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How Fox News molds reality into a serialized TV drama

The No. 1 news network tells “stories” in a surprisingly similar fashion to a show like Lost.

Fox News viewers
Watching Fox News turns reality into a complicated serialized narrative that requires viewers to constantly keep up.
Javier Zarracina/Vox
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.

Somewhere in the middle of last week’s presidential debate — you may remember there was a news cycle before President Trump was diagnosed with Covid-19 — I realized that to anyone who doesn’t subsist on a steady diet of right-wing news, a lot of what Trump said must have been incoherent nonsense. The president spent the entire evening firing off a jumble of talking points that seemed to have no center other than a very basic grievance with the way the world was mistreating his base.

Trump’s debate prep seemed to have consisted of watching a bunch of Fox News, which honestly wouldn’t be that different from how he seems to spend his time normally. But his performance further underlined, on a national stage, how central Fox News is to the Republican Party in the 21st century. It’s a really curious relationship, one that has seemed to become even more unavoidable since August, when the Republican National Convention lineup was so swamped by speakers best known to Fox News viewers that this very website ran occasional guides to who those speakers were, to inform those who aren’t avid fans of the network.

To watch Fox News at any given time is to step out of this reality and into another one entirely, where President Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis has been the most important news story in the country since last Friday, but only because it shows that the coronavirus isn’t that big of a deal. Or at least not so big of a deal that it could preclude this news on Sunday morning when other networks were focused on the president’s health:

What’s always been interesting to me about Fox News (and the many other conservative media operations that travel along in its wake) is how successful it is compared to similar news organizations on the left — both in viewership, where it’s routinely the number one cable news network, and in framing political narratives. Surely partisan news should be popular with people on the other side of the aisle, too, right? And it definitely can be. MSNBC has had some success playing to mainstream liberalism, while leftist podcasts are a booming market. But there’s no left-of-center equivalent to Fox News.

And one under-considered reason for Fox News’s dominance only becomes clear if you watch a bunch of it over time, as I have off and on for the past decade: It’s structured a lot like a serialized puzzle box drama, like Lost or Stranger Things.

How Fox News draws you deeper and deeper into a reality that it spins for you

If you spend a whole week watching five consecutive nights of a given Fox News program, especially in the network’s primetime lineup, you may notice something unusual: It’s structured like a soap opera. “Storylines” — the president’s strength in battling Covid-19, say — are layered throughout the week in a way where they can temporarily pause with a “payoff” on Thursday or Friday that will carry viewers forward into the next week. This serialization keeps viewers hooked, which is good for the network’s ratings. But it also creates an irresponsible view of how the world operates.

Consider the following storyline about the supposed evils of antifa — the principle of fighting against fascism, which Fox News has redefined as a global organization with shadowy, undefined aims — that Tucker Carlson’s program has used over and over in the last few years. Across a week, it will run, roughly, “Antifa is bad”; “Antifa is a threat to Republicans”; “Antifa is a threat to America”; “Antifa is a domestic terrorist organization and should be classified as such.” You can easily swap in any other left-leaning movement or cause in place of “antifa.” The story beats are always the same.

This method of “storytelling” — define a threat, elaborate on the threat, then propose a solution to said threat that will require viewers to keep tuning in to see how the proposed solution plays out — pops up everywhere on television, from soap operas to professional wrestling to primetime prestige series like Game of Thrones.

And it’s a mainstay on Fox News. The network’s most popular programs function less like nightly news reports and more like serialized dramas, where you have to watch every episode to really understand the “mythology.” There are so many villains and enemies in the Fox News “universe” that if you miss anything, you might not know who’s who. It’s similar to a program like Lost, where half the intrigue stems from trying to figure out how the pieces all fit together.

This hasn’t always been the way of conservative media. Though there was a period in the ’90s where conservative news outlets tended to get lost in the midst of the many Clinton scandals they cooked up (in addition to the actual Clinton scandals that existed), the mythology was still simple — Clintons bad, Republicans good. But that mythology grew more and more complicated during the Obama era, for a simple reason: Glenn Beck.

Though Beck no longer has a show on Fox News — he now operates his own website, The Blaze — his influence on conservative media is everywhere. After Obama took office, he steadily turned up the heat on the low-grade paranoia that was always present on Fox News and conservative talk radio until it reached a full boil. Beck’s primary method for doing this was to draw lines between lots of seemingly disparate news stories. (I first wrote about this in 2011, when he was still near the peak of his influence.)

Even if you didn’t buy what Beck was selling in the slightest, it was weirdly hypnotic to watch him turn the news into a hedge maze, impossible to solve unless you started busting through the walls. Beck transformed what had been a pretty easy to understand story of Republicans vs. Democrats into an elaborate global conspiracy to rival the aliens from The X-Files or the DHARMA Initiative from Lost. Everything was connected, from the Arab Spring to Obama’s White House to communism, and if you kept watching Beck’s program (and Fox News as a whole), you would start to see how the system was rigged against you, the “normal American” viewer.

Initially, I thought that perhaps Beck had made the story too complicated to follow, that nobody would want to watch so much Fox News to keep all of the players in this conspiracy straight. Later, I figured his line of reasoning would crumble early in the Trump administration, in the face of Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, the presidency, and arguably the Supreme Court.

I was wrong.

How Fox News constantly changes its target to keep its “story” interesting

What I didn’t anticipate was the way Fox News had internalized Beck’s method for approaching “storytelling” (a method that has since been sharpened to a fine point by far-right outlets like Breitbart News and the TV network OANN). To understand how the nebulously defined global conspiracy against America might manifest in your own life, you have to keep watching and watching and watching. And if you live in a place where a lot of people are watching Fox News, you might find yourself tuning in just to figure out what the hell they’re talking about.

That’s the power of approaching the news as a complicated, serialized drama. Anybody can talk about what the president is up to today, but you can only talk about how, say, antifa is a pseudo-Democratic plot to stop him if you watch Fox News and are up on the lingo.

The problem is that the reality Fox News peddles has almost nothing to do with actual reality, because the network has subtly recalibrated the news to fit a particular storytelling model. As an example, every time Sean Hannity brought up Black Lives Matter when I watched a bunch of Fox News for research purposes in 2017, he said that its stated objective was to “kill more cops.” If you only get your news from Fox News, you might really have thought that was the stated objective of Black Lives Matter — despite how easy it would be to find information proving otherwise — because it’s how Hannity constantly defined this particular opponent.

Here is a more recent example of that very playbook in action, from an episode of Tucker Carlson’s show that aired earlier this year. This segment defines the media and Black Lives Matter as being in league together to destroy America:

Fox News uses this approach to attack everything from trans rights to campus speech to Black Lives Matter to antifa, constantly shifting targets to find new boogeymen. And its ability to constantly choose new enemies is what I missed when I assumed the early Trump era would be a difficult period for the network. Trump’s brain seems steeped in Fox News’s storytelling, and his presidency has only heightened the network’s sense of grievance, of somebody somewhere having been done wrong. The war against some scary, nebulous “other” can never be over, because in some senses, that war is always beginning. A serialized drama can never really reach its conclusion, because there’s always a new villain, or an old one returning to the fore (again: Hillary Clinton). Nothing ever ends on a serialized drama, because you can never get every answer.

What’s more, creating a serialized narrative around reality gives viewers the accomplished feeling of mastering a complicated storyline that they can explain to the uninitiated. But instead of your Lost-loving friend explaining the secrets of the DHARMA Initiative, it’s a Fox News viewer trying to get you to see how antifa and Joe Biden are inextricably linked or something. This basic, paranoid approach isn’t all that far off from QAnon conspiracy theorizing, and it can create an impenetrable web of references and theories — a trap the president has repeatedly fallen into.

From a certain point of view, I’m a little impressed by Fox News. Keeping this constant web of intrigue and serialization spinning for over a decade now (roughly since the start of Obama’s first term in 2009) is a lot of work — even if much of it requires viewers to constantly assume the real people in power are some ill-defined “they” over there (the left, or Black Lives Matter, or trans activists, or...), preventing Donald Trump from being hailed as the hero he really is. And Trump is preternaturally good at playing the lead character of a Fox News narrative, the bold one striding forth into battle against the forces of darkness.

Someday, Trump will no longer be president. And yet the machine that created him out of weaponized paranoia and in some ways taught him everything he knows will still be there. Whether he leaves office in a few months or a few years, Trump will be gone, and should a Democrat take his place, this entire conservative media apparatus, led by Fox News, will switch directions to tell a new but very old story about how the left wants to accomplish some sinister end that will be very bad for America. That story is just so compelling. It can become impossible to ignore.

I used to hope that more compelling storytelling instincts on the left would help combat this tendency of right-wing media, but at this point, we might have to just grapple with the fact that it will always exist. It’s really hard to quit a serialized narrative full of dramatic twists and turns once you’ve so deeply committed to it. Eventually, the Island or the alien conspiracy will give up its secrets, right?

In fiction, maybe. But in reality, we’re all stuck with each other, sucked into a vortex where some folks are trying to put together puzzle pieces to build a raft and thereby prove the left created the whirlpool, instead of just putting on a fucking life jacket already.