One summer day several years after the 2016 election, I introduced myself to a store manager in rural New York State, someone I wanted to interview in this heavily Republican district dotted with pro-Trump signs. After I identified myself as a writer for The Washington Post, he responded with a grin and what he probably thought was a devilishly clever quip, “So, fake news, right?” I didn’t find it funny, but I eked out a weak smile and got him to talk to me.

How had it happened that a reference to one of America’s most prestigious news outlets would bring such a disparaging response? It was far from unusual in my experience. The distrust of the mainstream press seems to get worse every day.

Like so many institutions – business, education, the police – the American news media is far less trusted than it used to be. In 2021, a global study by the Reuters Institute put Americans’ trust in the media at a rock-bottom 29 percent, the lowest of any of the 46 countries surveyed. What on earth happened to the United States as a beacon of free expression and democracy?

The country was splintering. You could no longer depend on your neighbors functioning from the same set of facts as you were. There were many factors at play, but none more glaring than cable TV networks, especially Rupert Murdoch’s hyperpartisan Fox News, which stoked its viewers’ outrage, night after night. Local newspapers, although relatively well trusted in their communities, were going out of business or were bought by private-equity companies that cut their newsroom staffs to the bone.

Opinions, not facts, were what the internet thrived on. Facebook alone was well on its way to being one of the chief enemies of democracy, as its algorithms favored the crazily false over the verifiably factual. People’s news feeds were inundated with various posts from organisations and people passing along supposed “news” that was at best skewed and at worse just outright false. In the 2016 election, Facebook became a pawn in Russia’s disinformation campaign in the United States; no problem, as long as profits kept soaring.

If I had to answer in two words the question of how we got here, they would come easily enough. Not “Donald Trump,” though those might garner second place. The words would be “Fox News.” From my observation, there’s been no greater influence, and it is a terribly negative one, on America’s ability to tell truth from lies, or even to care about the difference.

The network is not the only culprit but, because of its wide influence and the number of Americans who see it as their primary, if not sole, news source, it’s definitely in first place. In 2019, the great investigative reporter Jane Mayer wrote a stunning eleven-thousand-word piece in The New Yorker called “The Making of the Fox News White House.” Through deep reporting, Mayer explored the symbiotic closeness between Donald Trump and the conservative cable network, and strongly suggested that Fox had moved beyond mere partisanship to straight-out propaganda. It had become something close to state television. Her investigation was masterfully done, and it resonated widely.

Everyone knew, of course, how much Trump had benefitted from the conservative network’s support, but this piece nailed down how it had happened and what effect Fox was having on American society. Within days Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez announced that Fox News would no longer be considered as one of the hosts of the upcoming Democratic primary debates.

That decision set off right-wing howls of censorship, though it struck me as a reasonable business decision based on the latest information. Why play ball with your mortal enemy? When I read Mayer’s article, I was already well versed in Fox’s methods. I had been the media columnist for The Washington Post for nearly three years, and Trump had been the president for almost all of this period. I had written many columns about the network. I was harshly critical of how it had misled its viewers about the death of Seth Rich, a 27-year-old staffer for the Democratic National Committee, who in the summer of 2016 was fatally shot in the back on a Washington street. Based on some dubious reporting from his own network, Fox’s prime-time star Sean Hannity relentlessly spun the notion that this might well be an inside job by the DNC – retribution by Hillary Clinton’s camp for Rich’s supposed sharing of emails with WikiLeaks. In other words, Hannity came close to suggesting that Hillary or her people had ordered Seth Rich killed. This conspiracy-mongering was nonsense, and it was cruel to Rich’s family, who first protested the coverage and then filed suit against the network.

Meanwhile, the police had concluded Rich probably was the victim of a robbery gone sideways. As a columnist, I had many other occasions to look askance at Fox’s coverage and commentary. The network tried to present itself as “fair and balanced,” but it often was nothing of the sort, and never intended to be. Fox was founded to fulfill its founders’ vision to make oodles of profit by fostering conservative outrage, as addictively as possible.

Impressed by the scope and detail of Jane Mayer’s reporting, I decided to take my writing a step further. I thought it was important to build on Mayer’s work and raise awareness about how Fox News functioned, almost as an arm of the Trump administration. So I took a big swing in a column titled “It’s Time – High Time – to Take Fox News’s Destructive Role in America Seriously.” Everyone ought to see Fox for what it is, I wrote. It shouldn’t be treated as a normal news organisation with mistakes, flaws, and commercial concerns that may get in the way of serving the public interest. It was something quite different: a shameless propaganda outfit, making billions each year even as it attacks core democratic values such as tolerance, truth, and fair elections. In addition to serving as a megaphone for the right, I noted, Fox rarely corrected or acknowledged its own errors, which is one hallmark of legitimate news organisations. (It did retract the Seth Rich reporting, but it took Hannity too long to stop his on-air disinformation campaign; the family’s suit resulted in a settlement.)

I pointed out that Fox doesn’t have the kind of ethics and standards department that most networks have, and it certainly doesn’t make its news standards public, as many outlets do. However, since the network enjoys First Amendment protections for the most part, it can broadcast what it wants, no matter how many falsehoods are spread as a result. I noted that there were some legitimate news people at Fox, including Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, and Shepard Smith. (Smith later left the network; he told Christiane Amanpour that he couldn’t countenance staying any longer because of all the lies disseminated on the Fox opinion shows. By late 2021, Wallace had left the network, too, headed for CNN’s new streaming service.)

I concluded with this line: “Despite the skills of a few journalists who should have long ago left the network in protest, Fox News has become an American plague.” I was certainly pushing the limits of my role as a news-side columnist providing “perspective,” as my column was labeled, but I heard no complaints from the Post brass. I was confident that Marty Baron – while he didn’t always agree with me – supported my right to call things as I saw them.

The “Fox is an American plague” column went viral. It sped to the top of the most-read stories on the Post site that day and stayed there for a long time, attracting hundreds of thousands of readers. It found thousands more on social media.

More than 5,000 commenters added their thoughts on the Post site. One of them expressed the core problem well, and with considerable reserve: “It is a relief to see this brought out into the light of day, as I truly believe Fox ‘News’ to be a key force in undermining the fabric of our society, and a grave threat to our well-being. But in a nation that cherishes free speech, rightfully, the most effective response to such a scourge remains elusive.” One of my editors, David Malitz, would later refer to this piece as my “Fox-is-the-actual-devil column.”

If I’d had few friends at Fox before, I had none now. Even before this I knew that anything I wrote about the network would be picked apart by its aggressive public relations staff, searching for any mistake, no matter how inconsequential, that they could bring to my editors’ attention. I had the sense that they were hoping to embarrass me by getting a correction appended to my column and that this kind of potential misery might give me pause before writing another such piece. I did write about Fox again and again, always trying to make my columns especially bulletproof.

All of this was uncomfortable. I was used to criticism, but the tone and level of vitriol had reached new highs, as I received nasty responses from right-wing readers who threatened and insulted me by email and voicemail. The security staff at the Post tried to determine if the writers were just nasty or whether they might actually be dangerous. Often these messages contained the worst kind of profanity and misogyny.

Even the relatively mild missives began to disturb my peace of mind because they arrived in such volume. “It sickens me that people like you post lies and deception to the public,” wrote one Post reader to me. “This article has no right to be printed to the public. You are what is wrong with this country. Shame on you!” Despite the downside, I didn’t think I should stop. I knew all too well that Fox was doing harm, and, I figured, what was the point of having my bully pulpit as Post media columnist if I didn’t try to bring such things to light?

Excerpted with permission from Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life, Margaret Sullivan, Pan Macmillan.