Cultural populism and the morally ‘invested’ news style
Like almost all populist speakers, Fox News pundits often deny the fact that they — as wealthy TV personalities — occupy a whole other social stratum than that of their average viewer: ‘I’m a regular schlub’ (Glenn Beck, 20 January 2009). In turn, these personalities frequently assume the ‘people’s voice’ during on-air political debates: (‘1 think I speak for most Americans’, Hannity & Coltnes, 11 December 2008). In my book Fox Populism (2019), I illustrate how Fox programmes have appropriated the discourse of cultural populism, a sub-strain of the broader populist rhetorical tradition. I define cultural populism as a political discourse that ‘champions the common wisdom, taste, and intellectual capacities of everyday people, and denounces justifications for power based on credentials and elite cultural knowledge’ (127). Whereas the left understands class as mostly an economic position, Fox pundits use cultural populism to advance ‘an informal theory of class as a cultural identity’ (126).
Fox’s cultural populist strategy has two main legs. It involves pundits making taste-based appeals to ‘lowbrow’ cultural forms (e.g. NASCAR), lifestyle practices (e.g. shopping at Walmart), and aesthetics (e.g. hyper-patriotic graphics, bleach-blonde anchors). Secondly, it involves performing an affinity with lay epistemic culture: that is, a non-professional style of truth-telling. ‘I am not an expert’, Glenn Beck often said on his Fox show. ‘I’m an American with an opinion, period. . . . When will we start listening to our own guts, and to common sense?’ (4 November 2010). In an episode of Hannity, one guest implied that too much education actually hinders a leader’s judgment. ‘[W]ith all the . . . education that President Barack Obama has had, he seems to have trouble making decisions. ... I think that sometimes it doesn’t take a Harvard education to make a good choice’ (19 November 2009).
The educated elite has long served as the central class enemy in the conservative movements populist imaginary. In the 1950s and 1960s, conservative politicians like Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace railed against what they respectively called ‘twisted intellectuals’ and ‘pseudointellectuals’. Richard Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns appropriated and refined these themes, pitting the noble, country music—loving ‘silent majority’’ against a ‘new class’ of knowledge workers, media professionals, and professors.
The conservative animus towards educated elites is as strong today as it was then. According to a 2017 1’ew study, 58 percent of Republicans believe higher education is doing more harm than good to American society (Fingerhut 2017). In tune with the Republican base, conservative media figures like Newt Gingrich describe the liberal media as the ‘intellectual-yet-idiof class and, conservative talk radio giant Rush Limbaugh called the expert witnesses at Trump’s 2019 impeachment hearing ‘professional nerds’. Fox’s current top-rated show, Tucker Carlson Tonight, features a Campus Craziness segment, in which host Tucker Carlson takes on liberal professors and student activists to expose ‘the radical left’s’ takeover of America’s universities. This starts where Carlson’s scandalised 8:00 pm predecessor left off. One content study' of The O’Reilly Factor coded ‘academics’as one of Bill O’Reilly’s most frequently listed ‘villain’groups (Conway et al. 2007).
But direct diatribes against academics and intellectuals is only the most obvious way Fox programming seeks to align conservative policy positions with working-class ‘common sense’. What is more interesting and harder to grasp is the way Fox News pundits attempt to embody' a lay form of intellectualism I term the ‘popular intellect’ (Peck 2019: 146—151). Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has developed a set concepts such as the ‘popular gaze’ and ‘invested disposition’ to understand the underlying social logic of working-class culture. These concepts are useful for elucidating how Fox News hosts ventriloquise what they' imagine to be a working-class mode of news analysis. According to Bourdieu, the ‘popular gaze’ of the working class is more utilitarian, evaluating a cultural object or media image in ‘reference to the function it fulfils for the person who looks at it or which [such a person] thinks it could fulfil for other classes of beholders’ (1984: 42) and, with reference to this invested viewer, the assumed ‘interest [behind] the information it conveys’ (43).
Mimicking this analytical posture, Fox News hosts purport to cut through the flowery language of the politician and see past the pundit’s honorific title, getting to the heart of the matter by exposing who stands to gain or lose in each piece of news information. From this vantage point, providing specific evidence proving political corruption is not always necessary. It can be enough for hosts to simply suggest connections between political and media figures and express what they intuitively ‘know’ about their intentions. In the end, Chris Peters writes, ‘proof is held in [the Fox host’s] belief’ (2010: 842).
Yet only focusing on the evidentiary' inadequacies of Fox’s style misses what makes this ‘invested’ mode of news framing effective. In a media culture deemed minimally objective and maximally' political, the traditional anchor’s self-presentation of being uninvolved (i.e. ‘letting the facts speak for themselves’) comes across as insincere or, worse, purposely' deceptive. In such a context, the moral agnosticism of the formerly detached professional is less effective than the overtly ‘ethical’ (Bourdieu 1984: 44—50), emotional performance of the current Fox anchor who fights against ‘the powerful’ to ‘protect the folks’ and other innocent groups like ‘the kids and the elderly’ (The O’Reilly Factor, 10 July 2008). ‘[WJithin Fox’s populist public sphere model, the choice being offered is no longer between disinterested and interested journalism, but between different types of interested analysis’ (Peck 2019: 148). As a result, Fox’s top opinion hosts strive to demonstrate how ‘their news analyses are indeed biased — precisely' because they are invested in the interests of“the folks’” (151, emphasis in original).
While many liberals view Fox’s style as hokey, melodramatic, or just plain dumb, from a political communication standpoint, Fox’s populist analytical mode can be shrewdly effective. As cognitive linguist George Lakoff has long argued, within the workings of the political mind, moral reasoning trumps fact-based logic (2004). Moreover, all forms of journalism — partisan and non-partisan alike — rely on narrative structures that themselves carry embedded moral assumptions. It is the inner moral logic of the story form that gives the journalist using it ‘cultural authority’ (Edy 2006).
Fox producers have demonstrated an acute knowledge of which stories in American culture resonate and which do not, perceiving that US citizens tend to view class and race through non-empirical, normative schemas of social categorisation (Lamont 2000). Hence, Fox News pundits tend to devote more interpretive energy to performing their concern (or outrage) as opposed to their expertise. This allows them to dictate how the policy event will be morally framed as opposed to empirically supported.
During the Nixon era, the conservative movement used populist moral logics to racially stigmatise welfare and to repackage business-class-friendly policies as pro-worker. Fox has shifted the appeal yet again via the ‘American populist rhetorical tradition’ (Kazin 1998), in which one of the deepest reservoirs of moral themes about politics, wealth, and cultural status is used to re-present Republican partisans as ‘the real Americans’. Thus does Fox achieve what Antonio Gramsci long understood: that a ‘corporative’political faction can actually be discursively transformed into a commanding ‘hegemonic’ one (1996).