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Fox News's Strategy for Dealing With the Christie Scandal: Ignore, Deflect, Defend

You'd never know Christie had a rough time up there yesterday by watching Fox News; you'd never know Christie was in trouble at all, really. That's because Fox News has spent the past 36 hours going through its own stages of grief as a response to this major PR crisis for one of its favorite sons.
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There were a lot of tweets fired off and articles written yesterday morning noting how it seemed during his nearly two-hour news conference like Chris Christie was going through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. At one point Christie himself even alluded to a process, saying that his feelings about the scandal swirling around him hadn't yet reached the "angry stage." There's little doubt that Christie's in a world of shit, and while there's an argument to be made that he handled himself about as well as could be expected yesterday considering the circumstances, the reaction to his performance has been at best skeptical and at worst highly critical. And this is just the beginning of Christie's hike into the political wasteland.

But here's the thing: You'd never know Christie had a rough time up there yesterday by watching Fox News; you'd never know Christie was in trouble at all, really. That's because Fox News has spent the past 48 hours going through its own stages of grief as a response to this major PR crisis for one of its favorite sons. It began Wednesday with a near-total blackout of the story that dominated coverage on the other two major cable news networks, ran as a front-page item in the New York Times, and was generally and objectively the biggest story of the day. Fox News's first mention of the release of e-mails incriminating the Christie administration in shutting down part of the George Washington Bridge didn't come until 3:07PM, on Shepard Smith's show. Shep's report? It lasted just a little over a minute and ended with him saying one of the most stupefying and embarrassing things I've heard from a cable news host or reporter in my entire career. To close, he told the Fox News audience that the e-mails were "available out there -- if you want to Google them, you can."

Imagine for a moment if every time you turned on the news looking for information, the anchor looked into the camera at you and said, "Fuck it, just Google it." Granted, there's the possibility that Shep knew his audience had no desire to hear the contents of e-mails damning a Republican darling, but it's still an unconscionable dereliction of duty. More than anything Fox News did in the wake of that moment, Shep's editing of the story -- as opposed to simply ignoring it outright -- proved that Fox News is less a real news organization than it is an outlet for carefully crafted conservative propaganda. I realize this revelation isn't a revelation at all and should barely raise an eyebrow, but given that he's the lone bright spot at Fox -- as well as someone who prides himself on being not simply a true newsperson but a guy with the balls and clout to not fall in line with the talking points from management -- it stands out as especially offensive coming from Shep.

The rest of the day at Fox News brought more of the same. At 6:12PM Bret Baier spent all of 30 seconds recapping the story, saying that Christie "called the action unacceptable and said people will be held responsible." At 9:17PM, Megyn Kelly ran down the basics of the story for two minutes then discussed it with a editor and a Democratic pollster for a few minutes afterward.

And that was it -- that was all the coverage the story got on Wednesday.

By the time yesterday morning rolled around it felt like the troops had finally gotten their official marching orders from the top after a day of not knowing what the hell to say, because a prevailing narrative began to coalesce. The "ignore," stage was done and it was time to move on to the "deflect" stage. Yesterday morning, Steve Doocy, who's always reveled in his role as one of Roger Ailes's most faithful on-air lapdogs and unquestioning talking points delivery systems, lamented the amount of coverage the "bridge thing" was getting from other news outlets. He wondered aloud why more networks weren't concentrating on the really important news of the day: former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's new book, which claims that President Obama didn't believe in the strategy of a troop surge in Afghanistan that he authorized early in his presidency because he was far more interested in bringing all troops home. This, to Fox, is big news. An outrage. Unsurprisingly.

Once Christie took the podium in Trenton and addressed reporters, confronting the mess he was in 24 hours after the incriminating e-mails went public but months after the first rumblings of the scandal began and weeks after he'd snidely dismissed it as ludicrous, the Fox News machine had its next narrative that could begin running concurrently with deflection: defense. Over and over again throughout the day, Fox News talking heads attempted to compare Christie's response to that of Obama's in the wake of the entirely manufactured Banghazi "scandal" and the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Gretchen Carlson used the classic diversionary tactic of asking a question that she claimed was just being floated out there by "some people" but which almost surely came directly from the Fox News brain trust. (Not that you need to be told at this point, but a good rule of thumb: When a Fox News host says that "some people" are making a statement or asking a question which may cast Democrats or liberals in a bad light, the people he or she is referring to just finished conducting the most recent editorial meeting in the conference room.)

Here's how she phrased a question to guest Democratic pollster Bernard Whitman:

"Let's just look at the press conference today. Did it depict a different leadership style in your mind between the way in which Governor Chris Christie handled the crisis, and the way in which President Obama has, what some people believe, not handled, not fired anybody for the debacle of Obamacare?"

Some people. Right.

This morphed into The Five hailing Christie's performance earlier in the day as "ballsy," O'Reilly and guest Laura Ingraham incredulously figuring there's no way he'd be stupid enough to be involved in this, and Hannity physically applauding Christie and saying that he has "moral courage" for confronting the scandal (as if he has any other choice).

There will be more of this to come, that much you can be sure of. Chris Christie isn't simply a high-powered, high-profile Republican -- which in and of itself would afford him privileged status at Fox News -- he's been Roger Ailes's hand-picked favorite for a few years now and the man he most wanted to use his considerable media power to put into the White House. Ailes sees Christie as the next true Republican superhero on a national scale and certainly the party's biggest star. As with everything when it comes to Fox News, politics and political machinations play a major role both in front of the camera and behind the scenes in the decision-making.

Again, none of this is anything you don't already know. Fox News isn't news -- it's propaganda, pure and simple. And never is that more obvious than when a story like this one comes along.