Millions of words have been written about Fox News — most of them hyperbolic and anything but fair and balanced. The problem is that such overheated rhetoric makes it hard to understand why Fox is so successful, and how it has managed to insert itself so forcefully into the nation’s political consciousness.
CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter’s new book, Hoax, is a step in the right direction. Our conversation with Stelter on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast goes even further.
Behind the inflamed language that typically accompanies discussions of Fox is the reality that, like any mass-media organization, the network is about its stars. And none shine more brightly today than Sean Hannity.
Stelter talks about Hannity’s exceptional history at Fox, and his close relationship with President Donald Trump, which some consider unprecedented but which actually resembles the influence that powerful newspaper columnists like Walter Lippman wielded over policy discourse in the first half of the 20th century.
Stelter explains the real Fox secret sauce, the ripple effects of the Fox style of presentation, who’s really in charge of content there, and who’s shaping the unique ability of Fox to drive a narrative. Stelter shares some deep insights into what he sees as the legacy of Fox and what may be its post-Trump future. It’s a conversation that, unlike so many you may have heard about Fox, is not about hate or anger or Trump but about the power of entertainment — particularly television and its stars — to shape our world, for better or worse.
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|Jeff Schechtman:||Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Once upon a time, when we talked about news in the media, particularly in Washington, it was about how our leaders of either party got their message out to the public. The leaders were the progenitors of that message. Not so today. Perhaps for the first time in history, a president and even some members of Congress with access to all the levers and resources of government gets its information from a kind of reality television, that is Fox News. And then without so much as checking the fact, transmits it back to the public as original information, as gospel. It’s a kind of Orwellian feedback loop that on some levels seems more the stuff of dystopian fiction than our daily reality. One wonders what Orwell might think, or even what the late Oscar winning screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky might think, who preciously put these words into the mouth of his character Diana Christensen in the movie Network, 40 plus years ago, back in 1976. Take a listen.|
|Diana Christensen:||The American people are turning sullen. They’ve been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, the inflation, the depression, they turned off, shot up and they fucked themselves limp and nothing helps. So this concept analysis report concludes the American people want somebody to articulate their rage for them. I’ve been telling you people since I took this job six months ago, that I want angry shows. I don’t want conventional programming on this network. I want anti-establishment.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||The fact is that Fox News didn’t emerge from a spontaneous primordial stew. It was the result of many human and political factors brilliantly spelled out by our guest, Brian Stelter, in his new book Hoax. However, his Chayefsky showed us, those factors didn’t create the environment. It simply exploited it. To paraphrase Ed Morrow paraphrasing Shakespeare, “The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” We’re going to talk about all of this today with my guest, Brian Stelter. Brian is the chief media correspondent for CNN Worldwide and the anchor of Reliable Sources. Prior to joining CNN he was a media reporter at The New York Times. His previous book, Top of the Morning, inspired the Apple TV drama The Morning Show, installed the results of the executive producer of the HBO documentary After Truth.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It is my pleasure to welcome Brian Stelter here to talk about Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth. Brian, thanks so much for joining us on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.|
|Brian Stelter:||Well, thank you. That’s the best introduction I think I’ve ever had.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Oh, well thank you. First of all, while Trump is on the cover of this book as part of the title, as is Fox News, really a central character of this story is Sean Hannity. Talk a little bit about that.|
|Brian Stelter:||I think Sean Hannity is the center of the Fox universe in the Trump age. He’s a man, an entertainer, a radio host, a TV host, sometimes a propagandist who was always the second banana at Fox News. He was always behind Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly, but in the Trump age, those other hosts are gone. Hannity remains. He is the Fox survivor. The man who’s been there since the very beginning of the network in 1996. This is his time. And he has a mutually beneficial relationship with Donald Trump that is unlike anything in presidential history. He is able to go on the air and share talking points from the president. And then afterwards, they talk about how the show went and they brainstorm guests for the next day’s show. It is an extraordinary, and I think very troubling feedback loop.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||How much of this grows out of the fact that Hannity really comes out of that talk radio world, that it really was that world of grievance that went on, has gone on for 32 some odd years, that Donald Trump really understood… I mean, this is a guy that grew up in New York listening to Bob Grant preaching the worst, most hateful form of racism. To what extent does Hannity, the ideal person for him, given that history?|
|Brian Stelter:||I think that they have a lot in common, Hannity and Trump, and they do have these alliances. Hannity began as a radio host, not a TV host. He was broadcasting in Huntsville and then Atlanta learning the craft. He wanted to be one 10th as famous as Rush Limbaugh one day. And then Roger Ailes found him. Roger Ailes found him in New York and changed his life. And in an interview with me many years ago, Hannity said, “Ailes saw something in me that I didn’t know that I had.” This was a crucial moment for Hannity to become a television star and now he’s wildly rich and famous, making 40, $50 million a year, and hosting on the radio in the afternoon, hosting on TV at night. I think what that does is it gives him a connection to the Trump base and to Trump. So radio connects Hannity to the Trump base, TV connects Hannity to Trump in a way that’s very personal. And as a result, Hannity is a key part of this pro-Trump media universe.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||One of the interesting things about Hannity, and you write about this, is the fact that if we look at the history of talk radio, meanness is a very big part of it. And yet meanness is not necessarily a part of Sean Hannity. Talk about that.|
|Brian Stelter:||Well, I would disagree slightly by pointing out that Hannity has nicknames for his… I don’t know what the word is. His critics. He calls me Humpty Dumpty, for example, but I think the point you’re making is really insightful. Hannity delivers his talking points with a smile. He oftentimes jokes around with his guests. I think one of the reasons why Fox has done so well in the media world is even when the news is really bleak and scandals are filling up the news, they’re smiling, they’re having fun on Fox. I would argue sometimes they’re doing that to distract from the president’s controversies and lies, but they’re able to put on a show and put on a smiling face and Hannity’s a part of that. It makes it more appealing from a viewership point of view, although I would argue that it has little to do with journalism.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Talk about Roger Ailes and the early on relationship between Ailes and Hannity, and how you think Ailes would view what’s transpiring today with respect to what we’re talking about.|
|Brian Stelter:||Well, this is one of the big reasons why I felt I needed to write Hoax. It was because I was hearing from so many staffers on the inside who were saying to me, “We miss Roger Ailes.” And listen, I hate to have those words come out of my mouth because what we all learned because of Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit is that Roger Ailes was a sexual predator. Someone who preyed on his staffers, who abused women, abused his power. There’ve been testimonies from dozens of women about this, but he was also a strong leader at Fox. Everybody knew who was in charge.|
|Brian Stelter:||As one person there said to me, “We always produced the channel for an audience of one. The audience of one was Roger when he was forced out. And then when he died, we still produced it as an audience of one, but the audience became Trump.” That in a nutshell kind of explains how Fox has changed. It’s become programmed for a president rather than for the head of the network. And a lot of staffers there think that if Ailes were still in charge, if he were still alive, things would be different. That Ailes would’ve stood up to Trump, that the channel wouldn’t have become quite so Trumpy. But look, that’s all alternative history at this point. We would never know.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||What’s the broader impact do you think that these changes at Fox, the Fox today, this relationship that we’re talking about, what is the broader ripple effect that it’s had on television news in general, on other cable networks, et cetera?|
|Brian Stelter:||It’s created this sense of an alternative universe in America and two very different realities that different family members can live in. To use the stereotypical uncle who comes to Thanksgiving, who believes the cities are blades, who believes that immigration is destroying the country. The narratives on Fox reach millions of people. And then they spread even more widely through the president’s Twitter feed and through radio and elsewhere. And they become this kind of fact base for tens of millions of Americans who have a harder and harder time seeing eye to eye with the rest of the country.|
|Brian Stelter:||And the way I frame it that way is most Americans are not Fox addicts. Most American consumers are not buying what Trump is selling either. Polls show most Americans believe the president’s a liar who can’t be trusted, but there’s a big minority in the country, there’s this Fox Trump base that absolutely is buying what Fox and Trump are selling. And I think the reaction to that is we are more divided, we are more polarized. I don’t think this country is as broken as it sometimes appears on television, but the fractures are real and they are partly caused by Fox.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||From an entertainment perspective, what’s the secret sauce? What’s the addictive quality that exists here?|
|Brian Stelter:||Gosh, that’s so interesting because oftentimes I’ll be in my office at CNN, I’ll have all the different channels on in small boxes, and my eyes will go to the Fox screen. The Fox screen is captivating. There are little reasons why. The colors, the movement on screen, there are bigger reasons why. The guests that are booked, the amount of makeup that’s applied. And then there’s the choice of topics, the choice of segments, whether it’s a culture, war stories that press your buttons, whether it’s fear-based stories that make you want to stay tuned out of concern for your country. A lot of this is using the techniques of entertainment television, and then applying them to a version of the news. And whether you’re a lover Fox, or you’re not such a big fan, you got to recognize that those tactics are being applied and those tactics work. At least they work with a segment of the country.|
|Brian Stelter:||Fox news is by far the highest rated news channel when you look at total viewers. The audience skews older as most news does, but at any given time at night, four or five million people are watching Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham. I know that out of a 300 million population, not a big amount, but over the course of a month, 60 to 70 million people see Fox at some point in the month. So that’s why the narratives that start on Fox end up being seen by so many people.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Those tactics, those techniques that you’re talking about, to what extent have they evolved over time, because there’s always a certain fragility in those things that they can pass by the audience? A technique after a while it gets old, it gets stale. How has Fox kept up with that?|
|Brian Stelter:||They’ve certainly had programming innovations over the years to move away from just the typical Republican versus Democrat argument, the kind of food fight that I think was best known in 2000 and the first decade of this millennia. I think what Fox has done more recently, it’s moved toward these panel shows where there are four or five people at a time, mostly right leaning, sometimes one liberal to make it more interesting. This is how the network is unfair and unbalanced because there’s the shifting so far to the right, but these panel shows, they’re a reflection of maybe a red state diner and the conversations people are having in their communities. And it’s remarkable how the talking points that start on The Five or Outnumbered or Tucker Carlson, they end up in my Twitter feed all day long from Fox viewers who repeat what they hear on the television. It is a very intense, very connected feedback loop.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Within Fox itself with Ailes gone, where does the leadership come from? Where does the direction come from? Is it beyond just programming to Trump?|
|Brian Stelter:||There certainly is an executive team and the executive team is doing very well from a business standpoint. The network is more profitable than ever on a path to reach $2 billion in profits a year. Suzanne Scott is the CEO of Fox’s media. She reports to Lachlan Murdoch, who’s the head of the Fox Corporation. And Lachlan’s father is Rupert. Of course, the same Rupert Murdoch, famed and feared Rupert Murdoch, who is the family patriarch and still very much involved. So those are the leaders and those are the men and women responsible for the content on the air. However, I don’t think they pay nearly enough attention to the content. To the rhetoric, to the monologues and the conversations and the narratives. My sense is they are more focused on the business, making sure the cash register just keeps humming.|
|Brian Stelter:||And when people at the network say, there’s a lack of strong leadership, what they mean is there’s no one focused enough on the content, the editorial, the banners on screen. Normally this would be a problem, but it’s an even bigger problem when the president reads those banners, gets misled, and then tweets about it and misleads the rest of the country. And the reason why I wanted to write Hoax is because I wanted to document some of the most disturbing examples of how the president and then millions of people get misled based on what’s showing up on Fox|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And within Fox, were you able to find anybody that cares besides some of the low-level staffers? Anybody in the C suites, in the executive ranks that really care?|
|Brian Stelter:||Yes. The answer is yes, but they only admit to their caring anonymously. I’ve looked for interviews with Lachlan Murdoch about Fox. He rarely talks about the channels content. I’ve looked for interviews with Suzanne Scott, the CEO. I’ve asked for my own interviews and they’ve declined. They don’t talk much about the content on Fox. They do talk about the business and how well it’s doing. But I do think there are folks in the management ranks, in the executive suite so to speak, the virtual executive suite of the pandemic, that are concerned about the content, that are concerned when Jeanine Pirro or Laura Ingraham or Sean Hannity embarrasses the network. It’s just that sometimes there’s not enough followup or accountability in those moments.|
|Brian Stelter:||I’ve had one Fox executive say to me, “I really wish the president would watch less TV.” Less TV. And of course, they’re talking about the Fox addict in the White House. There are even managers at Fox that say they think the president is not well. They worry about the president’s mental fitness, the same way that lots of other folks do in other networks and news outlets and political organizations. The difference is they don’t seem empowered to say so. The network’s shows are about lifting up, propping up the president, making excuses for his lies instead of calling them out. So there’s a real disconnect, I suppose, between what’s being said on air, and what’s being said off air.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Given the limits to which they push the envelope, is embarrassment even possible anymore?|
|Brian Stelter:||I think there are moments where there’s real embarrassment, where there’s so much internal angst and turmoil that it does cause a reaction. The best example being in 2018 during the midterm election, when Hannity had to get up on stage at a Trump rally and started speaking before the podium, as if he was an official presidential endorser. That created a lot of tension internally at Fox and it caused the network to put out a statement saying, “We don’t condone our talent participating at campaign events.” Of course, that’s a pretty weak statement. It wasn’t a punishment of any sort, but there are those moments where Fox still tries to draw a line. However, those moments are few and far between.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Talk about the relationship between Sean Hannity, his special relationship with the president that you write about, and the other hosts of Fox people like Ingraham and Tucker Carlson.|
|Brian Stelter:||Yeah. Every relationship is different. Hannity and Trump are very, very friendly. The two men rely on each other. With Tucker Carlson, it’s different. Carlson doesn’t call the White House, doesn’t reach out to Trump. But if Trump calls him, he’ll answer the phone and I appreciate that. I suppose I would answer the phone as well.|
|Brian Stelter:||There was a moment in March as the pandemic really began to upend our lives where Tucker drove to Mar-a-Lago to try to give advice to the president and try to get through to the president since Trump was downplaying the threats. So there are those moments where the relationship matters.|
|Brian Stelter:||Laura Ingraham is like a shadow press secretary. She actually was in talks to be press secretary at one point. And you can see that in her interview with Trump, that was broadcast on Monday night, she was steering him away from some comments when he was starting to make trouble for himself. When he was starting to step into the proverbial, you know what. Laura Ingraham was trying to steer him to safer territory. So she has that instinct in her to be a communications guru, to be a PR person for the president. And in some ways she does that by being at Fox, instead of being at the White House.|
|Brian Stelter:||Notably, she went to the White House repeatedly this year with doctors to push hydroxychloroquine. Of course, this is something that most doctors and scientists say is not an effective tool in the fight against COVID-19, but she believes it could be. And then she brought a couple of doctors who agree with her to try to persuade the president to do more, to promote hydroxychloroquine. That’s when this gets dangerous, that’s when this gets scary. When you’ve got the president taking medical council from handpicked doctors from a Fox news star and not from Dr. Anthony Fauci.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||What’s Hannity’s relationship with these other hosts?.|
|Brian Stelter:||Well, over the years, there’s been a lot of turmoil behind the scenes because some of these stars have some pretty big egos. I suppose that’s understandable and the ratings race is all that seems to matter at Fox. In the past, Hannity had a very contentious relationship with Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly had a contentious relationship with Megyn Kelly. In recent years, I think tensions have been calmer and there’s been a friendlier relationship between Hannity and Laura Ingraham, for example, Hannity and Tucker Carlson. But lately, Carlson has been doing really well on the ratings and that has caused some angst between Hannity and Carlson. I’m sure they would say that’s not true, but sometimes you can even see it on the air, you see it in their faces once in a while.|
|Brian Stelter:||Fox has been winning in the ratings for 18 years and to paraphrase something that President Trump has said, you never get tired of winning. There’s tremendous pressure to keep the ratings up, to keep the audience watching, and that does create drama between the hosts. For example, some of them will flip ratings reports to the president saying, “Hey, come on my show and not their show.”|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Talk a little bit about how other cable news networks, whether it’s MSNBC or CNN, view Fox as something that there are things worth emulating.|
|Brian Stelter:||I think as someone who’s an anchor at CNN or my Sunday morning program, there are absolutely things I respect and admire about Fox. There’s a focus on compelling narratives on what’s going to be exciting on television, on the looks, on the appearance, on the personality. These are values and attributes that Roger Ailes emphasized. Sadly, he was doing that, in some cases, in exploitative ways. But there is something to be said for thinking about the performance of an individual and not just their journalistic qualities. I struggle with this though, because what we need more of in television is real reliable journalism. What we need more of is getting talking heads out of the way and getting to reporters who can tell us about what voters want.|
|Brian Stelter:||I do appreciate the cosmetic details of Fox, but I think they matter a lot less than the journalistic details. And sadly, what’s happened to Fox is that journalistic muscles had atrophied like an athlete who wasn’t able to work out for a while. The propaganda is winning and the news is losing that right now.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Is there self-awareness about that? I mean, do they really see themselves as journalists at Fox?|
|Brian Stelter:||Some absolutely do. And some, I think absolutely are. There are international correspondents at Fox, there are national reporters who head to the scenes of fires and hurricanes, who are just there to report the news. The issue I think is that’s not what is valued most at Fox right now. There are fewer and fewer of those newscasts and more and more pro-Trump talk shows and reporters there can see it. They look at the schedule, they see what management wants, they see what management values, they know who gets paid the most. And so you’ve seen this exodus of journalists from Fox in recent years. You’ve seen everyone from Megyn Kelly, who left in 2017, to Shepard Smith, who left in 2019, and a number of others who are not household names, but who decided to leave because they didn’t feel like there’s a lot of room for them anymore.|
|Brian Stelter:||People at Fox said to me, “I feel suffocated. I feel like I’m being squeezed out.” And so you see some people who choose to leave. Others who choose to stay and they say, “Fight the good fight and try to make the place better from the inside.” I sympathize on one level with those individuals, but here’s what I noticed in the ratings. The newscasts are less popular and the talk shows are much more popular. That’s the dynamic, that’s what the audience at Fox want. They want more pro-Trump talk and less news. And that’s not just a reflection on Fox or on the year 2020, that’s a reflection on how the GOP and how Republican party voters have changed over time.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Is there self-awareness about this idea of grievance inside Fox and that it really is about taking advantage of the grievance that’s out there in the public?|
|Brian Stelter:||Yeah. You think about the fear button, they press the fear button and they do also press the grievance button all the time. Absolutely. I think there are individuals who recognize this is cynical, who recognize this is probably not helping the public, but it’s very hard to get anybody to say that on the record.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||What do you think the legacy of Fox News will be?|
|Brian Stelter:||Well, I think America has become foxified due to Roger Ailes, due to Rupert Murdoch, and due to the tremendous power of this channel. It’s a big question, but I’m trying to think of the best way to phrase the answer. I think the legacy of Fox is the country is more polarized. The country does have more options, which can be a good thing. The country’s able to access more points of view, which can be a good thing, but viewers are often led astray, misinformed, and that’s a very bad thing. When narratives on Fox suggest that all the cities are ablaze, are burning, are struggling, that actually does a disservice to the people who live in cities and it does a disservice to the viewers on Fox.|
|Brian Stelter:||I was on CSPAN the other day and we took listeners’ calls. I had a listener, viewer call in and say, “Now I live in the suburbs. I would never want to go to Atlanta unless I had to. I don’t think I’d be safe.” And that made me really sad as someone who loves to live in Manhattan, loves to visit Atlanta pre-pandemic, who has lots of colleagues from CNN based in Atlanta. I wanted the listener to open their eyes, to go for themselves and see, and not believe what they’re hearing on Fox every day. I think one of the legacies of Fox is this audience that’s increasingly isolated, increasingly alienated, and that’s not good for anyone.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And finally, Brian, what does Fox looks like post-Trump?|
|Brian Stelter:||That is a question that people at Fox openly talk about, openly worry about, and openly wonder. I had a commentator there say, “Fox is like Trump’s Frankenstein. We’ve made him, he’s a monster now in this analogy and we don’t know what he’s going to do. We don’t know what’s going to happen.” I think that’s a hyperbolic way to say it, but there is some concern that if he loses the election, he will try to launch Trump TV and try to compete with Fox. Now, I’m of the view that Fox is so big and successful that it’s bigger than Trump at this point. And even if Trump tried to start a rival channel, Fox would do just fine.|
|Brian Stelter:||There’s a view inside of the network that it’s better to be in the opposition. It’s better to be opposing a Democratic president than it is to be supporting a Republican president. It’s easier to be against something than for something. It’s sad to say those words, but there is some truth to it at Fox. And so the view there is the Obama years, things were going very well. And in the Biden years, things would also go very well. Financially, business wise, content wise.|
|Brian Stelter:||Already, you can see the network is more anti-Democrat than it is pro-Trump. I’d argue they talk more about Biden, attacking Biden, than they do defending Trump. So in the post-Trump years, that’s what I would expect. I would expect an anti-Democrat network that’s more vociferous than anything we’ve ever seen.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Brian Stelter. His book is Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth. Brian, I thank you so much for spending time with us.|
|Brian Stelter:||Grateful. Thank you so much.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.|
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