“They don’t want to argue,” Laura Ingraham complained on Thursday night. “They want to search and destroy. That’s what they do. That’s why Fox News viewers are so loyal because we refuse to bow, refuse to cave into these kind of terroristic tactics and that’s what they are. They are little journo-terrorists and people are sick of it.” The target of Ingraham’s tirade was Talia Lavin, a left-wing, freelance journalist recently hired by New York University to teach a single course on covering the far-right.
Lavin is not a particularly newsworthy subject, as she notes herself. But this isn’t even the first time Fox has put her face on its network. The channel first fixated on her months ago, when she mistook an ICE agent’s military tattoo for a white supremacist symbol in a photo, and tweeted an accusation to that affect. Lavin wasn’t the only person to make that error, but her tweet went viral, and she resigned as a fact-checker for The New Yorker amidst a deluge of anti-Semitic harassment. Her resignation didn’t remove her from Fox’s blacklist. So here we are, watching one of the most widely viewed networks in the U.S. perpetuate the notion that a 29-year-old freelance writer is a “journo-terrorist,” which is a clarifying slur. Ingraham didn’t criticize Lavin’s body of work. Instead, she told her viewers that Lavin is a threat. (Fox has also exhaustively covered NYU’s decision to hire Lauren Duca, a liberal writer, for a different adjunct course.)
Ingraham ran her segment the same day that Cesar Sayoc pled guilty to mailing pipe bombs to critics of Donald Trump. Sayoc, too, believed that critics were threats, and while we shouldn’t discount the role mental health may have played in his plot, he also did not dream up his list of targets in a void. Neither did Christopher Hasson, the Coast Guard lieutenant now on trial for a terror plot that, like Sayoc’s, targeted perceived enemies of the president. In this climate, Fox’s fixations are especially meaningful. Not only does the channel do Donald Trump a service by demonizing his critics to their viewers, the president returns the favor. Fox and Trump are a human centipede; when its hosts spew, the result tends to appear on the president’s Twitter account. It’s not always clear when language crosses into incitement, but the channel’s obsession with Lavin, and Ingraham’s decision to call her a terrorist, credibly fits the definition.
Which leaves liberals with a familiar quandary: should they appear on Fox News. The argument that they should has some validity: It exists, and its large audience should hear a different perspective. This is much how Democratic pundit Donna Brazile has defended her decision to work for Fox. “Feeling right and righteous is a comfortable place to be. In a bubble, you don’t have to listen — or even think,” Brazile argued in an op-ed for the channel. But with Ingraham stirring up viewers against journalists and immigrants and whoever else the far-right agrees to despise, with Tucker Carlson defending white nationalists on air, it’s less and less certain that Fox’s platform can be co-opted for good. Fox shows aren’t all created equal, but the channel allows its most toxic voices to flourish. As the state channel of a far-right presidential administration, it fulfills exactly the function that Roger Ailes intended for it. It’s not interested in legitimate journalism as much as it’s interested in promulgating right-wing nationalism, and this raison d’etre means that attempts to puncture the bubble are self-defeating. The narrow goal of a liberal, or a credible reporter, who appears on the network may be to present an alternative, factual viewpoint, but within the Fox ecosystem they can only function as foils, cast to lend the network credibility it doesn’t deserve. Journalists who try to break through walls of the Fox News echo chamber can only end up reinforcing them.