This split became more visible over the weekend when Fox News anchor Bret Baier — unlike most Fox personalities — sharply denounced Trump over new revelations that the former president deliberately allowed the mob rampage to continue on Jan. 6, 2021.
Let’s be blunt as to why this schism is emerging: It’s not an option for many in the right-wing media to admit that Trump transgressed, as it would disrupt their deeper aim of casting the Jan. 6 committee’s efforts as illegitimate. Having tried to discredit the committee for months, if they concede the gravity of what it has revealed, it would wreck their own project.
This is why Baier is such a noteworthy exception. He criticized Trump over the 187 minutes that passed before he finally called on the rioters to stand down. Trump’s own advisers strongly suggested in testimony that he deliberately refrained, apparently to keep pressure on his vice president, Mike Pence, to disrupt the electoral count in service of Trump’s coup scheme.
“Laying out all of these 187 minutes makes him look horrific,” Baier said Sunday on Fox. Baier noted that “the most powerful part” was that people testifying against Trump have been Republicans who had previously rooted for Trump’s “success.”
That 187 minutes was also too much for several right-leaning editorial boards. A Wall Street Journal editorial slammed Trump for violating his oath of office and duty to the country, declaring that he “has shown not an iota of regret.”
Meanwhile, a New York Post editorial strongly suggested that Trump deliberately enlisted the mob’s violent help to sustain the pressure on Pence. “Trump has proven himself unworthy to be this country’s chief executive again,” the editorial concluded, saying something that most Republicans still will not.
Yet for all this, much of the right-wing media remains in full agitprop mode. As a new piece in the New York Times details, the most influential commentators on Fox and elsewhere are ridiculing the very idea that Pence’s security detail feared for their lives, describing the Jan. 6 hearings as a show trial and casting the rioters as the real victims of law enforcement run amok.
This schism partly reflects differing relations to D.C.’s power centers. Figures such as Baier, and perhaps the Journal editorial board, are in some sense linked to the Washington press corps, care what its members think, and respect its professional conventions and institutions, such as the White House Correspondents’ Association.
“There are clearly some folks who see lasting value to being part of the D.C. establishment media,” Olivier Knox, who writes The Post’s Daily 202 newsletter and previously saw all this up close as former head of the WHCA, told me.
By contrast, Fox’s more bombastic right-wing personalities affect a much more antagonistic, bomb-throwing posture toward the D.C. journalistic establishment (though this is often largely performative). As Knox put it, their public posture is for “burning it all down.”
But Knox also said this split might be penetrating Rupert Murdoch’s world: The press magnate owns the Journal (which blasted Trump’s conduct) but also Fox (whose personalities continue standing by him). Knox noted that this divide will be something Republicans heed in taking the temperature of “influencers heading into 2022 and 2024.”
Beyond this, however, much of the right-wing media also has to keep the propaganda flowing precisely because many figures have attacked the Jan. 6 inquiry itself as illegitimate all along.
Even worse, as Matt Gertz demonstrates at Media Matters, many of these right-wing media figures spent months in the run-up to Jan. 6 validating the very lies that drove Trump’s coup attempt and even helped launder the legal “theories” supposedly justifying the effort.
They then pushed “false flag” conspiracy theories about Jan. 6, relentlessly played down the violent criminality of the rioters and strained to whitewash the corruption of Trump’s top co-conspirators.
In short, many of those outlets were partly responsible for helping persuade millions that Trump’s coup attempt was a righteous cause, that the election could be reversed via procedural options legitimately open to him, and that efforts to hold Trump and/or his co-conspirators accountable for the coup are the true crime.
Those right-wing media figures have always had an easy out. They could claim they didn’t condone the violence of Jan. 6 while maintaining it wasn’t really an insurrection, or was just a protest gone wrong, or that the attack wasn’t meaningfully linked to Trump, his movement and its genuine authoritarian aspirations, which are plainly shared by many Republicans in Congress.
But now that it has been demonstrated with great clarity that Trump tried to weaponize the Jan. 6 violence to complete the job of destroying our political order, that justification has been foreclosed. Which has at least pushed some outlets into acknowledging what’s right at the end of everyone’s noses.
As for the pro-Trump media holdouts? They can’t concede that the revelations they lied about for so long are so incredibly grave — or that they arose from precisely the effort at accountability that they tried to discredit for so long — without forcefully indicting themselves.