The influence of Fox News in US foreign policy

With the recent tensions over the shooting down of the US drone flying over the Strait of Hormuz, the threat of War in the middle-east is yet again a reality. However, Donald Trump surprised many this week by going against what his administration is advising him to do, namely escalating this situation to a full-on conflict with Iran. He de-escalated during a press conference with Canadian Prime-Minister Justin Trudeau on June 20th, citing a possible “human error” in the chain of command, therefore, warranting not attacking as a retaliatory strike. This willingness to set aside any possibility of war at the last second contrasts the previous, quite muscular approach of sending one thousand troops to the region in response to Iran’s alleged bombing of oil tankers in the Strait, coupled with their increase in the enrichment of uranium. This reticence to act is very much in contrast to others’ positions in his cabinet who were neoconservative operatives for George W. Bush’s administration during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, therefore preparing for war. However, from where does this divergence from the rest of his administration stem?

A new, anti-war perspective

The host on the Fox News Channel, Tucker Carlson, was attributed to meeting with the President. He privately has been advising Donald Trump on foreign policy, particularly in terms of the conflict with Iran. It is public knowledge that Donald Trump mostly watches Fox News, in particular, their morning show, Fox and friends. He tweets concerning the topics discussed in these programs. It has also happened in the past that issues discussed on these shows that are new and have never been addressed by the President or the White House seem to have Donald Trump involved with them minutes later. Fox News Hosts, like Sean Hannity, seem to have much influence over the President too, having long discussions with him each night before supper, discussing the American agenda for the week.

Most of the right-wing hosts on Fox and politicians agree on issues like abortion, immigration or taxes, that is certain. However, there seems to be an ideological divide between two camps: the neoconservatives like John Bolton, that are very hawkish in terms of foreign policy and see intervention and regime change as the best way to promote America’s interests in the middle-east. The other camp is the populist conservative one, many on Fox News, who seem to be more in touch with what the right-wing, anti-immigration, “Trumpist” voter base likes and dislikes. Where does this divide come from though? Moreover, how are they the primary influencers of Mr. Trump when it comes to foreign policy?

Namely, Trump was very successful in getting widespread approval from voters during his 2016 campaign by saying he would bring back troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, seen as, for many on the right nowadays, as wasteful wars that endangered young Americans for no particular reason. He even characterized them as a “disaster”. This now “popular” stance has substantial support because the United-States citizens’ mentality has moved away from the post-9/11 fear and angst that pushed many to support wars in the middle-east that, whether were instigated to fight terrorists or not, were advertised as such. Eighteen years after the war in Afghanistan and sixteen after the war in Iraq, the opinion of Republicans has shifted. It may be in part because of Donald Trump, but also because of the 2014 resurgence of terrorist groups like ISIS in the Levant, thereby proving to many conservatives that those wars were the opposite of successes when it comes to fighting radical Islam. Fox news itself is very attentive to this shift in public opinion since they are addressing this Republican political base every day, and conduct polls to get a sense of what is happening in that base. They are thereby now publishing segments to catch-up with that feeling, and influencing Trump so he can stay relevant and is reelected, whether indirectly in the media or directly in his private circle, like Carleson.

Influence that stretches far beyond conservative circles

The role of the media and mainly Fox news is instrumental in US politics. Fox is a network created by Roger Ailes (a former GOP operative) during the Bush administration with the specific goal of having a voice for conservatives (very different from CNN and MSNBC who do have a liberal bias most times but do not declare it and have tried to keep a semblance of objectivity over the years). When it comes to how the media is portrayed as it should be working in the US, and how it is operating in reality, there tends to be quite a large discrepancy. In an ideal world, political journalism is a gatekeeper of information, the parties like the Democrats and Republicans are supposed to compete for the attention of the media, and the journalists sort what is newsworthy and what is not. Ultimately, political operatives can spin any talking point they want, but the media is a third “buffer” agent filtering out those talking points and giving every opposite argument to them, as to present a balanced picture of events to their audience. However, Fox is a middle man between the public and the Republican party, virtually a campaign promoting institution for some Republicans. This bias is because Roger Ailes, the founder of the network, spent most of his career advising Republican politicians like Ronald Reagan, George Bush (Senior) and Richard Nixon. Ailes even wrote, in a memo from the Nixon library, about a dream of creating a “Republican news network” as a way to circumvent the “prejudices of network news selectors” .

With Fox’s coverage during the Obama and early Trump years of every small scandal concerning democrats (from Obama saluting with a coffee cup to a marine officer, to Rachida Talib calling Trump names), the other news networks covered these stories to insist how ridiculous they are in comparison to other Republican scandals. They also included them at times because there were no other newsworthy stories that week. This news cycle then reaches the public at large that aren’t of the same demographic as the Fox News audience, because political journalists are susceptible to complaints involving liberal bias. Therefore, they tend to overcompensate by paying vast amounts of attention to what is happening in conservative media. It is a way of balancing their own bias by taking seriously the opinions and stories covered on Fox.

Take the example of Benghazi, where stories and conspiracy theories that had not been proved yet were hammered on Fox relentlessly and eventually, incorporated in the liberal/centrist media. Although Secretary Clinton mismanaged the situation, it was blown out of proportion on Fox quite intentionally. The result is that there is an incredible agenda-setting power on Fox that Donald Trump himself has identified, during his campaign, therefore strengthening his ties with those he sees as “the winners” of media coverage. This manufactured outrage cycle and the fact there is no equivalent of this political apparatus for liberals means that the smallest gaffe can be a career-defining moment for Democratic representatives. Take for instance representative Ilhan Omar’s comments about Islamophobia in the US: She stated that “because some of us did something” referring to 9/11 and how Muslims lost many of their civil liberties because of the terrorist attack. She was accused of trivializing the event on Fox and “downplaying one of the darkest moments in US history”. This was endlessly reported on Fox, but also discussed on CNN and MSNBC as if it were a national crisis.

This story became newsworthy to an unparalleled extent and inflated out of proportion. The strange genius of this “gatekeeping gap”, is that most Americans do not even notice these are Fox News stories in focus on liberal/centrist media. It seems like this is serious journalism by competent and unbiased journalists that, in the end, must be focusing on these stories (manufactured in its’ intent by conservative pundits) because they are essential reportings for the country and public discourse.

A change in direction

However, Fox does not seem to influence its’ political base nearly as much as the rest of the country (Democrats and independents). Roger Ailes’ and Bill O’Reilly’s firing from the network due to sexual misconduct have propelled several more independent, diverse conservative views on the channel. Tucker Carleson, who is a much more “Paleo-conservative” type, has always expressed his aversion to massive trade deals like TPP or NAFTA because they do not protect jobs. He also dispises regime change wars because of their ineffectiveness, demonstrated in the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This is a move away from the traditional GOP neo-conservative stance that is very close to business circles and the military industrial complex. Others, like Sean Hannity, are much more focused on populist conservative ideas that have always been present in the base of the party: restricting immigration, preserving the second amendment and more libertarian beliefs when it comes to the economy.

These newer figures have been in contact with Trump during his campaign and presidency and helped him win it. They gave him reports of how people in the Republican base would react to a particular focus on issues, like Trump’s will to not start new wars as he declared in 2016, and his opposition to trade deals and new immigration. This bottom-up, grassroots dynamic, for liberals, can be damaging in some instances, where the situation at the border with Mexico has deteriorated and raises concerns (camps to detain immigrants set up there). In other cases, it can be positive, like in the case of Iran, where Trump knows this is a very unpopular move for his reelection, thanks, in part, to Fox News.

It seems, for now, Trump will settle for heavy sanctions on Iran, which does have a significant impact on their population, blocking medicine and food from entering the country. What might lead to war is either after Trump’s possible reelection or provocation from Iran killing American soldiers, in many analysts’ opinion. If the shooting down of a drone worth hundreds of millions of dollars wasn’t enough to start a war, Iranians need to do something making Trump look tremendously weak if he decides not to retaliate.

However, will the liberal media in the US realize that they are thanking the President for this toning down of a conflict that was mostly crafted by him, as he withdrew from the 2015 Iran deal? Can the solution be a liberal version of Fox or a loss of concern towards news with a conservative perspective?

About author:

Thomas Kennedy is a former intern at IIR studies at McGill University in Honors Political Science and History.