“You know, the customer’s always right.”
Rep. James Comer gave this juicy quote to Jonathan Swan and Luke Broadwater for their New York Times profile of the Kentucky Republican. He was explaining his affection for right-wing conspiracy theories. The “customer[s]” in this case, as Swan and Broadwater write, are the “vengeful, hard-right voters” who “propelled Comer to stardom” in the GOP.
It’s quite an admission from the newly crowned chair of the House Oversight Committee. When asked why he is so intent on using his powers, as Swan and Broadwater write, “to investigate unhinged claims about President Biden and Democrats,” Comer could have played political word games, pretending either to take these conspiracy theories more seriously than he actually does. He could have feigned outrage at the suggestion that his motives are anything less than honorable. Instead, Comer seems unconcerned to be seen, to the readers of the New York Times anyway, as a huckster for disinformation scraped out of the darkest corners of the internet.
“They don’t know that it’s QAnon,” he even told Swan and Broadwater, “but it’s QAnon stuff.”
Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.
Comer’s audacity is especially surprising in light of the ongoing Fox News scandal, stemming from court documents filed by Dominion Voting Systems, which is suing the network for defamation. The filings included a staggering number of text messages and emails from Fox hosts and executives, revealing that they knowingly spread Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, repeatedly amplifying and validating false claims that President Joe Biden stole his victory.
But what is perhaps most interesting about the texts is how the Fox leadership echoes the “customer is always right” rationale that Comer uses to justify his devotion to elevating evidence-free accusations against Democrats. Throughout the texts, Fox News leaders express fear that the “network is being rejected” for not playing along with the Big Lie. Amplifying election conspiracy theories, they told themselves, is “letting the viewers know we hear them and respect them.”
As Adam Serwer at the Atlantic wrote, “Fox News executives and personalities understand that their own network loses traction with its audience when it fails to tell the lies that the audience wishes to hear.” The customer, as Comer said, is always right — even when they are utterly wrong.
On Tuesday, a new wrinkle was added to the ongoing Fox News scandal, after Fox News producer Abby Grossberg filed two lawsuits against her employer, claiming they had coerced her “to deliver shaded and/or incomplete answers during her sworn deposition testimony.” Grossman alleges that the company’s culture of misogyny led them to set up female employees, including herself, as the fall guys in the Dominion lawsuit.
“Her allegations in connection with the Dominion case are baseless,” Fox News said in a statement to Salon, claiming her accusations were made “following a critical performance review.” Grossman’s allegations echo a long and public record of similar stories of sexual harassment and abuse at Fox News, which reportedly has cost the company over $200 million over the years dealing with the legal fallout.
The pair of lawsuits add to the larger question that has been raised by the Fox News fiasco: Will this impact the network’s popularity with Republican voters? It’s been widely believed, especially in liberal circles, that if Fox viewers learn the sordid details, they will be turned off from the network.
New polling data from Variety, however, suggests that those hopes may be misplaced.
Only one in five Fox News viewers reported being rattled by the news that their favorite on-air personalities knowingly lie to them and speak of them with contempt. The data also suggests even this slight spike in distrust of the network is temporary at best, as “only 9% of Fox News viewers say they aren’t watching the network as much as they used to.” Even those few people may be exaggerating their tuning-out to the pollsters. Fox News told Variety that “viewership levels had not been impacted.”
The viewership numbers are backed up by more objective sources. Fox News not only remains the most popular cable news network by healthy margins, but there appears to be no meaningful drop-off in viewer share since the Dominion filings became big news. On the contrary, Tucker Carlson has seen ratings for his show soar at times in the past month. Disinformation continues to be a big winner for Carlson, who saw a ratings spike for an episode he did in which he falsely portrayed the January 6 insurrection as non-violent, while insinuating the rioters were justified in their claims that Biden stole the election.
These numbers provide a substantive, if chilling, context to Comer’s claim that “the customer’s always right.” His perception is that what the GOP voting base wants is conspiracy theories. That’s especially true of those who are most enthusiastic about organizing and donating. More importantly, those voters don’t care if the stories they’re told are false. As the Variety polling shows, even when presented with irrefutable evidence that Fox News knowingly lies to them, the vast majority of Fox viewers don’t waver in their support of the network.
As Serwer notes, the Dominion lawsuit has revealed there is “a strong demand for falsehoods,” exacerbated by a social media environment that alllows “individual hustlers to amass an audience of sycophants by feeding them conspiracies.”
Nor is the problem limited to the media enviroment where cynical liars like Alex Jones or Tucker Carlson can become wealthy by pandering to audiences who don’t care about the truth. As the Comer profile in the New York Times shows, this same disdain for the truth helps politicians become swiftly rising stars in the Republican party. Unsurprisingly, as Steve Benen at MSNBC documented, Comer spends a truly astonishing amount of time with Fox News, clocking in eleven on-air appearances in the course of 8 days. Comer spent most of that time “peddling thoroughly discredited claims related to Hunter Biden.”
In light of all this, it’s less surprising that Comer was willing to be honest about his dishonesty to New York Times reporters. He has every reason to believe that Republican voters don’t have a problem with lying and spreading conspiracy theories. As the Fox News texts show, the concern is actually the opposite: That GOP voters will punish any leaders perceived to be hamstrung with moral concerns about lying.
To become a well-liked and popular figure in the Republican Party in this day and age, it’s important not just to be cavalier with the truth, but downright hostile to it.