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Domestic terrorism is on the rise. Why won’t cable news networks say so?

Cable news aims not to inform but to placate. It facilitated the rise of our current hellscape.

Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Fortune; Fox News
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis published a report, meant for internal use only. The report argued that the future of terrorism threats against the United States would be in homegrown, domestic terrorism, spawned from the right fringes of the political spectrum. Indeed, the 2008 election of America’s first non-white president, combined with the economic collapse of 2007 and 2008, had created fertile ground for hateful, right-wing extremism.

Republicans reacted angrily, demanding that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano rescind the report. Eventually, it was withdrawn, and by 2010, the DHS no longer had any intelligence analysts working in the field of domestic terrorism, as Daryl Johnson, the report’s primary author, detailed for the Washington Post in 2017.

Had the report not proved so prophetic about the rise of right-wing extremism in the US, it would have served as a useful example of what my colleague Matt Yglesias calls “the hack gap” — in which small issues, often related to the identity politics of older, white conservatives, quickly get blown up into national ones thanks to the right-wing media industrial complex.

But the report was ultimately prophetic. To read it today is to see officials sounding an alarm about a world where extremists illegally occupy federal land, or mail pipe bombs to Democratic party leaders, or commit mass shootings that target minority groups. It even seems to warn of the rise of a figure like Donald Trump, who might build speeches around a version of rhetorical extremism that’s been (just barely) gussied up for primetime, but who’s still perpetually courting that extremist base.

Yet members of the media — especially on television — are reluctant to call actions like mailing pipe bombs to Democrats or shooting up a synagogue “terrorism,” despite the fact that they are quite literally intended to terrorize certain populations.

Some of this reluctance stems from questions of definition, which I’ll discuss below. But much of it is thanks to who’s consuming the news on TV and how our 24-hour news networks, especially, rely on those viewers to keep their doors open.

The surprising recent analog to the media’s unwillingness to call right-wing terror “terrorism”

The ways in which cable news coverage have skewed our national conversation is a huge topic, with grave consequences for the future of American democracy. But the headlines of the past week offer an instructive way into that topic, via a story that’s closely related, but without grave consequences for the future of American democracy: the future of former Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s career after her flameout at NBC, and how said flameout at NBC and cable news networks’ broader hesitance to call right-wing terror “terrorism” are kind of the same thing.

Kelly’s surprisingly swift exit from the Today show — and expected departure from NBC News, where she was hired in early 2017 after becoming the breakout Fox News host of the 2016 presidential election — has mostly been attributed to insensitive, deeply clueless comments she made about blackface. But her downfall happened so quickly, as NBC pounced on the opportunity to oust her afforded by the blackface controversy, that it’s clear the network was also motivated by how much of a bust Kelly has been outside of the Fox News ecosystem.

It still isn’t quite clear what NBC hired Kelly to do, beyond generate headlines about the network poaching one of the election’s brightest media stars. Her primetime news magazine, Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly, didn’t even make it to 10 episodes, while her morning show, Megyn Kelly Today, was also a ratings bust. She had done some reporting for other NBC programs (notably Dateline), but the network didn’t sign a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract with Kelly because it wanted her for occasional Dateline segments.

The cycle of “Fox News personality leaves Fox News and promptly withers” has repeated itself several times since the conservative network launched in 1996. Beyond Kelly, the most notable person to fall victim to this cycle is Greta Van Susteren, who has maintained a healthy career in cable news since she left Fox News in 2016, but who hasn’t ever regained a following like the one she had at the network.

It’s easy to understand why other networks would be so interested in hiring hosts away from Fox News: The network has always boasted huge ratings and personalities, to whom its viewers are very dedicated and loyal. But competing networks who poach these individuals, hoping they might thrive elsewhere, are failing to see what makes Fox News successful.

What makes Fox News successful doesn’t have anything to do with the way its anchors report the news — and everything to do with the way the network’s inherent slant creates a cozy bubble for its core audience of older, white conservatives. It’s this detail that links Kelly’s troubled tenure at NBC News with the media’s unwillingness to call right-wing terror “terrorism,” because both stem from news networks’ desire to replicate Fox News’s success with the older viewers who form the primary audience for cable news.

If you watch a lot of Fox News, even if you aren’t an older, white conservative, it’s not hard to feel the network’s central ethos — that you, our viewer, can never be wrong and can only be wronged — seeping into your bones. To call it a network based in a white supremacist ideology feels a little inadequate, because Fox News actively seeks to never question that central ethos. Instead, it leaves the viewer in a pleasant haze of certainty that some promised new and better world is just over the horizon, so long as [insert out-group here] doesn’t get its way.

In any given week, Fox News ably cycles through any number of Others — Black Lives Matters supporters, Antifa members, Muslims the world over, immigrants, trans people, Democratic politicians, and voters in general. It doesn’t seek to inform; it seeks to placate, to reassure viewers that they are okay and that everything else about white America is okay too. That’s why, when its personalities leave for other news networks, they often wilt — because other news networks still, ostensibly, have a mission to inform viewers of what’s happening in the world.

But on the issue of labeling domestic terrorism as terrorism, Fox News is an extreme outlier that’s still not really outside of the mainstream. All 24-hour news networks are reticent to rattle the cages of the status quo too much. Even the left-leaning MSNBC rarely reports on issues like domestic terrorism without a frame of “teaching the controversy”: Some people say we should call this terrorism, and what do you think?

The reason for this is self-evident: A cable news network needs you to keep watching, and the best way to make sure you keep watching is not to suggest that the country is rife with right-wing, extremist terror. That might chase away conservative viewers, who could react poorly to that summation of what’s going on, no matter how accurate. It could also alienate left-leaning viewers, who might take from that assessment a call to action that goes beyond watching TV.

If the country is coming apart at the seams, there are probably better things any of us could be doing than watching cable news. Cable news networks might call these problems by their names, or by some closely affiliated, near synonym — as Tucker Carlson did in a recent segment on “political terrorism.”

But they’re usually framed as problems stemming from “both sides” and rarely as problems driven primarily by those on the far right. And even when they are framed that way, the very format of cable news means they slip rapidly down the memory hole, disappearing after a day or two as they’re obscured by the core mission of any 24-hour news network: Keep people watching, at all costs.

That means placation on some level, and while placation isn’t unique to modern TV news, it’s a decidedly different beast when it lasts all day long, instead of for just a half-hour in the evening and a few hours in the morning, as it did in the era of the big three broadcast networks, before CNN launched in 1980.

Trump is a natural outgrowth of the cable news era

It’s tempting, for so many people, to think of Trump as an aberration, a weird, over-the-top reaction to a particular moment in history. In some ways he is. Certainly the abject grossness of much of what he says and does are the sorts of things more typical Republican politicians wouldn’t indulge in. George W. Bush might have been famous for misspeaking, but he was never so crass.

But as essentially any person who pays more attention to policy outcomes than to the theatricality of politics will tell you, Trump’s platform is more or less a mainstream Republican one. Even the actions he undertakes that draw the most criticism (the family separations at the US-Mexico border, for instance) are tacitly sanctioned by many other Republicans. And his economic policies are straight-down-the-middle for a president from his party.

What can make him feel like an aberration, in spite of all that, are the many dark elements of society he’s stirred up, sometimes inadvertently but often intentionally. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon — they all worked toward divisive policies but spoke the bland platitudes of “coming together as a nation” much better than Trump.

Trump’s worldview reminds me sometimes of the Daleks from Doctor Who, murderous aliens who were created after an endless series of guided mutations, designed to isolate their worst qualities. They learned to view the world only in terms of strong versus weak, of endless conflict and division, of extermination. But the Daleks, fascist though they were, had some sort of larger worldview, albeit a horrible one. I’m not sure Trump does beyond, “This should be mine.” And the “this” is literally everything.

This type of entitlement is a consequence of many things in our culture, from entrenched systems of racism and sexism, to the kinds of stories we tell, to a massive religious movement that actively welcomes the end of the world, to the way that so-called “politically incorrect” humor has gradually had the irony sanded off so that it’s now just plain old racism, to the way the internet has made it easier for white nationalist movements to radicalize the young and the vulnerable.

And it’s not like print and online publications haven’t fallen for the false equivalency of “Well, one side sends pipe bombs, but the other side yells at people in restaurants!” But at least those other forms of media allow for slightly more nuance than television does, once you get beyond the headlines.

Meanwhile, in the wild world of social media, there’s always at least a chance for different narratives to take hold, among those who pay no attention to prevailing mainstream media narratives, as we’ve seen numerous times with stories pertaining to social justice issues. (The rise of Black Lives Matter is a classic example of this.)

But sooner or later, it all comes back to TV news. A recent story in the Atlantic made me realize that much of what we’re dealing with is the logical endpoint of television’s cultural dominance over the past half-century. The story, by Alexis Madrigal, presents a Pew Research Center study in which respondents of various ages were presented with several statements and asked to identify which ones were fact and which were opinion.

The difference seems obvious: Statements of fact, even ones that aren’t true, can be definitively verified or debunked. Statements of opinion are based on the speaker’s own thoughts about how the world works or should work. But older Americans — those most likely to be in Fox News’s core audience — were most likely to fail to properly sort the statements between fact and opinion.

Those older Americans are still the audience that’s most likely to get its information from sources like TV news, and they’re more likely to be whiter and more conservative, too, than their younger cohort. So when you consider just how much TV news has blurred the lines between fact and opinion in the wake of Fox News’s success, the results of this study feel much less surprising.

Chasing this audience has led TV news to a place where NBC News is hiring Megyn Kelly despite having no clear role for her, and where networks struggle with how to talk about a wave of violence emanating most clearly from one corner of the political spectrum. There are certainly good-faith arguments against labeling this kind of violence terrorism — most of which have to do with waiting for the FBI to issue that label, or with the fact that definitions of terrorism usually involve some sort of organized, radicalizing sect, rather than a bunch of lone wolf operators who have been emboldened by YouTube, or Fox News, or the president.

But in its endless chase after Fox News and the Fox News audience, the TV news industry has slowly but surely abdicated its ability to talk about any of this stuff in a way that gives viewers information beyond, “Stick around for another ad break.” There are many great TV journalists and commentators working today, even on Fox News itself, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to hear their voices over the endless din of “This is what’s happening now.”

TV news remains one of the best ways to consume breaking news, but Trump’s accidental stroke of genius was in figuring out that when every minute of every day is consumed by breaking news, we all become passive TV viewers, even when we’re not watching television. We are watching the world as if it’s happening on television, waiting for whatever comes next, absorbed in the story of the TV president, distanced from the story he’s a part of, only dully recognizing it’s also a story about us until it’s too late.