Juan Williams, the lone liberal co-host on Fox News chat show The Five, had a question.
Like people across the country after Donald Trump’s rally in Tampa, Florida, on Tuesday, he wanted to know what was going on with all the Trump supporters holding up “QAnon” signs and wearing “Q” shirts.
But on Fox News, talking about QAnon—the bizarre conspiracy theory catching on with Trump’s base—is always a tricky subject.
“Why are these people attracted to Trump?” Williams said.
“You get fringe people, because you have a wide net. That happens everywhere,” co-host Greg Gutfeld shot back. “You want to smear an entire group of people.”
Then co-host Dana Perino stepped in and quickly changed the subject.
QAnon believers finally brought their long-bubbling conspiracy theory to mainstream attention at the Tuesday rally, sending MSNBC, CNN, and major newspapers scrambling for explainers on the mega-conspiracy theory. QAnon is based on a series of cryptic clues made by the anonymous figure called “Q” on the 4Chan and 8Chan forums since October 2017, supposedly positing a hidden world in which Trump and allies in the military are in a battle against a global cabal.
But QAnon has proven to be a harder thing for right-wing outlets to cover. They’re stuck trying to avoid alienating their supporters, while also trying to avoid the kind of advertiser meltdown Fox News faced after Sean Hannity promoted the conspiracy theory about murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. While mainstream media outlets go big on the bizarre theory, right-wing websites have either mentioned QAnon by accusing liberals of promoting it, as the Daily Caller did, or opted to run wire stories instead.
QAnon supporters have been enthralled by the narrative, and they’ve also been eager to find validation for it in their favorite right-wing media.
Talk radio shows, which rely on calls from listeners, are especially vulnerable to rogue mentions of QAnon. In February, for example, a Rush Limbaugh caller asked Limbaugh if he had heard of QAnon.
“Do a Google search on QAnon, it’s amazing, Rush, what’s going on in the dark web,” the caller said. “Military intelligence is coming out. QAnon is all…”
Before he could finish, though, Limbaugh quickly cut him off and ended the call, warning: “You’ve gotta be careful of this stuff.”
QAnon believers have become convinced that Trump is willing to confirm that Q is real, if only a reporter would ask him. In July, they started to deluge White House reporters, including many for conservative outlets, with requests that someone ask about QAnon. When Daily Caller reporter Saagar Enjeti tweeted that he wouldn’t ask about QAnon at a press conference, he was quickly besieged with even more criticism from QAnon believers.
Still, it’s difficult to satisfy QAnon believers. Someone finally mentioned QAnon in the briefing room on Wednesday when Newsmax reporter John Gizzi asked White House Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about Trump’s reaction to QAnon. But after Sanders essentially brushed the question off, QAnon supporters decided that Trump himself, not a White House staffer, had to face the question for the truth to be revealed.
In a way, the best-placed right-wing outlets to deal with QAnon now are the ones most on the fringe.
Alex Jones and his InfoWars conspiracy hub were initially friendly with the QAnon community, with InfoWars personality Jerome Corsi regularly sitting for hours-long dissections of QAnon clues. But when Q denounced outlets looking to make a profit from the clues, InfoWars rapidly turned on QAnon’s followers. In the climactic falling out, Jones declared that a QAnon-supported vigilante effort in Arizona was actually a deep-state “honey pot.”
While Fox News' pointed avoidance of the growing conspiracy theory may come off as awkward, it’s earned praise from one corner: the anonymous poster behind QAnon. As the number of media mentions for QAnon surged after the Tuesday rally, Q pointed out in an anonymous post that Fox News had stayed silent, praising the move as “logical thinking.”