I tuned out of cable news sometime during grad school where, even then, I would only watch it while on the elliptical in the gym. Yet it is still a powerful enough medium that the rotation of who is on during what time slot remains an ongoing mainstream topic of conversation.
It doesn’t help that news networks all seem to be jockeying for better access to the political and celebrity classes, and have merged their business model with entertainment. For much of the last generation Fox News has been blamed for this trend, and consequently has been treated as a right-wing propaganda machine. To be clear, Rupert Murdoch’s network has done a lot to justify that label by having conservative pundit shows featuring the likes of Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. But it beggars belief to say Fox’s competition really sees this as an egregious sin, when they continue to hire Fox’s on-air and online “talent.”
Unforgivable Until All Is Forgotten
For those of us still under 50, Fox News may still carry the bitter aftertaste of the Bush Administration and the outdated talking heads format. According to the Reuters Institute, 45 percent of adults aged 18-24 get their first daily news consumption from smartphones, and 39 percent of adults aged 25-34 do as well. TV and cable news is largely the domain of Generation X and the Baby Boomers. The heyday of cable news is long gone, and after a year of people quarantined at home in 2020, viewership tanked in 2021.
But for Hayes and Goldberg, being on television represents the apex of their craft, and like Bret Stephens of the New York Times, they seem to be content as the in-house “conservative” who can offer a watered-down alternative to the activist left-wingers.
The war on Fox preceded the Trump era by years. Other networks fumed at the way it was able to garner such great ratings, calling it propaganda. And yet, the luring away of former Fox personalities goes back at least a decade. Here is a short list of former Fox on-air people who moved over to other networks:
- Greta Van Susteren (2002-2016), NBC News (2017)
- Shepard Smith (1996-2019), CNBC (2020-)
- Megyn Kelly (2004-2017), NBC (2017-2019)
- Alisyn Camerota (1998-2014), CNN (2014-)
- Major Garrett (2009-2010), CBS (2012-)
- Catherine Herridge (1996-2019), CBS (2019-)
- Margaret Hoover (2008-2012), CNN (2012-), PBS (2018-)
- Chris Wallace (2003-2021), CNN (2022-)
Wallace’s exit was considered something of a surprise since he was leaving in order to join CNN’s yet unlaunched streaming service, CNN+. Add to this cohort people with even more dubious résumés such as Oliver Darcy and S.E. Cupp, a former contributor to conservative pundit Glenn Beck’s Blaze Media who during the Trump era became a premier inquisitor of the Right. Or Bill Kristol, the founder of the neoconservative Weekly Standard, who was once a regular on “Fox News Sunday” during the Bush era, and then became a regular guest on CNN during the Obama era.
Slow Course Correction?
The hiring of Hayes and Goldberg comes at a conspicuous time for CNN and NBC. Both networks are struggling to find a way to conserve audiences burnt out by the sensationalist headlines of the Trump era and COVID-19 pandemic. So what are they getting out of these hires?
Stephen Hayes started his career in the old pre-9/11 print media world of the New York Post, Washington Times, and especially National Review. By 2003 he had developed enough of an authoritative profile that a piece he wrote for The Weekly Standard titled “Case Closed” was used as a retroactive justification for the Iraq War after coalition forces failed to turn up evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Hayes’ story cited a leaked Pentagon memo detailing operational links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
Later, Vice President Dick Cheney would point to Hayes’ article as “evidence” of an link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, even though it was only based on a memo from Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. Years later the same playbook used in Iraq was dusted off for the Steele dossier: 1) Gin up a rumor based on deliberately leaked classified “intelligence” about a certain target and then 2) when questioned about the justification for any measures taken in reaction to it, cite the press article generated by the same leaked information as a second source. Hayes would eventually come to be the editor of The Weekly Standard in 2016, but within two years its parent media company decided to shutter the operation.
Goldberg had a similar career arc. He wrote for National Review for two decades and writes a nationally syndicated column. He is also the author of such books as Liberal Fascism and Suicide of the West. Like Hayes, Goldberg would sour on the GOP during the Trump era, and the two together would found an anti-Trump website called The Dispatch that focused on portraying itself as an outlet for “principled” conservatism. It differed very little from The Bulwark, a similar website started by Kristol and fellow NeverTrumper Charlie Sykes.
The NeverTrump movement as a whole has mounted a number of attempts to wrest back control of the Republican Party from Trump and his supporters, claiming they put “country before party.” In 2016 many of them supported the candidacy of former CIA operative Evan McMullin whose whole strategy was not to win the White House but to run as a Mormon in order to take Utah and deny Trump an outright win if neither he nor Hillary Clinton won in the Electoral College.
Similarly, in 2020 some of the NeverTrump faction backed primary candidates William Weld and Joe Walsh against Trump in the GOP primary. Many NeverTrump Republicans voted for Joe Biden in the general election. Some, like Goldberg and Hayes, remained at Fox News as contributors throughout Trump’s term.
The “anvil that broke the camel’s back” for Goldberg and Hayes was Tucker Carlson’s January 6 documentary, “Patriot Purge.” The program, which appeared only on the network’s Fox Nation streaming outlet, directly addressed questions of how the Capitol Police may have both enabled the riot and botched the response to it. Carlson also addressed questions of excessive force and the unlawful detentions of rioters. One of the reasons that this topic is a sore spot for Hayes and Goldberg is that Carlson connected the dots between the draconian national security powers established in the aftermath of 9/11 to their use against Americans in the aftermath of January 6, 2021.
Carlson juxtaposed clips of President Bush and Colin Powell concerning Al-Qaeda from the early 2000s and the same type of rhetoric being heaped at right-wing opponents of the Biden Administration. Featured in the documentary were independent media personalities Elijah Schaffer, Darren Beattie, and American Greatness senior writer Julie Kelly, who have been instrumental in refuting many of the narratives surrounding the Capitol breach. Among the discredited narratives was the claim that Officer Brian Sicknick was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. Hayes and Goldberg, in their resignation letter from Fox, claimed that “[t]his is not happening” when referring to rioters being held in solitary confinement under degrading conditions and without bond.
In short, a group of “principled” conservative opinion columnists, who in 2000s hyped a relationship between an oil-rich Arab state and an international terror group that did not exist, are now denying political persecutions that do exist.
This is exactly the message that the neoconservative holdovers cannot handle: The “patriot movement” is the biggest threat to the people that cheered on or even crafted the Patriot Act.
The cultural divide of the 2000s between right-wing authoritarians and the liberal media has been realigned completely such that authoritarians of both the Left and the Right are now safely ensconced in the media and government, while populist, American nationalist, and other heterodox beliefs common on the anti-war Left and Right are increasingly excluded. The panels on MSNBC and CNN broadcasts often end up being refugee camps for NeverTrump personalities like Michael Steele, who have no idea how they would distinguish their America from that of their openly left-wing colleagues.
CNN’s decision to take on Goldberg is counterintuitive, too, given recent trends that seem to show CNN trying to transition away from the sensationalism that it has embraced for many years. Likewise, NBC’s signing of Hayes is odd considering MSNBC’s coming struggle to replace aging stars Rachel Maddow and Brian Williams.
With the long overdue firing of Chris Cuomo and the resignation of network head Jeff Zucker, it looked like the network’s new owners, Discovery, might be able to turn the ship around. But the hiring of Goldberg by CNN, in addition to the recent signing of former ESPN personalities Jemele Hill and Cari Champion (who were instrumental in injecting racial activism into that network’s decline) suggests otherwise. And NBC’s hiring of Hayes, when combined with the addition of former PBS Newshour White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, suggests a similar trajectory over there.
These are all personalities who elevated their public visibility not through groundbreaking reporting but naked activism concealed as “speaking truth to power.”
This isn’t a matter of different networks for diverse opinions; cable news is keeping the careers of failed propagandists on life support. We can only hope their ineptitude will backfire before others are harmed.