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David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic.
As a media critic rather than an investigator of alleged sex crimes, let me tell what I think is important to know about U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Republican from Florida who finds himself at the center of scandal that gets weirder each time he opens his mouth.
This is the part of the story that has almost nothing to do with a reported federal investigation of his involvement in the alleged sex trafficking of a minor, and everything to do with the way the marriage between Fox News and the right wing of the Republican Party has not only changed Congress but debased the political conversation of American life.
Gaetz only arrived on Capitol Hill in 2017, but he understood better than most that you don’t gain prominence in Congress anymore by diligently working your way up the ladder of committee assignments, serving your constituents or doing your homework to make sure you always cast an informed vote — the kinds of things that teach collaboration, compromise and consensus.
No, during the last decade or so, the way to the top for Republican politicians has been to get on Fox News and come out guns blazing against Democrats like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi or Rep. Adam Schiff of California. Call them radicals, socialists, communists, whatever it takes to prove your far-right bona fides. Rather than teaching consensus, this teaches tribalism and rewards extreme, inflammatory rhetoric and political warfare.
In an OpEd piece in the Washington Examiner Monday, Gaetz described himself as a gladiator, saying, “Although I am sure some partisan crooks in Merrick Garland’s Justice Department want to pervert the truth and the law and go after me, I will not be intimidated or extorted.” That’s the kind of rhetoric I am talking about.
John Boehner, Republican speaker of the House from 2011 to 2015, shared an anecdote in a “Politico” essay last week adapted from his forthcoming book “On the House,” which illustrates the power of Fox in the world of Republican politics.
Boehner writes that late in 2010 Michele Bachmann, a far-right, TV-savvy Republican member of Congress from Minnesota, came to him and said she wanted to be on the House Ways and Means Committee, the institution’s most prestigious panel. She had neither the background nor the tenure for such a post, and giving it to her would have meant promoting her ahead of others with far more seniority, according to Boehner.
So, he told her in what he thought was a nice way that it wasn’t going to happen.
“Her response to me was calm and matter-of-fact,” Boehner wrote.
“Well, then I’ll just have to go talk to Sean Hannity and everybody at Fox,” Boehner recalled her as saying. “And Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin and everybody else on the radio, and tell them that this is how John Boehner is treating the people who made it possible for the Republicans to take back the House.”
Describing Bachmann as one of the “first prototypes” of a “fringe character” made into a star in the “Fox laboratory,” Boehner said she was telling him that he wasn’t the one with power; that was through her relationship with right-wing media.
“She was right, of course,” he wrote.
Fox was conceived by founder Roger Ailes in 1996 as a political tool, rather than a journalistic entity. It has operated that way since, but it was more a forum for conservative ideas and promoter of GOP agendas than the place where political leadership of the right was determined. It is now the backroom where right-wing careers are made and unmade, and leadership of the party is determined. No media outlet with the word “news” in its title should play such a political role.
The irony in the case of Gaetz is that after being elevated by Fox the past four years, it looks like he might now be on the outs. Gaetz appeared on Fox News 18 times in March. He has averaged 87 minutes of airtime a month during the last year, according to The Washington Post’s count.
But that kind of access ended in the wake of an interview on March 30 with Fox host Tucker Carlson about the allegations, an interview Carlson told viewers was “one of the weirdest” he had ever conducted. Worse for Gaetz, after he suggested last week that he might leave Congress for a job in cable news and was talking to Fox about that, a network spokesman told Mediaite, “No one with any level of authority has had conversations with Matt Gaetz for any of our platforms and we have no interest in hiring him.” Not much wiggle room there.
As I said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Sunday, if Gaetz is dead to Fox, he’s dead politically.