Columns/Opinion, Opinion

Lessons from cable news since Jan. 6

by David Zurawik

I have watched more cable news in the last six weeks than I have in any other comparable period in my career. Every weekday starting Jan. 6, the day the Capitol was attacked, I woke up to “New Day” on CNN and went to bed after Brian Williams signed off on MSNBC’s “The 11th Hour.” I also watched C-SPAN, Fox News, Newsmax and One America News Network.

After watching the acquittal of President Donald Trump on Saturday, I did some self-analysis that included asking myself what, if anything, I learned from all my time spent in front of the screen since the horrific assault on the U.S. Capitol instigated by Trump.

I came up with a lot of answers, but one takeaway troubles me more than all the others at the moment. Right-wing media is moving further to the right and competing harder to put themselves in league with Trump, even though he is out of office. That is very bad news, because as long as the former president has this kind of media support, he remains not just a potential candidate but a danger to the nation.

In January, I predicted MAGA media would move further right as the two newer right-wing outlets, One America News Network and Newsmax, took bites out of the Fox audience. But even I didn’t think Fox would come crawling back to Trump the way it has and try to deny reality to the extent its prime-time hosts were at the end of the first day of the trial, Feb. 9.

Calling the trial a distraction and a “farce,” Fox host Tucker Carlson said recently, “The whole thing is ridiculous. They are literally impeaching a president who isn’t even the president anymore. They’re yelling at someone who’s already left the room.”

I guess you could have said that about the Nuremberg trials, too, after World War II. That’s what passes for a sound argument on right-wing cable TV these days on why a public official who led an insurrection against the country shouldn’t be tried.

Fox host Sean Hannity followed up that night by calling the impeachment proceedings a “sham trial.” His words were accompanied by images of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., with the words “Swamp Theater” emblazoned above their heads.

Hannity wasted little time bringing on Don Trump Jr., who called the impeachment “asinine” and attacked Democratic senators for focusing on impeachment instead of the pandemic — as if his father’s administration was so laser focused on COVID-19.

On Newsmax on Feb. 10, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., had a similar message for viewers of “Greg Kelly Reports,” the channel’s top show: Nothing to see in the trial. It’s all Democratic politics and theater.

“This is all about the Democrats having to obsess over Trump, because they don’t really have an agenda to help regular Americans,” Gaetz said.

And who exactly is a “regular American,” Rep. Gaetz?

I had hoped some of those who supported Trump would at least look at the images of the insurrection that he ignited and the agony that followed, such as the anguished police officer caught in the revolving door inside the Capitol or the remains of Officer Brian Sicknick, who died as a result of injuries sustained in the attack, laying in state in the Rotunda. How could anyone look at the grief in the faces of Sicknick’s parents and not denounce the cruel recklessness of Trump and his allies?

But just as Fox and Newsmax show hosts urged their viewers to look away from the reexamination of the carnage and Trump’s role in it, so did GOP political leaders offer a model of how to do that right there in the chamber of the Senate.

“As the Democratic House managers presented their evidence, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., drew a sketch of the U.S. Capitol, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., propped his feet up on the seat back in front of him and Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., read a newspaper,” The Washington Post reported. There were other Republicans cited in other media who appeared to be going out of their way to show their boredom or contempt for the proceedings.

I believe the role of media is to provide readers and viewers with facts, information, analysis and perspective that help them understand the world in which they live. That’s not the way it worked in recent weeks in right-wing media, which tried to keep its audiences away from any new facts, information or analyses that might enlighten them or result in anyone changing a channel.

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email:; Twitter: @davidzurawik