It was 6:07 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 10, and the three hosts of Fox & Friends were talking football—specifically, how much better the NFL was before Colin Kaepernick went and mucked things up. Just like its most prominent viewer, Fox News’ morning show is obsessed these days with the national anthem protests that Kaepernick ignited. “Someone who knows more about football than the average bear would be former Bear coach Mike Ditka, and he has this to say about what is going on in football right now,” said a grinning Steve Doocy, before playing a clip of Ditka’s insane claim that America has been oppression-free for 100 years and that dissenters should go play football in some other country.
“And Hillary Clinton supports the players taking a knee,” noted Brian Kilmeade, raising his hands for emphasis. “By the way, what a nightmare for coaches. They need to focus on the game. Their jobs are on the line, and everyone’s divided.”
“It’s interesting, though. The people who are fighting because of the division in our country are dividing the country,” Ainsley Earhardt chimed in after some cross-talk. “Football will never be the same. I just want to turn on the TV and watch a game, you know? And eat popcorn and pizza.”
And then came the inevitable contribution from the fourth voice in Fox & Friends’ early-morning chorus: “Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!” tweeted President Trump. It was 6:13 a.m.
These are remarkably stupid times. For a glimpse of why, consider the daily patter of Fox & Friends—or, rather, consider that I am even asking you to consider Fox & Friends. The show is by now known for being terrible television, something that is neither entertaining nor informative, that is best watched as the coffee brews and then forgotten as soon as the cup is empty. Or at least that once was the case. Since its 1998 premiere, Fox & Friends has largely existed, in ostensibly amiable morning-show form, to flatter the network’s core fan base of elderly cranks who resent the existence of other channels. But one of those cranks is now president, and, consequently, Fox & Friends is having a moment.
As of Sept. 26, the show—already top rated among cable news morning shows—was “on pace to have its highest-rated year in history,” according to TV Newser. The president watches Fox & Friends avidly. Since taking office he has more than once praised the show’s “reporting,” which, to be clear, it does not do very much of. He regularly tweets in response to its flimsy segments, and because he is the president, those tweets tend to set each day’s news cycle. A show that can barely take itself seriously is making the world a more chaotic place.
Just like you don’t have to contract diphtheria to know diphtheria sucks, you don’t actually have to watch much Fox & Friends to know it won’t be up for a Peabody Award anytime soon. It’s a morning show on Fox News beloved by the world’s foremost oaf; this is reason enough to decide you might as well sleep in. But for the next couple of weeks I’ll be blogging for Slate about Fox News, and I wanted to begin the assignment with an informed read on what is now the network’s most relevant program. So I decided to immerse myself in Fox & Friends to discern exactly why it is so bad, while allowing myself the space to be surprised if it actually turned out to be good.
Friends, it did not turn out that way. As far as I can tell, the chief goal of Fox & Friends is to help its viewers start their days secure in the knowledge that someone in the world is dumber than they are. (Asserting one’s own status by belittling others: Is there a more Trumpian raison d’être?) For liberal viewers, the dummies in question are the Fox & Friends hosts themselves: Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade. For conservative viewers, these days the dummies in question are Democrats or certain NFL players or Hollywood celebrities, or any of the other groups that Fox & Friends regularly holds up for scorn and ridicule. The ridicule is generally lazy and inept—on Thursday, a guest repeatedly referred to rapper Marshall “Eminem” Mathers as “Martin Mathers”—but it is nevertheless effective. The show is the televised equivalent of those spam emails that deliberately misspell words and use poor grammar in order to filter out worldly people, leaving only the easy marks.
Doocy is a credulous boob who not only looks like the guy who used to host Supermarket Sweep but seems like he probably auditioned for the job. He has been hosting daytime programs for a very long time and is an expert at keeping things simultaneously light and nasty. “Colin Kaepernick has been out of the NFL all season after his anthem protests, and he knows why: collusion,” said Doocy on Monday morning, using a funny, mocky voice on the last word, as if those three syllables were as suspicious as the man who leveled the charge.
Earhardt is unabashedly basic. She fills the hosting slot previously occupied by E.D. Hill, Gretchen Carlson, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck, and is the show’s resident softball interviewer. Here she is interviewing Ivana Trump, the president’s first wife: “When you met him, did you know he could one day be president of the United States, he could one day be one of the wealthiest men in the country?” (She did not.) Here she is interviewing a man who has written several alarmist books about the Clintons: “Is it true that [Bill] threw [Hillary’s] book in the trash can?” (“Yes.”)
Kilmeade, the show’s jock, offers all of the wit and insight of the pledge master of a frat that will soon be banned from campus. He loves mispronouncing certain words in order to mock those who use them in earnest. “Rosie O’Donnell tweeted out in support of Jemele [Hill], ‘Yes we are, hashtag Systema- … syste- … systematic racism,” he said on Tuesday, misquoting O’Donnell’s tweet in reference to ESPN anchor Hill’s recent suspension. Later that week, in response to a statement by Democratic congressman Luis Gutiérrez, he ineptly ridiculed the rise of the term white supremacist. “White supremist,” said Kilmeade. “The new buzz is white supremist. Everyone says it. They had some conference call or fax agreement.”
The hosts are a supergroup of sorts, and their signature tune is reactionary resentment. Fox & Friends is always hearkening back to the good old days. “Remember when the name of the Redskins was the biggest controversy in the NFL? Those were the good old days,” said Kilmeade on Thursday. “Remember when ESPN used to have sports on it? Those were the good old days,” said Doocy on Tuesday. “Twenty years ago, or maybe it was 30 years ago, when Johnny Carson was there at the Tonight Show, you couldn’t really tell his politics, because he just was an equal-opportunity joker about all that stuff,” said Doocy on Monday morning, in response to Jimmy Kimmel’s recent political opining on his own late-night show. “Things have changed,” agreed Earhardt.
Fox & Friends is bad in all of the ways that most morning television is bad—excessively perky and smarmy and dumb—while adding its own special authoritarian twist. There are workout segments and cooking segments and music segments, interspersed randomly with deranged political commentary and militaristic iconography. It is the sort of show that will not only spend a segment celebrating the 242nd birthday of the U.S. Navy, but does so by herding a bunch of Naval officers out on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan to enjoy a commemorative U.S. Navy sheet cake. (“I have no greater privilege than to serve as your Commander-in-Chief. HAPPY BIRTHDAY to the incredible men and women @USNavy! #242NavyBday,” tweeted Trump less than two hours later.) It is also the sort of show that, 10 minutes after serving the Navy its birthday cake, will welcome via satellite a Trump surrogate who insists that sanctuary cities are havens of lawlessness and that Democrats like this because it helps them win elections. (“Hard to believe that the Democrats, who have gone so far LEFT that they are no longer recognizable, are fighting so hard for Sanctuary crime,” tweeted Trump.)
I am trying not to be unfair. It’s morning television, not Masterpiece Theatre. Cheerful banality is the lifeblood of a.m. TV, and ostentatious patriotism is an apparent condition of employment at Fox News. But Fox & Friends pairs its banalities with a pettiness of spirit that is truly depressing. The show displays few genuine enthusiasms, i.e., things that are enjoyed for their own sake irrespective of politics or advantage. Good Morning America, for example, isn’t trying to score any political points when Michael Strahan occasionally talks football on the air. But all of Fox & Friends’ passions—the military, the anthem, patriotic old farmers and football players—are meant to goad or delegitimize those who feel differently. “She loves singing the national anthem, and her husband is a star receiver in the NFL,” was one guest’s introduction on Thursday. Take that, Colin Kaepernick! At the end of Monday morning’s program, the Friends interviewed Dolly Parton, who had come to promote her new children’s album, and of course they steered the conversation to the moment at this year’s Emmy Awards when Parton’s 9 to 5 co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin—typical Hollywood liberals!—criticized Trump from the presenters’ podium as Parton, sandwiched between them, looked on uncomfortably. (Parton refused to take the bait.) Last week, the show featured a farmer who had plowed into his field the message “WE STAND FOR THE NATIONAL ANTHEM.” This morning, they reported that the guy’s field now featured a new message: “FOX AND FRIENDS STEVE AINSLEY BRIAN AND HEATHER [Childers, one of the anchors of Fox & Friends First].”
That was fitting. Like the president whom they rush to flatter, Fox & Friends ultimately believes in nothing except itself and co-opts traditional symbols in order to bolster its own status and that of its patron. The show is toxic in the way that it sets its viewers up, right at first light, to see bad faith in everyone they meet thereafter; to assume that their ideological opponents are stupid or insincere or malicious or all of those things at once. Fox & Friends is the most cynical show on television. In lockstep with Trump’s reactionary agenda, it yearns for the past while destabilizing the present and future. It is a witch’s mirror, showing you only those things that you hate most in other people, preventing any meaningful self-reflection. It is one of the few shows that actually matters right now, and we are all screwed for it.