Brian Stelter Talks Hoax, Fox News, CNN and Trump

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“Fox News is the most important media company in America,” CNN’s Brian Stelter tells me on this week’s episode of The Interview. “And that’s because of its power with its audience and its influence over President Trump.”

That power is what compelled Stelter — CNN’s chief media correspondent, host of Reliable Sources, and author of a must-read newsletter of the same name — to take on the story of Fox News in his latest book, Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.

Hoax, which was published last week and just landed on the New York Times bestseller list, chronicles the evolution of Fox News under the reign of Roger Ailes, through to his dramatic and grisly exit amidst a sexual harassment scandal in 2016. That story is well-trodden ground. The fresh reporting in Hoax looks at the years since: Fox News under President Donald Trump. Stelter describes a network that has, through various incentives (few of them journalistic) purged its Trump-skeptical voices to become a propaganda arm of a TV-obsessed president.

That shift was gradual — leadership was skeptical of Trump to begin with — and a response to what Fox’s audience was looking for, Stelter tells me. It all started with Trump’s weekly calls into Fox & Friends in the early 2010s:

Maybe we all should have taken those Fox & Friends calls more seriously. People give a lot of credit or blame to The Apprentice for a positioning Trump as a businessman but Fox & Friends was more important because it positioned him as a political figure. It taught him what Fox cared about. And through the questions he was asked every week, he learned about the Fox audience. He knew what to say at his rallies. But look, during the campaign, it was different. It was complicated.

Rupert Murdoch was quite critical of Trump. Roger Ailes was skeptical for a while. The commentators like Greg Gutfeld, who are now very Trumpy, were quite skeptical of Trump. It’s not as if Trump took over one day all of a sudden, this was much more of a gradual process, a gradual takeover. I write in the book that anchors and commentators felt more and more pressure to please the Fox base, which meant going easy on Trump and going really, really hard on his detractors. A lot of this has to do with what the audience wanted.

Now, Rupert Murdoch doesn’t run Fox News anymore. His son Lachlan is the chief executive of Fox Corporation, its parent company, and Suzanne Scott is the CEO of Fox News. Stelter reports that Lachlan has a more hands off approach to the network than his father, who temporarily stepped in to run things after Ailes’s ouster.

I describe how Rupert’s the one that picked Tucker Carlson for that key prime time spot. But Lachlan is the one that is in touch with Tucker now. And they have a bit of an alliance of sorts, maybe more than a bit of an alliance. I describe Lachlan at one point in the book as indifferent to the programming on Fox, not a guy who’s obsessive watching Fox, maybe not like me or you, which might be fine except that he’s responsible for the content on the most watched cable news channel in America in the midst of a global pandemic and multiple other crises. So, maybe indifference is not the right approach today in 2020.

(Though it may be a “liberal fantasy,” Stelter describes a Succession-like scenario in which Lachlan’s brother James Murdoch, who is no fan of Fox’s programming, returns in the event of Rupert’s death and seizes control of the network. You’re going to have to listen to the full podcast or read the book for that one.)

That symbiotic relationship is best observed, Stelter says, through the friendship between Sean Hannity and Trump. Hannity, who is in constant contact with the president, acts as his “shadow chief of staff”, while Trump himself operates as a “shadow producer” for the Fox host’s prime time show.

The hoaxes described in Stelter’s book form the basis for a feedback loop between the network and the president, omnipresent in Trump’s rhetoric and often seeping into actual policy. The “caravan” of migrants storming the Southern Border was a fixture of Fox News programming, and consequently the president’s attention, for months. Ditto the bogus Seth Rich conspiracy theory. Ditto the Ukraine scandal that eventually got Trump impeached in the House. Ditto the narrative that warnings about Covid-19 were a hoax — which Stelter argues lulled Trump into “complacency” on the pandemic.

Critics of Stelter — and his perch as CNN’s top media reporter has earned him plenty — object to his forceful coverage of the Trump administration and Fox News. I asked him about a possible objection: that his gig at CNN raises questions about his ability to report on a rival network.

His reply:

I’ve thought a lot about this, of course. And my view on it is that I cover Fox every day already. I cover Fox for CNN, for our Reliable Sources newsletter. I covered Fox for years at the New York Times. So my approach is, treat it the same way, treat it the same way that I would if I were at the New York Times. Even if someone were to try to do a takedown, which I don’t think this is, a book is not going to accomplish that. The story of the Trump-Fox years is not going to accomplish that.

So, I get it. It’s an easy critique. It’s a lazy critique. I think there’s no merit to it. And I think readers can judge whether me working at CNN benefits or harms the book. The reason I say that is I think being inside the television business helps me with my vantage point. It certainly helped me retain sources for the book. And so, I think the reason I invoke my role at CNN in the narrative throughout Hoax is that I want people to know I am in this, I understand what this is like. I have these interactions with figures at Fox. I’m in the same circles in some ways, right? And I think that gives me a better vantage point for covering this story.

Stelter maintained that his CNN show Reliable Sources is news, not opinion, though he conceded that he is doing more monologues to “cut through the noise” in the Trump era. When I noted CNN as a whole changed its tone in how it covers President Trump, Stelter said it’s a “reaction to asymmetric lying”:

If Joe Biden tells us it’s raining when it’s sunny, then we’re going to call him out for it. And if we don’t, then we should be called out. The shock of the Trump years is not that the president’s being fact-checked when he tells delusional stories. The shock of the Trump years is that Fox News doesn’t correct him and call him out and hold him accountable. I think the shock of the Trump years is that news anchors at Fox who want to make sure the truth is heard loud and clear, feel suffocated.

As one person there said to me, Shep had power that none of us feel like we have. It’s not quite the direct quote but that’s the idea. Shep had the power to fact check but we don’t feel like we do. That is outrageous! So, that’s what I would say. I would turn it around and say, the pressure should be on those who treat fiction like fact, not on those who emphasize fact.

Stelter also dished on his dates with a Fox News intern back in 2005 when he was running the industry blog TVNewser from college. While a young Stelter was trying to suss out if he was being friend-zoned by the intern, she was surreptitiously reporting information back to the famously paranoid Roger Ailes, who had apparently dispatched her to spy on him.

Hear the details of that story, and how Fox News has changed since, on this week’s episode of The Interview.

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Originally published: 2020-09-03 12:12:05

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