On Saturday night, the Washington Post reported that Mary Trump Barry had been caught on tape accusing her brother, the president, of being an all-purpose piece of work who even cheated his way into college. As framed by Trump’s older sister, a federal judge who retired under an ethics cloud of her own, the president has “no principles. None.”
As for his relationship to truth: “The lying. Holy shit.”
Barry did not, however, have the media to herself. As the Post’s scoop was breaking, Jeanine Pirro was extolling Trump’s virtues in a primetime flight into fantasy.
According to Pirro, “Trump made his own money and he hasn’t asked the government for it and he doesn’t cut deals while he’s in the government for his son and his family.”
According to Barry, Trump was incredulous to be told she read books and didn’t watch Fox News.
Welcome to the parallel universe, where reality can take a backseat to ratings and resentments. Into the morass dives Brian Stelter with his latest book, Hoax. Under the subtitle Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of the Truth, the CNN media critic chronicles the symbiotic relationship between the 45th president and Rupert Murdoch’s most famous product.
Fox News has access and influence, Trump a megaphone, both enjoy a devoted following
It has been win-win. Fox News has access and influence, Trump a megaphone, both enjoy a devoted following.
To illustrate: in the fall of 2019, Attorney General William Barr reportedly traveled to New York to ask Murdoch to “muzzle” Andrew Napolitano, an in-house critic of Trump. But according to Stelter, Barr was also there to discuss “media consolidation”, at a time when the industry was rife with merger mania.
In other words, the attorney general went to the mogul privately rather than having him come to the justice department, where people could see him and notetakers could be present.
Yes, Fox News has given voice to those voters Barack Obama derided for clinging to their guns and religion and Hillary Clinton branded as irredeemably deplorable. But Fox News has also promoted baseless conspiracy theories and unhesitatingly stoked racial and cultural animus – as Stelter makes clear.
Although Fox News did not embrace Obama and “birtherism”, it did not discourage it, offering Trump a platform to trash a sitting president. Stelter captures Steve Doocy, a host of morning show Fox & Friends, egging the one-time reality host on, describing him as someone “who we all know was born in this country”.
More recently, host Jesse Watters has credited the QAnon conspiracy movement with uncovering “great stuff”. Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, singled out Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s WAP for its vulgarity but a few years ago voiced his approval of an email sent by his brother, Buckley Carlson, to a woman he labeled “LabiaFace” while referring to “dick fright”, “spooge neck” and “pearl necklacing”.
In Carlson’s words, “I just talked to my brother about his response, and he assures me he meant it in the nicest way.” Then again, Blake Neff, a Carlson writer, was recently dismissed for posting racist and misogynist messages online.
As narrated by Stelter, Fox News has deliberately and repeatedly downplayed the threat posed by Covid-19
As narrated by Stelter, Fox News has deliberately and repeatedly downplayed the threat posed by Covid-19 for the sake of making Trump look good, even as the pandemic took hold in Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas, ie: Trump’s base. Hoax describes in granular detail internal measures taken in early March, as Covid’s blight was descending, and contrasts them with the wisdom fed to viewers.
Hand sanitizer stations were “added to every door at Fox”, in-person meetings were scaled back, travel was curbed. Yet Sean Hannity and other hosts were talking out of “both sides of their mouth” – this being the same Hannity who in moments of candor reported by Stelter would label Trump “batshit crazy” or ask: “What the fuck is wrong with him?”
In Stelter’s telling, “one minute Hannity was saying the virus was ‘serious’” and in the next breath he was “accusing other media outlets of ‘sowing fear’”. Hannity also attacked Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, and Bill de Blasio, New York City’s mayor, for “politicizing this national emergency”, admonishing them to “stop”.
Pete Hegseth, another host, announced that the more he learned about Covid, the “less” there was to “worry about”.
Now, the US death toll is approaching 180,000. Contrary to the president’s assurances, the virus shows no signs of disappearing.
Viewers have argued to the Federal Communications Commission that “the network had blood on its hands”. In its successful defense of a Covid-induced lawsuit, Fox rightly argued that first amendment free speech protections can also shield misinformation.
Tucker Carlson appears at the National Review Institute’s ideas summit in Washington, in March 2019. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Hoax is amply documented, with 18 pages of notes, and in a sense it picks up where Gabriel Sherman’s 2014 book, The Loudest Voice, left off. But there is a major difference. Sherman made a single reference to Trump, and focused on Roger Ailes, Fox News’ founder. Hoax is all about the Trump-Fox News alliance.
Fox News is not a monolith. On election day 2016, Chris Wallace, its lead newsman, told Brett Baier, another anchor, and Suzanne Scott, the chief executive, he was “embarrassed” by Hannity and Pirro serving as on-air Trump auxiliaries.
Last month, Wallace grilled Trump over his prediction Covid would disappear and challenged the president over his erroneous contention that the US has the world’s seventh-lowest mortality rate from the virus. Indeed, Fox’s polls have earned the president’s ire for conveying where things stand as opposed to where Trump wishes they were.
But the fact-conscious Baier and Wallace are not dominant voices.
Fox News will remain a counter to the mainstream media, however the election plays out. Trump or no Trump, it is about owning the libs. And with the country’s social cleavages continuing to widen and deepen, its hosts will have ample material.
Originally published: 2020-08-24 06:00:17