Emotional Support Politics
Exploring the role Fox News fills for its audience.
Way back in 2014, I wrote a piece on this website titled “Is Doug Heffernan in the Oval Office?” Barack Obama was our president at the time, and in case “Doug Heffernan” doesn’t a ring a bell, it was the name of character played by comedian Kevin James in the long-running sitcom, The King of Queens.
The character provided a good analogy for a pattern I (and many others) had noticed with the Obama administration — specifically in how the president himself responded to various federal controversies, identified by the press, that went down on his watch.
Whether it was Operation Fast and Furious, the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups, the DOJ’s seizing of journalists' phone records, the disastrous online rollout of Obamacare, denial-of-care issues with the Veterans Administration, or the unannounced Air Force One flyover of New York City (that caused concerns of another 9/11-style terrorist attack), President Obama’s initial public response was roughly the same: This is the first I’ve heard of it.
According to Obama, it was the press — not federal agencies or members of his administration — that brought these matters to his attention. This begged the question of exactly why no one had bothered giving the president a heads-up. After all, it wasn’t as if these issues or concerns hadn’t been identified internally.
I theorized an explanation, and that’s where Doug Heffernan came in:
Heffernan was a fun character because in many ways, he was an overgrown child. He was overly sensitive, he didn't take his responsibilities seriously, and he just didn't know how a lot of things in the real world worked. This often drove his wife Carrie nuts, and she suspected her husband was the way he was, in large part, because his mother used to coddle him as a child.
In a particularly memorable episode, Doug and Carrie went to visit Doug's parents for a few days. When they arrived at his mother and father's house, they were greeted at the door by a friendly dog named Rocky. Carrie thought the choice of names was interesting because "Rocky" was the name of the dog that Doug's family got when he was only 11 years old. Doug nonchalantly explained to her that it was the same dog.
This news obviously left Carrie aghast because Doug was in his 40s. That meant that the dog would have had to have been around the age of 30, which was impossible.
Carrie couldn't figure out what was more outrageous: The fact that Doug didn't recognize the absurdity of his childhood dog still being alive, or the fact that his parents were supporting the notion that it was indeed the same dog.
As it turned out, Doug's parents had replaced the original Rocky three times over the years with dogs of the same breed and color. Why? Doug's mother feared that her son just wouldn't be able to emotionally deal with the bad news of their family dog dying.
The word "coddled" apparently didn't even scratch the surface.
Now, I should make clear that my piece was written mostly tongue-in-cheek. I didn’t actually believe that Obama’s team felt their boss was so emotionally fragile that they couldn’t present him with bad news. In fact, I suspect Obama was aware of most (if not all) of these things ahead of time, and was just pleading ignorance. It allowed him some plausible deniability, and afforded him an opportunity to feign populist anger and righteousness as he vowed to get to the bottom of things.
I’ve been thinking about this analogy a lot lately, and not in a satirical sense. It seems to represent quite well why Fox News is in hot water right now with Dominion Voting Systems. The lawsuit the company filed against the network has led to the public airing of all kinds of embarrassing behind-the-scenes revelations about how Fox handled its 2020-election team’s correct call of Arizona for Joe Biden.
It’s clear that many Fox viewers couldn’t emotionally deal with the hard reality that Donald Trump had lost the election. The family dog had been killed, and as an inconsolable audience abandoned the network in droves for anyone who would tell them it was all a bad dream, Fox hosts and executives scrambled to rectify the situation by knowingly buoying the lie that Trump had been robbed of the presidency. The dog was still alive — it needed to be, or else the emotional wounds of Fox viewers would bleed out.
As for the adults in the room — those at the network who refused to play along with the ruse? They were the ones reprimanded, fired, or compelled to quit — treated by higher-ups as if they themselves had killed the dog, or perhaps more accurately the golden goose.
As far as the network was ultimately concerned, their shift to bloodletting and the nurturing of false hope (and b.s. narratives) seemed to work. They brought their audience back. Like Doug Heffernan, many Fox viewers remain in comfortable denial about the dog’s fate. This is despite details of the network’s deception being aired for all to see, along with Fox’s ideas for pacifying their audience in the future, if a similar family crisis strikes.
The approach they took illustrates not only how the network handled this particular situation, but also how it deals with other damaging realities many of its viewers aren’t emotionally equipped to confront. We were reminded of that just a few days ago when Tucker Carlson again disingenuously framed the Jan. 6 attack as “orderly and meek”, with all but a few of its participants barely distinguishable from “sightseers.”
The truth that Trump supporters violently stormed our nation’s Capitol to stop a constitutional process, because our then-president had convinced them that American democracy had been overturned, is just too emotionally strenuous for many Fox viewers to ever accept. So, they eagerly gravitate toward any alternate narrative (and whoever provides it) — even when it conflicts with other preferred narratives.
Fox gets this, and it’s a big part of their business model these days. And for that reason, I don’t think things are going to change at the network, regardless of what happens with the Dominion lawsuit.