won office, the papers were rewarded with lucrative government printing contracts.

But if editors had every incentive to remain loyal to party, they still managed to be critical — sometimes very critical.

Take the New-York Tribune, the greatest of the 19th century newspapers — a remarkable collection of high intellect and sharply argued politics that shaped opinion not just in its hometown, but all across the country. Poet and travel writer Bayard Taylor said that, in the Midwest, the paper’s influence was second only to the Bible’s.

The Tribune was a Whig paper; its founder and editor Horace Greeley had once published campaign sheets for the party. But the paper beat an independent path. In 1852, even as it endorsed Whig presidential candidate Winfield Scott, it savaged the party’s platform for compromising on the slavery issue. “We defy it,” the paper said, “execrate it, spit upon it.”

After the election, Greeley renounced the paper’s Whig identity and participated in the creation of the Republican Party — even naming it, by some accounts. A “simple name like ‘Republican,’ ” he wrote in one editorial from the period, could describe those “who had united to restore the Union to its true mission of champion and promulgator of Liberty rather than propagandist of slavery.”

Greeley, though, would turn deeply critical of the Republican leadership. During the Civil War, he wrote an open letter to Abraham Lincoln declaring that the president’s supporters were “sorely disappointed and deeply pained” by his failure to free the rebels’ slaves — a missive so pointed, it drew a published response from Lincoln himself.

After the war, Greeley was one of several Republican editors who revolted against the corrupt administration of President Ulysses S. Grant — going so far as to run against him in the 1872 election, only to die after his lopsided defeat.

The sort of intraparty sniping that played out in Tribune and other prominent 19th-century newspapers is now the stuff of niche Web sites and small-circulation magazines; Fox News, the king of the partisan press, tends to play down conflicts within the conservative movement.

But there is another contemporary model: the British tabloids, reliably conservative and yet unafraid to tussle with Tory prime ministers.

This spring, when Theresa May’s government proposed a hike in national insurance contributions for self-employed workers, the Murdoch-owned Sun printed bumper stickers opposing the idea and published an eight-page report decrying the potential impact on tradesmen and other lunch-pail types.

May and her finance chief Philip Hammond quickly retreated — and the paper gloated over its victory. “Philip Hammond,” the tabloid crowed, “today grovels to Sun readers after scrapping his hated tax grab.”

Previous prime minister David Cameron also faced the wrath of The Sun — including a brutal front-page attack over his opposition to Brexit, the proposed British departure from the European Union.

Cameron “was in a red-faced four-letter rage” over the attack, Sun editor Tony Gallagher later recalled, describing a private meeting with the prime minister. “I put my pen in my mouth because I thought I was going to burst out laughing.”

The tabloids’ pro-Brexit coverage was so relentless that it skewed overall print coverage 80 percent in favor of the EU departure and 20 percent against, according to research from Loughborough University. And when voters approved the measure, Cameron was forced to resign — a Conservative politician chased out of office by the conservative press.

Brian Cathcart, a professor of journalism at Kingston University London and former deputy editor of the Sunday Independent, says Fox News could exert that kind of influence over Republican politics if it chose.

“In the newsrooms at Fox, there must be moments when they say to themselves, ‘look, how can we make [Trump] do something we want him to do?’ . . . There must be moments when they say, ‘can we steer this ship a bit?,’ ” Cathcart says. “And the way they could do it . . . is to assert their independence and say, ‘This is a two-way street — you have to deliver what we want and we will continue to deliver what you want.’ ”

THE DIFFICULTY, OF course, is that Trump has come to embody Fox’s long-running anti-establishment crusade.

The Sun was staying in character when it ridiculed the foppish, Oxford-educated Cameron and rallied around the populist Brexit cause. For Fox News, criticizing the blunt, stick-it-to-Washington president would mean going off-brand.

But if Trump loses some of his man-of-the-people shine, the network might feel emboldened to be more critical. And there are signs his shine is dulling — even among his supposedly solid base.

Trump’s approval ratings have hovered around 40 percent for months. But that number is starting to ebb — and those who still support the president have lost some of their ardor. As Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight has pointed out, the percentage of Americans who say they “strongly approve” of Trump has declined considerably since he took office in January.

Much of the drop coincided with the GOP’s deeply unpopular push to repeal Obamacare and strip benefits from the blue-collar voters whom Trump championed during the presidential campaign.

If the president’s increasingly lukewarm support melts into lukewarm opposition, that could spell real trouble for the White House. Add mounting pressure from Mueller’s Russia probe and a Democratic surge in the mid-term elections and Republicans — even Fox hosts — will be forced to take stock.

Maybe the reassessment doesn’t lead to a “mad as hell” monologue in primetime. Maybe, in the end, there is no iconic “Cronkite moment.” But there is another way to turn on Trump.

What if a military hero or someone else of unimpeachable patriotism swoops in to rescue a flailing GOP? “Is Fox capable,” asks Leonard, the author of “Power of the Press,” “of seizing an Eisenhower moment?”

That, in the end, could be the most important question in American civic life.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe