Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.
The United States may be on the brink of frightening conflict in East Asia. SinceÂ The Washington PostÂ reported earlier this week that a U.S. intelligence agency believes North Korea possesses miniaturized nuclear warheads that can fit inside its missiles, President Donald Trump and the North Korean government haveÂ tradedÂ threats. It is in theÂ interest of neither countryÂ to start a conflict that couldÂ quickly engulf the regionÂ and threaten the lives of tens of millions of people. But Trump hasÂ immense unilateral authorityÂ to dramatically escalate the situation — including through the use of nuclear weapons — and he is known for makingÂ snap decisionsÂ without fully consulting experts or his staff. And the biggest influence on his thinking may not be our diplomats or generals, but rather the hosts, producers, and bookers of the Fox News morning showÂ Fox & Friends, who seem largely content to confirm the presidentâs biases and promote his worst impulses.
Trump isÂ obsessedÂ withÂ Fox & Friends,Â regularly watchingÂ the program, tweetingÂ along with it, andÂ praisingitsÂ hosts. That givesÂ Fox & FriendsÂ incredible power, and the showâs hosts use it, apparently tailoring the show to the most powerful cable news viewer in the world. According to a VoxÂ study, hosts Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade and their guests âincreasingly view their role as giving advice to the president.â
That âadviceâ is all the more important with the nation careening toward a flashpoint. The presidentÂ apparentlywatchedÂ Fox & FriendsÂ the last twoÂ mornings, as the North Korea situation became more serious. What he saw was the programâs hosts and guests repeatedly assuring him that he was doing everything right, and that his critics were not only wrong, but partisans who are undermining the country.
Much of theÂ Fox & FriendsÂ discussion has revolved around TrumpâsÂ ill-advised,Â improvisedÂ warning on Tuesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will face âfire and fury like the world has never seenâ if he continues to threaten the U.S. Democrats and Republicans alikeÂ criticizedÂ the statement, as didÂ analysts and expertsÂ from the U.S. andÂ across the region, with many interpreting TrumpâsÂ remarksÂ asÂ threateningÂ aÂ nuclear strike.
But onÂ Fox & Friends, Trumpâs statement wasÂ viewedÂ as âright on target,â in the words of Kilmeade. The president had been âmeasured,âÂ accordingÂ to Earhardt: âHe thought about what he was going to say before because he repeated it twice.â âKeep in mind the president’s point was North Korea’s threats are intolerable,â DoocyÂ saidÂ this morning. âAlso, at the same time, while he was talking about fire and fury, he did not set any red lines. Was he hyperbolic? Sure. But we know that this president has been hyperbolic in the past.â
The hosts played into Trumpâs own natural inclination, portraying all of his critics asÂ enemies of the presidentÂ — “Liberal Media Slams President’s Rhetoric” and “Media Blasts President’s ‘Fire And Fury’ Message” were two chyrons that appeared on todayâs show — who just want to tear him down andÂ would preferÂ the U.S. make no response at all to Kim. They warned that the critics were not just wrong but were endangering America. North Koreans âsee the Democrats ridiculing the president, and they think the president shouldnât be taken seriously, which is dangerous,â KilmeadeÂ commentedÂ today.
This behavior is fairly typical for the program, whichÂ constantlyÂ supportsÂ everything TrumpÂ doesÂ and is quick to lash out at his perceived foes. But thereâs a real danger in Trumpâs rhetoric; as Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory,Â put it, Trumpâs statements only âexacerbateâ concerns of potentially âstumbling into an inadvertent nuclear war on the Korean peninsula.â By sending Trump the message that heâs making the right decision and his critics are acting in bad faith,Â Fox & FriendsÂ is increasing the possibility that Trump repeats his behavior, with potentially dire consequences.
Given the unsettling power of the show and the gravity of the moment, I find myself grasping at straws, straining to read the program in a way that could lead the president to avoid the worst. At times, the programâs guests have pointed out that itâsÂ unlikely Kim would attack usÂ because he knows our retaliation would bring down his regime, and that a U.S. offensive against North Korea would have aÂ seriousÂ âcollateral effect.â The showÂ featured a pastorÂ who says the Bible gives Trump the authority to attack North Korea, but at least itÂ put him up againstÂ a priest who urged restraint rather than endorsing the sentiment outright. Even Doocy hasÂ pointed outthat the danger from North Korea may not be that extreme because of the instability of its missiles.
On the other hand, over the last two days the showâs hosts have also:Â casually discussedÂ deploying U.S. nuclear missiles to South Korea;Â saidÂ of Kim, “This guy is crazy. We have got to prevent him from killing all of usâ; andÂ claimedÂ that if the U.S. strikes North Korea from Guam, it doesn’t need to ask South Korea or Japan for permission. âWhat is scary is how quickly [a North Korean nuke] could make it to you, to me, to your family. Look at this map — we’re going to show you,â EarhardtÂ said yesterday, before explaining how long it would take for an intercontinental ballistic missile to strike New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Hawaii.
This is the crack team that has the ear of the president. We are all in a lot of trouble.
Header image byÂ Sarah Wasko / Media Matters