It is impossible to tell the story of President Trump’s rise to power without understanding his relationship with Fox News. Together they form one of modern America’s most defining duos, argues CNN’s chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter, who documents their symbiotic dance in his new book, Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.
Through countless interviews with sources at various levels of power inside Fox, Stelter reveals how the wildly popular cable channel has subordinated journalistic integrity to President Trump’s political interests, while setting the broader daily agenda for his administration. “Every day’s a new episode,” Stelter told Mother Jones Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery during a recent livestream hosted by the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. “Certainly Fox programs his presidency that way.”
Stelter argues there is no Trump without Fox. Trump entered the national political arena via a weekly call-in segment on Fox & Friends, during which he pioneered the racist birther lie; he regularly regurgitates talking points from Fox News’ The Five; he is emboldened by—and wed to—positive coverage from anchors like Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, and Tucker Carlson, whose shows reach millions every night; and Hannity is a close adviser who even stumped for the president at a rally in Missouri.
“We don’t feel we have power to fact-check Trump,” Stelter recounted being told by one Fox journalist. “We feel like we’re being squeezed out by propaganda.”
The title of Stelter’s book was inspired by back-to-back uses of the word “hoax” by Trump and Hannity to describe the emerging coronavirus crisis in the United States. Both Trump and Fox downplayed the threat at the outset, a deadly error for which they face dual culpability (but zero accountability from Fox brass)—a travesty made all the more apparent following the recent release of Bob Woodward’s tapes.
For a look inside the Fox-Trump feedback loop that has distorted the meaning of truth and threatened American democracy, read the edited transcript of Jeffery’s interview with Stelter below, or listen to their conversation on this episode of the Mother Jones Podcast:
You say that Hoax is essentially about the Foxification of Trump and the Trumpification of Fox. Who leads this dance, the president or the network?
It’s hard to know where Trump ends and where Fox begins, and vice versa. But I think this is largely Fox-driven, meaning Fox sets the agenda, Fox comes up with the day’s narrative, and the president reacts to that. There are hundreds of examples of him reacting to what he sees on Fox & Friends in the morning or cheering for something Sean Hannity says at night. Those are mostly visible on his Twitter feed, right? A lot of this is out in the public record.
But in addition to that, I had many sources at Fox talk to me about the network’s influence behind the scenes, and what they hear internally about Trump’s obsession with the network. Some people are proud of it, but many other people are horrified. And even top executives at Fox said to me in confidence, “We wish he’d watch less TV. We wish he would turn the channel.” Which is a wild thing to hear someone say.
In the book, you’re on fire about his reaction to COVID and how that, too, was shaped by Fox.
That is why the book is called Hoax. It would have been named Wingmen: Sean Hannity and others at Fox are Trump’s wingmen. But when the pandemic broke everything, and Trump used the word “hoax” once, and Sean Hannity used the word once, it was pretty clear that this is the most haunting example yet of how the president’s unreality—and Fox’s unreality—has life and death consequences.
I am glad that Hoax came out a couple weeks before Bob Woodward’s book. We both have these one word titles. His is Rage, mine is Hoax. They do make for a great pairing, and I’m not saying that as a sales pitch! We’ve heard this new information from Trump himself, from inside the White House. When you pair that with what Fox was saying at the time and what he was hearing from Fox, you get a really clear understanding of why the country was so misled, why there was so much downplaying of the disease in February and March. Partly Trump’s fault, partly Fox’s fault. Trump had the biggest platform in the country, and Fox had the biggest platform on cable. Now we have these clips of Trump talking in early February about the disease in a much more serious way than he was talking on Fox. Clara, I think we need to hear from the people at Fox about this, Sean Hannity and others, who were on the phone with Trump being misled in front of millions of viewers.
The central revelation of Bob Woodward’s book was that, in late-ish February, Trump was taking the coronavirus seriously. He knew how deadly it was, knew that it was aerosolized, and knew all the things that he would deny for months. Would your supposition be that he started there and was talked into a more treacherous place by Fox vis-à-vis COVID response? Or is it just that he can’t keep something in his head for very long?
Part of it is that every day’s a new show, every day’s a new episode. He seems to program it that way. Certainly Fox programs his presidency that way. I quote Trump in the epigraph of the book saying, “It will go away. Just stay calm, it will go away.” That was March 10th, when there were thousands of people sick already in Washington State, and California, and New York. And he was in denial about that publicly. So, you’re right, I think there are still some unanswered questions. Either way, what we know is that February was a lost month, that Trump was behind the curve in a way that was dangerous, and that Fox was behind the curve in a way that was dangerous. It is, sadly, the best example of how this Fox-Trump feedback loop can have dangerous consequences.
Do you imagine that, when you contemplate that shift in his rhetoric, it’s about him wanting to look good or a shifting idea of reality? He’s now saying he didn’t want people to panic, but that doesn’t really square with your reporting on his demeanor about COVID and other issues.
I think it’s quite possible Trump is being told how dangerous this disease is, and then he decides to instead play to his base by firing individuals that testified against him in the Ukraine scheme and by cheering on Roger Stone. That was what mid-February was about. It was about this post-impeachment revenge tour.
You know, by the way, I’m here at CNN in New York. I’m in my office, where I rarely am these days because of the pandemic, and the lights have turned off because nobody’s in the building. So the automatic light sensors have decided that I’m in the dark. I mean, what a metaphor.
This gets us to another question that kind of bubbled up in media Twitter today. People were very angry that Bob Woodward knew this back in February and did not report it. What do you think the journalistic ethics are about knowing things—and especially life-and-death issues—and keeping them from the public for so long?
I’m still chewing on this. But I think Woodward’s defense is notable. He just shared it with the Associated Press. He said, “Yeah, I had these quotes from Trump in February but I didn’t know how real they were. I didn’t know if they checked out. I didn’t know if he was exaggerating. I wanted to know if he was really told this by his aides.” And it wasn’t until May, he says, that he had confidence in the information. By that point he said his goal was just to get this book out as fast as possible. So, putting myself into Woodward’s head for a moment: If Woodward’s working on this over the summer and he knows it’s going to come out in September, I’m sure that in his mind that feels like a really fast turnaround, and absolutely a responsible thing to do. But I can understand why there were folks on the outside, looking at this, saying, “If he knew in February, why didn’t he tell us by March?” Would anything have changed? Would there have been a consequence? Do you think there would have been a consequence if these quotes had come out, let’s say, in May? I’m happy to be wrong.
I think it’s impossible to know. But notably that would be right when states were deciding to open up, as we now know, too quickly, and there was this rush to appease the anti-mask folks and the demonstrators in Michigan. We don’t have a time machine, but it could have.
I suppose I am more personally disturbed by what Trump what was saying publicly at that time, in February, in March, contradicting health officials, showing up at events without any protection or social distancing, almost gleefully rejecting the best practices and advice given him by his government. And that was all in front of our eyes. So, I guess, count me as a skeptic that knowing what he was saying privately would have changed minds or would have made a big difference.
Let’s talk about Fox and that dynamic. It seems like a central premise in the book is that there was a paradigm shift within Fox in 2016, 2017, where they went from being a, let’s put it nicely, super feisty partisan operation to full-blown disinformation enterprise. Was there a sort of “aha!” moment when you realized there had been that kind of switch?
Well, first of all, I bet that you slightly disagree with my portrayal of the first 20 years of Fox News, where I say it was conservative but not usually conspiratorial. Glenn Beck and others were pretty outrageous and extremely conspiratorial in the pre-Trump years. I don’t mean to totally gloss over some of the nuttiness that was airing on Fox pre-Trump, but I do see a distinction between those years and the Trump years. Partly because Roger Ailes was in charge, partly because nobody was as addicted to Fox as Trump is now. And partly because there weren’t these perverse structures to appeal to Trump in the way that there are now. Because Bush wasn’t hanging on every word that Bill O’Reilly said, O’Reilly wasn’t trying to program his show for George W. Bush, and certainly Keith Olbermann on MSNBC wasn’t programming for Barack Obama. That’s one of the key differences now in the de-evolution of Fox.
You anticipated my critique, which is that they were indulging in vituperative white grievance politics all throughout the Obama era, and they did carry a lot of water and misinformation about WMD. So, to your mind, the switch is that the politicians were more directly plugged in to the almost hourly messaging from Fox hosts?
I think that is one of the big differences. I think another difference is that Ailes wasn’t there to, in some ways, control the content. Look, we’re going to talk about Ailes and we’re going to acknowledge that he was a sexual predator and a person who abused his power. He did, however, reign in his talent when necessary. For example, on Birtharism. Ailes was a Birther, but didn’t let his talent go full birther. I think another difference is the right wing has changed, what the audience wants has changed, there’s even less interest in news than there might have been 10 years ago, and there are fewer people at Fox providing that news.
Do you think there is, or has been, an entity equal to Fox on the left in willingness to warp the truth, as well as at least some measure of market share?
I don’t see anything like it. I think this is an example of asymmetric lying. Trump lies a whole lot more than Joe Biden or any other Democratic politician. There’s asymmetric lying going on and that’s true in the media as well.
And one of the reasons I ask is because, in 2009, Obama called out Fox for being a misinformation machine, pretty pointedly for Obama in particular. How does that look in retrospect?
I was just looking at my story about this from 2009. I wrote, “Attacking the news media is a time-honored White House tactic, but to an unusual degree the Obama administration’s narrowed its sights to one specific outlet, the Fox News Channel, calling it part of the political opposition.” I said that both sides see benefits in this feud, which was definitely true at the time. I think, in 2009, that story holds up because we had never seen a president like Trump come along and try to destroy outlets he didn’t like. Now, in retrospect, what the Obama aides were saying about Fox was so gentle. It was so polite compared to the way Trump talks about channels and outlets he doesn’t like. Pre-2016, it was disturbing to a lot of White House reporters to see Fox being singled out by the administration. In retrospect, that was the calm before the storm.
Now they’ve all been booted to make way for OAN.
And I think what you’re getting at also is: Why is there this defense of Fox, when it is a political operation as well as a news operation? It is an outlet that produces journalism, but is really hostile to journalism. I had people at Fox describe it to me a place that’s about anti-journalism. An anchor there said to me, “You can produce journalism here, but what are the incentives? It’s easier and more rewarding just to talk about the news and to defend Trump and attack Biden.”
So, Trump is, I think we would all agree, an extremely lazy president. But he has put in time studying cable news and Fox in particular. What were his insights?
In 2011, he gets a weekly call-in show on Fox & Friends, and I think that was ultimately more important to his election victory than The Apprentice. Fox & Friends taught him about the GOP. Taught him about what Fox’s priorities were. It taught him about what Fox viewers want, what they crave, what they like to hear. I think of it as almost a job interview.
He was usually on the phone, even though he was a few blocks away in Trump Tower and he could have walked over. He seems busy and important and hard to reach, powerful, mysterious. I don’t think any of this was that intentional by Trump, he just wanted publicity and air time.
Now he’s news and he’s calling in even more often. By then he knows what Fox wants.
I might jump up and down to turn the lights on. Is that okay?
I’m going to wave my arms wildly and see if I can turn the sensors on. It’s going to be a little kooky. But, sorry, go ahead. It’s not working anyway.
So how did Trump graft himself onto that audience? Which came first, the cult of Trump, or the cult of Fox?
Well, I think the Fox base was there first. What Fox News has become in 2020 is a conclusion of decades of right wing media and rhetoric against the rest of the media. In the ’90s it was about media bias. In the 2000s it was about media bias. Now, the rhetoric is so much more extreme. It’s about enemies of the people. The way I say it in Hoax is: every move, every turn Fox makes over 24 years, is a turn to the right.
Is there any evidence that these folks who are staying there, who are in that more straight news category, are providing a fig leaf? There was a really interesting example last week where a very good reporter on national security issues confirmed a big story about Trump calling the troops losers and suckers, and it may have made it on the air in other programs, but it mostly made it on the air because it was mentioned in an opinion show. So even though her reporting confirmed that story, if they’re not airing it, what difference does it make?
I think CNN might have talked about her reporting more than Fox talked about her reporting. And that’s at the heart of the problem. There’s nobody in a position of leadership at Fox who says, “Our reporter got a great tip. She confirmed a really important piece of information. This is the priority now. She’s going to on at 3, and at 5, and at 7, and at 9.” Instead, these shows are like fiefdoms and the producers and the stars, they want to please this Trump-loving audience. And I hate to say this word, but this word came up repeatedly in the reporting, from sources at Fox, who talk about it like a cult. In that environment, Jennifer Griffin’s reporting is something to be feared as opposed to reported and shared and spread. And that is incredibly demoralizing for the reporters inside Fox. That is why some of them leave, like Shep Smith and a number of others, have fled.
And for say Chris Wallace or Bret Baier, you report that they view it much like GOP senators who say they don’t read the tweets, they claim they don’t watch the other shows. How does that square with just existing at that network and the larger media ecosystem?
I think Chris Wallace is the exception to the rule. But the rule is very strict and very clear. The fact that there are a couple of exceptions just supports it further. He has a lot of autonomy. He’s on once a week, Sunday morning on Fox Broadcast, and then re-aired on Fox News. He’s a man with an island.
And nobody else really has that island. In fact, anchors at Fox said to me things like, “You know, we don’t have any power. We don’t feel we have power to fact check Trump. We feel like we’re being squeezed out by propaganda.”
In some says, people like Hannity, they’re not newsmen, they’re stop-the-news men. We’re getting more and more propaganda.
I’m curious what your analysis is of why the Murdochs either can’t or won’t or don’t step in? Is there just nothing in it for them? It’s minting them money, so what do they care?
That is essentially the explanation I was given several times. People would say it a little more gingerly. They would say things like, “Well, Lachlan Murdoch is a soccer dad at heart, he doesn’t care that much about Fox News. He’s not a religious Fox News viewer. He cares about the business. He cares about making deals. He wants to grow the empire and go off and buy startups.” That’s great, Lachlan, go do that, make sure someone’s watching the channel 24 hours a day, so they don’t hurt the viewers. Right?
But at the end of the day it is about that profit machine, it is about that focus on the bottom line instead of the content of the editorial. That came through loud and clear in my interviews.
What happens to Fox if Trump loses? The business model, at the moment, seems completely tied into him now.
I think Fox is bigger than Trump at this point. And, yes, he can go off and try to launch a channel, he can go off and have a Twitter fight with somebody if he loses reelection, but I think Fox is bigger than Trump. And for Fox’s business model, it’s better to be anti-Democrat than pro-Trump.
I can see that, but it seems like Trump’s fans are so devoted to him, and they may not abandon Fox, but it’s uncomfortable to put your whole faith into something that then falls apart one way or another.
What does December look like? What does February look like? Maybe it looks like this: Biden wins and the narrative is the “deep state won.” One of the things about Fox is, these prime time stars, they distill really complicated, nuanced things into these talking points, into these slogans: “This was a deep state plot.” It’ll be interesting to see how many people accept the results of the election and believe the results of the election. I don’t think people will wake up and say, “Trump who?” I don’t think there’s going to be that dismissal of him. If anything, I think the core Fox viewer will hold Trump more tightly, right? And turn to Trump Jr. as the future.