“The President’s world view is being specifically shaped by what he sees on Fox News, but Fox’s goals are ratings and money, which they get by maximizing rage. It’s not a message that is going to serve the rest of the country.” – Matt Gertz – Media Matters 
The unprecedented collaboration between Fox News and the Trump Administration highlights a potential vulnerability of American democracy: informal capture of legally independent, polarizing media organizations by prospective stealth authoritarian or populist leaders. While the U.S. news media operate in an environment of strong constitutional protections from state interference, narrow libel laws, and minimal state-funded competition, a leading media organization can still pursue a strategy of polarization. This practice, while economically rational, contributes to social cleavages and a decline in mutual toleration, among other basic democratic values. McCoy et al. summarize polarization tactics as those that emphasize an “‘Us’ versus ‘Them” rhetoric and ultimately make “compromise, consensus, interaction, and tolerance increasingly costly” for those on opposing sides of the political spectrum . Polarization may be profitable for an individual media outlet, but it tends to burden the broader democracy in question with gridlock, tyranny by the majority, and even total democratic collapse. This polarization can even encourage the “colonization” of such a media outlet by a stealth authoritarian or populist leader, deepening a mutual dependency and eroding public trust in an independent, vigorous press.
In her influential piece analyzing the relationship between the White House and the Fox News Corporation, New Yorker reporter-at-large Jane Mayer details a vivid example of this informal influence. Whereas Russian president Vladimir Putin “acquired or reasserted state ownership of key parts of the media sector,” President Trump assumed influence over Fox News through non-coercive polarization tactics. While methods differ, both leaders arguably fit into what Gehlbach refers to as the “autocratic mainstream,” those leaders “willing to do what it takes to hold onto power but not interested in fundamentally changing society.” For such a leader, “complete control of the media is unnecessary.”  Instead, Putin was content merely controlling the 3 networks that “provide most Russians with news about their country,” much like Trump is content focusing on influencing the one network overwhelmingly watched by his voter base. Total media ownership is not a prerequisite for Putin’s aggrandizement, and the centralization of right-wing media in the U.S. explains why Trump’s bar was lower to begin with. Despite Putin’s incomplete censorship, he nonetheless was able to “seize the commanding heights of the media.” Whether through the appointment of former Fox News co-president Bill Shine to a White House position or through the hiring of current Fox News employee Sean Hannity as “Shadow Chief of Staff” and rally participant, Trump has sufficiently assumed the “commanding heights” of conservative national media. 
Why do I then refer to this seemingly symbiotic relationship (at least in the short-term) as media capture? Prior to his political success, Trump faced hostility and even a blacklisting from Fox News in a short-lived attempt at gate-keeping. The New Yorker piece describes the owner of Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, ordering the CEO of Fox News to “make sure that the moderators hit Trump hard” at the first GOP presidential debate. The outlet’s leadership reviled Trump’s populism, but Murdoch was ultimately “a businessman” who “sees benefits of having a chief of state doing your bidding.” The risks of abandoning gate-keeping to maximally profit from polarization were pointed out to Murdoch by his CEO, who admitted that “Trump gets great ratings,” but warned that if Fox leadership was not careful, “[Trump’s] going to end up totally controlling Fox News.”  By relying on polarization and populism, Fox leadership ensured such a reality.
Why are these sentiments so dangerous to kindle? McCoy et al. warn that “deepening affective polarization” is a force that “strengthens tribal tendencies of loyalty to in-group and conflict with out-party, enhances zero-sum perceptions, increases social distance and decreases willingness to cooperate.”  The fabric of trust and tolerance required for a well-functioning democracy is thus threatened by a society that embraces polarization. Under “sharp polarization,” a discourse can arise in which “different camps view each other’s claims and perceptions as ill-intentioned.” When Fox News hosts and President Trump denounce leading national media as “fake news,” and said national media responds by accusing Fox News of being “state TV,” this war between camps becomes obvious. By furthering polarization, media organizations like Fox News engage in a short-sighted endeavor: gaining ratings and political access while threatening the democratic norms that support civil liberties like the freedom of the press. Echoing Professor Huq’s argument about incumbent-protecting courts, I argue that this case suggests that scholars of democracy should be more skeptical of ostensibly independent media outlets; while generally assumed to be a check on power, they can quickly and rationally transform into precisely the opposite: a willing and profiteering enabler of faction. Gehlbach, Scott. “Reflections on Putin and the Media.” Post-Soviet Affairs 26, no. 1 (2010): 77-87.  Mayer, Jane. “The Making of the Fox News White House.” The New Yorker. April 24, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/03/11/the-making-of-the-fox-news-white-house.  McCoy, Jennifer, Tahmina Rahman, and Murat Somer. “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics, and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities.” American Behavioral Scientist 62, no. 1 (2018): 16-42.  Photo by Carolyn Kaster – Associated Press