For decades, Fox News’ programming has revolved around the need to identify and target Democratic demons, who are then used to frighten Republican viewers. And for most of the network’s existence, Hillary Clinton has served as a perennial rogue, depicted as a villainous, criminal scoundrel who can’t be trusted with America’s future. With Clinton now receding from public life, Fox News has seamlessly transferred its vile attacks onto a new generation of Democratic women, led by Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
“Fox News needs an opponent, a detractor, an enemy to add conflict and edge to its broadcasts,” noted the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple. In other words, Fox is in the business of scripted entertainment—under the guise of “news”—and needs long-running characters that it can return to again and again. It crafts targets of hate who rile up viewers and keep them tuned in to the different storylines.
For Fox, Clinton, Omar, and Ocasio-Cortez represent perfect targets in terms of riling up its intolerant base: Clinton is a woman of a certain age, while Ocasio-Cortez and Omar are women of a certain heritage. And yes, there’s something in the Fox News DNA over the years that has meant that women political opponents spark a deeper sense of outrage and hate. You could make an argument that during eight years in the White House, it was Michelle Obama who suffered sharper, more personal Fox News attacks than did her husband. It’s all part of an endless, dehumanizing campaign to silence opponents, and specifically to silence and intimidate Democratic women.
This week, Fox News’ sister print outlet, the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post, published an incitement on the front page, which depicted the World Trade Towers bursting into flames and falsely claimed that Omar, who is Muslim, had belittled the Sept. 11 attack. The reckless pile-on has been relentless. Days earlier, Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade questioned Omar’s loyalty, saying, “You have to wonder if she is an American first.” Over at Fox Business News, Lou Dobbs claimed, “She sounds like she hates America.” Those comments echoed those made by another Fox host, Jeanine Pirro, who suggested, “Omar wears a hijab. … Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?”
Pirro was actually suspended from hosting her Saturday night show for two weeks because of her tawdry attack on Omar. But her suspension has obviously done nothing to curtail the mindless, racist attacks on the Democratic congresswoman. All this has happened while threats against Omar’s life continue to escalate.
To date, Fox News’ obsession with Ocasio-Cortez, for the most part, hasn’t been as overtly dangerous as its smear campaign against Omar, but the negative attention has been unending.
When Ocasio-Cortez appeared on Seth Meyers’ late-night show in March, the host wondered about all the creepy interest she’s getting from the cable network. “They talk about you a lot. Are you surprised with the speed at which they seem to have shifted all their attention and programming to you?” he asked. “I mean, it’s weird. Why are so many grown men just obsessed with this, like, 29-year-old?” she wondered.
Obsessed, indeed. Fox News regular Mike Huckabee has claimed she’s a “Manchurian Candidate,” boosted by “dark forces” behind her. Fox’s Brit Hume belittled her as “adorable in sort of the way that a 5-year-old child can be adorable,” one Fox guest told Ocasio-Cortez to “stick to knitting,” and another guest on Laura Ingraham’s show mocked the congresswoman as “this little girl from Brooklyn.” Her politics are wildly denounced as “radical left” and “progressives gone wild,” and Tucker Carlson has attacked her as a “moron.”
All of this likely sounds familiar to Clinton, who has without question been the longest-running villain over Fox News’ two decades of programming. Even after her loss in 2016, the network tried desperately to drag her back into the spotlight, to juice up its long-running narrative that she’s a an all-powerful force of marauding feminist evil, which viewers embrace with lust. There’s no doubt during the last campaign that decades of right-wing media attacks on Clinton transformed her from crusader for women’s rights into a major target of contempt. The right wing simply picked up where it left off in the 1990s. Back then, “The New York Times‘ William Safire wrote that she was both a “congenital liar” and a “vindictive political power player.” Elsewhere she was derided as a selfish, untrustworthy, incompetent, ball-breaking “bitch,” a “closet lesbian” and a terrible mother,” Janet Reitman noted in Rolling Stone.
Unfortunately, the harassment works. Just as the Fox News smears helped drive down Clinton’s once-sky high approval rating after she entered the 2016 campaign race, recent polling suggests Fox’s unyielding attacks on Ocasio-Cortez have hurt her image. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 23 percent of Americans view the New York Congresswoman favorably, while 36 percent viewer her unfavorably. A look at the data shows the overwhelmingly negative view that Republicans/Fox News viewers have of Ocasio-Cortez is what’s driving up her unfavorable rating. Indeed, the Quinnipiac poll showed that the self-identified democratic socialist member of Congress is far better known among Republican voters than she is Democratic ones.
“It’s almost as though there is a directed + concerted far-right propaganda machine with a whole cable news channel, and a dark-money internet operation propped up by the Mercers et al dedicated to maligning me & stoking nat’l division, reported on by
@JaneMayerNYer or something,” Ocasio-Cortez recently tweeted, referring to a New Yorker expose on Fox News and its propaganda ties to the Republican Party.
If there is a small sliver lining to these latest grotesque attacks, it’s that progressives and Democrats all across the political spectrum now understand the danger that Fox News poses—not only to politicians as their reputations which are relentlessly attacked, but to the greater good of our country and a preferred progressive agenda. In the past, when Clinton was a primary target of the dirty hits, some factions of the Democratic coalition didn’t seem to pay it much attention because they weren’t supporters of hers.
It’s paramount now, as Fox News and the right-wing noise machine try to take down a new generation of Democratic women leaders, that everyone understands the strategy in play.