Skip to main content

A group of men sit at the bar while U.S. President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural address on the televisions behind the bar, at Ferg's Sports Bar, Jan. 20, 2021 in St. Petersburg, Fla.Martha Asencio Rhine/Tampa Bay Times via AP

Of all the tired old songs celebrating toxic male vanity, he had to choose this one. Of course he did. As the Air Force One plane departed on Wednesday morning for Florida, it left as My Way, sung by Frank Sinatra, blared on loudspeakers on the airfield. On CNN, there were chuckles. They couldn’t help themselves; what a cheesy way to leave.

The song, adapted by Canadian Paul Anka from a French hit, Comme d’habitude, and made famous by Mr. Sinatra, is the essence of delusional male bombast. A few years ago, a writer for GQ devoted much space to analyzing its appeal and concluded, “It is a song that celebrates being a dirtbag.”

Yes, they were laughing on CNN, and you could hardly blame them. Their chuckles captured the sense of farce that surrounded the Trump-departure portion of the day on TV.

Binge-watching guide: More than 30 series and specials to help you get through winter

But on Fox News, you didn’t hear the music. You heard pundits nattering. Donald Trump’s departure came during Fox & Friends, the partisan morning chat show that was once Mr. Trump’s favourite and often guided his attitude and indeed policies for the day. On Wednesday morning, it was like a medley of old Trump and Fox News hits: a caravan of illegal immigrants is forming, athletes kneeling during the anthem is terrible and First Amendment rights are in danger.

It was tedious TV. And you were surprised that the term “Crooked Hillary” didn’t make a return. There was a lot of time to fill as the cameras – and only a handful of attendant media – waited and waited for Mr. Trump to leave the White House. The crowd of supporters at Joint Base Andrews looked small, and on Fox News the cameras never pulled back to show its actual size.

“God bless President Trump,” sighed a Fox anchor as the plane finally got airborne. And one got the sense that it is finally sinking in at Fox News – Fox & Friends, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and others there, will never have the same heft, the same influence over an administration. It was startling to realize that such people probably had more influence on the U.S. response to COVID-19 than Dr. Anthony Fauci. Those days are over now.

Still, there’s the Fox News urge to act as spoiler on a historic day when Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th U.S. president. As time passed and the dignitaries gathered at the Capitol building, anchor Dana Perino was busy peddling the line that the incoming Biden administration is “Obama’s third term.” What was truly striking about Fox coverage was zero mention of the mob violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

On CNN, Jake Tapper wasn’t letting go of that insurrection. When the camera showed outgoing vice-president Mike Pence, Mr. Tapper said, “Pence was part of the problem; even he got religion since then.” That was snark and a reminder that bitterness abounds and surrounded this inauguration day.

Occasionally, on all the all-news channels and networks, the viewer got a true sense of the weirdness – the cameras briefly lingering on the thousands of armed figures present on streets empty of citizens.

As the inauguration ceremonies began to unfold, it was like seeing TV coverage switched from grainy black-and-white to full-blown colour. If the early morning situation was like a visual funeral hymn shot through with farce, the actual inauguration was like a jamboree. Wolf Blitzer sounded like a teenager when he announced that, upcoming, there would be “truly excellent musical entertainment.”

He was right. Lady Gaga’s rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner soared and in her strange grandeur there was something embodied – rejection of the past four years. Jennifer Lopez was much less impressive in her medley of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land and America The Beautiful. But it was the general tone and the speeches that were meaningful. Senator Amy Klobuchar was a sort-of MC for the event, all pep, smiles and enthusiasm. She beamed often, and everyone beamed as America’s youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, recited a composition perfect for the occasion.

Mr. Biden’s speech, direct, forthright and solidly delivered, was so impressive that Chris Wallace, the last honest person at Fox News, was thrilled. Mr. Wallace said, “I thought this was the best inaugural address I have ever heard.”

And he declared: “There’s one other thing he said that I think especially us in the media must note. He said that there is truth and there are lies; lies that are told for power and lies that are told for profit. I think it was a call to all of us, whether it’s us on the air, on cable or broadcast, whether it’s us on social media, on our Twitter accounts, understanding that we have to deal from facts, from the truth, to hear each other out, a right to disagree, but not a right to violence.”

That idea of civility, even cordiality, in U.S. politics will take a long time to take root at Fox News, if it ever does. Still, for a day, sourness was smothered by optimism. Mr. Trump would say he’s an expert at the optics, but optimism always beats cheesy optics.

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.