Late on 3 November 2020, Fox News called Arizona for Joe Biden. In that moment, Rupert Murdoch’s US flagship upended Donald Trump’s re-election bid. Chris Stirewalt, a decade-long Fox News editor, was part of the team that put the state in the Democrat’s column. One insurrection and two months later, the network fired him.
“I got canned after very vocal and very online viewers – including the then-president of the United States – became furious,” Stirewalt writes.
According to Stirewalt, viewer anger had bled on to Fox’s bottom line: “The high ratings born of a presidential coup attempt in the midst of a global pandemic were never going to be sustainable, but the decline was sharper than industry experts expected.”
The suits in the Fox C-Suite and elected Republicans demanded scalps. But Stirewalt would have the last word.
This past June, he appeared before the January 6 committee. Under oath, he testified that Biden won and Trump lost. He also accused the ex-president and his minions of seeking to “exploit” a systemic “anomaly”.
Specifically, during the 2020 election, in states like Arizona where same-day votes were counted before mail-in ballots, Republicans appeared to lead early on election night.
Generally, Democrats tended to vote by mail or before election day while Republicans appeared at the polls on election day itself. On the night, as the hours pass, an apparent Republican advantage may evaporate, leaving little but a red mirage – and enraged viewers.
Stirewalt’s book is both a critique of the media and a rebuke of his former employer and Trump. He spares no one. The Washington Post, the New York Times, MSNBC and Joe Scarborough all fare poorly too.
Substantively, he contends that much of the news business is about the pursuit of ratings. In part, the media inflames passions to monetize all that passes through its domain. No story is insignificant if it can double as clickbait.
Stirewalt says Fox News failed to prepare Trump followers for the possibility that he would lose to Biden, a failure far beyond negligence. Fox News, he writes, stoked “black-helicopter-level paranoia and hatred”, in order to entice viewers to buy a $65 “Patriot” streaming service. These days, Fox is facing rather higher costs, battling defamation lawsuits arising from repeatedly airing Trump’s “big lie”.
As for the Times, Stirewalt attacks the paper of record for using its 1619 Project, which casts American history in light of racism and slavery, as a vehicle to “upsell super-users from subscriptions to $35 books”. He also characterizes the 1619 Project as a “frontal assault on the idea of America’s founding as a new birth of freedom that it very plainly, if imperfectly was”.
Stirewalt’s devotion to journalism spills on to the page. He places a premium on individual freedom and the classic liberal tradition. He is sympathetic to the intellectual underpinnings of liberalism and conservatism but casts a wary eye toward progressivism and nationalism. He takes both to task for fetishizing the collective will and distorting history.
“Progressivism seeks to ameliorate the problems of humankind,” he writes “… but not necessarily within the framework of the American system or the humanistic concept of human rights.”
By contrast, “nationalists believe that the appropriate aim of the federal government should always be the improvement of life for the greatest number of Americans, even when that comes at a cost to individual rights greater than a strict reading of the constitution would allow”.
Steve Bannon, Sohrab Amari and JD Vance might disagree. Or not.
Stirewalt also tackles the issue of the media and politicians being cowed by their bases. As Stirewalt sees it, the threat of the mob – real and virtual – leads people to avert their gaze from our national train wreck.
He knocks “liberals who believe in free speech” but “look at their shoes when people are shouted down or fired for their beliefs”. Likewise, he takes to task those “seemingly normal members of Congress” who went “along with Trump’s efforts to steal a second term”.
Not surprisingly, Stirewalt has little patience for performative politicians. He lumps together Ted Cruz and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and pairs Marjorie Taylor Greene with Rashida Tlaib. He suggests such figures excel at triggering partisan outrage but lack Trump’s entertainment chops.
“They’re Showtime after 10pm,” Stirewalt cracks. “Trump was hardcore.”
Stirewalt is unsparing in his takedown of Cruz. Broken News recalls the Texas senator’s groveling for Tucker Carlson, for referring to the January 6 insurrection as a “violent terrorist attack on the Capitol”. Cruz was a “quavery mass of regret and humiliation” on Carlson’s show, Stirewalt writes.
Turning to Carlson, Stirewalt lets us know the Swanson frozen-food heir is loaded, yet at the same time rails against the “big, legacy media outlets”. There is a lot of cognitive dissonance in prime time. For good measure, Stirewalt reminds the reader that Carlson’s employer is a “multinational corporation led by an Australian billionaire who owns arguably the single most powerful news outlet in America”.
Stirewalt offers no easy way out. He “urges us to question our own assumptions when consuming news” but does not assure us that doing so will actually lower the volume and temperature. He hopes we can see the other side of the political divide, but sounds uncertain. He provides plenty of food for thought.