A rare peek inside Fox News’s outrage machine

On the evening of Jan. 6, 2021, even as members of Congress were just starting to filter back into the Capitol after it had been cleared of the violent rioters who had overrun it, Tucker Carlson began spinning the day’s events to fit his preferred narrative.

He focused on the death of Ashli Babbitt, the rioter shot by a Capitol Police officer as she tried to climb through a window into Speaker’s Lobby off the House floor. Babbitt’s death, in Carlson’s early formulation, was an indicator not of the tragic consequences of falling into the world of election-fraud conspiracy theory, but of an aggressive government intent on quashing dissent.

Babbitt, he said, “bore no resemblance to the angry children we have seen wrecking our cities in recent months — pasty, entitled nihilists dressed in black, setting fires and spray-painting slogans on statues. She looked pretty much like everyone else.”

“So why was she there? We ought to think about that,” he continued. “If you want to fix it, you have to think about that.” After all, “the only reason that system is stable is because it’s a democracy, responsive to voters,” but too many in power simply responded to voters by saying “shut up and do what you’re told.”

In short order, it became obvious that Babbitt, like so many other Americans who “look like everyone else,” had consumed conspiracy theories to a large extent. She elevated QAnon rhetoric, for example, as she embraced baseless claims about voter fraud of the sort championed by Carlson and his then-colleagues on Fox News.

Her death resulted from a multipronged effort by people on the right — Donald Trump and Carlson among them — to consolidate political power by spreading misinformation about the election and the government. Carlson — and later Trump — then used her death to build more power by casting the government and law enforcement as the bad actors on and after Jan. 6.

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For Carlson in particular, this effort extended much further than just Babbitt. He used the Capitol riot and the effort to hold those who participated responsible as a way to inculcate skepticism and hatred of the government among his viewers.

In June 2021, he elevated baseless conspiracy theories that the FBI had infiltrated the crowd of protesters in an effort to stoke violence — the purported intent being to then crack down on the political right. Carlson declared that this was Joe Biden’s intent from the earliest moments of his presidency. That this purported crackdown never manifested (or manifested only in subtle, intuited ways) was beside the point. Carlson’s evidence for this FBI infiltration included the existence of unindicted co-conspirators in federal charging documents, which never made sense. One of them was obviously the wife of the arrested individual; when she later joined her husband in an interview on Carlson’s show, this didn’t come up. But he and his ideological allies ran with the idea anyway.

A few months later, Carlson seized upon the idea that a man named Ray Epps was a federal agent who had stoked violence at the Capitol. (The Epps theory, like the unindicted co-conspirators one, originated on a right-wing blog run by a guy booted from the Trump White House for being linked to a white nationalist.) This, too, was baseless, but the conspiracy theory has proved immune to debunking: sworn testimony from Epps, interviews in which he explains what happened and even a legal threat from Epps himself.

It didn’t matter to Carlson because he wanted to use his platform to elevate skepticism of the government, not present reality to his audience. When the House select committee investigating the riot held its first prime-time hearing, a hearing that overlapped with Carlson’s show, Carlson spent the hour framing the riot as an attack instigated by federal actors. One of his guests was the guy fired from the Trump White House.

After Republicans took control of the House in January, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) gave Carlson full access to video footage from the Capitol that day. Carlson, true to form, used the footage to present a misleading depiction of what unfolded — and, again, to disparage Epps.

At the time, one of the staffers on Carlson’s show was a woman named Abby Grossberg. In March, she sued the network, alleging, among other things, that she faced a hostile work environment while working for Carlson and that the network, in an effort to limit the threat posed by a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems, had coached her to make misleading statements in a deposition.

Speaking to MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace on Tuesday, Grossberg also gave an inside account of how Carlson and his team avoided the reality of what occurred at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“When the Jan. 6 tapes were coming out, Tucker was very set on finding an FBI person who was implanted in the crowd and spinning this conspiracy that they were ultimately the ones responsible for the Capitol attack,” Grossberg explained. “Not Fox News, as they’re about to go into the Dominion trial. That it was really the FBI that set up this thing, not Fox telling the American people that the election was rigged and the voting machines did it.”

She was tasked with finding guests who would bolster this idea.

“I called this attorney that’s representing one of the Proud Boys, and he flat-out told me on two occasions, there is no conspiracy. Get away from this stuff. This is dangerous. Tell Tucker to stop,” Grossberg explained. “‘I’ll come on your show and represent my client. But I absolutely will walk off if he asks me this.’ And the response was, ‘Well, find somebody else. Tucker is really intent on this.’”

She had come to the show, she said, expecting that perhaps there was a distinction between the on-air persona and the behind-the-scenes production efforts. There wasn’t.

“What you see is what ends up on air,” she said. “People are believers who are there.”

Carlson, who was fired by Fox News on Monday for still-unclear reasons, was part of the channel’s opinion lineup. Fox attorneys previously argued in legal filings that Carlson viewers should “arrive with an appropriate amount of skepticism” about Carlson’s presentations.

They didn’t. More than three-quarters of Republicans told YouGov last year that they viewed Carlson as truthful — a higher percentage than said the same of Trump. A similar percentage said they thought Carlson was helping the country with his presentations.

In part, this reflected the complete lack of accountability that Carlson faced. In part, it was also because Carlson was reinforcing Fox viewers’ existing prejudices and beliefs.

What Grossberg depicts is a culture in which this is unexamined. Just as Trump started from a desired assumption — the election was stolen — and worked to find evidence that might support it, Carlson and his team appear to have done the same with the Capitol riot. It was about making the rhetorical point first and informing the audience second, if at all.

Not that this was a surprise. His first reaction to the Capitol riot, after all, was to lionize one of the rioters.

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