Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth
By Brian Stelter
Just about everyone understands that Fox News is the cheerleader in chief for a TV-obsessed president. We know the channel traffics in misinformation. We’ve seen hosts lob softball questions during their regular interviews with President Trump. Was anyone really surprised to see Sean Hannity warming up the crowd at a Trump rally?
Even so, it is easy to forget the full extent of the power that Fox News wields over the Trump administration. The channel has spawned some of the defining myths of this presidency and spurred Trump to adopt positions so hard-line as to be unpalatable even to congressional Republicans.
A small sampling of Fox’s fictions: The “caravan” of terrorists and criminals supposedly marching north to invade America. The debunked conspiracy theory that a Democratic National Committee staffer was murdered for leaking campaign emails. The false claim that Ukraine, not Russia, was interfering in the 2016 election. Most recently, the deadly notion that the coronavirus was no worse than the seasonal flu.
One moment those falsehoods were being served up by Fox personalities. The next, the president was parroting them, embellishing them, amplifying them to his tens of millions of social media followers — sometimes even plagiarizing Fox’s parodical chyrons.
This is the value of “Hoax,” the new book by the CNN journalist Brian Stelter. It provides a thorough and damning exploration of the incestuous relationship between Trump and his favorite channel — and of Fox’s democracy-decaying role as a White House propaganda organ masquerading as conservative journalism.
“Hoax” is not likely to change many readers’ minds. Its basic thesis — that Fox is powerful and toxic — is already conventional wisdom, thanks in part to last year’s authoritative New York Times exposé of Rupert Murdoch, whose company owns Fox. (Also, let’s be honest, not many Fox fans are likely to read this book.) Even so, Stelter’s cataloging of the power and toxicity of Fox is an important addition to the growing library of books documenting this strange period in American history.
Fox’s clout extends far beyond warping people’s understanding of the world. Stelter shows, for example, how spurious attacks by Fox hosts led Trump to fire cabinet secretaries and shut down the federal government. It is the type of old-school media muscle-flexing that would be impossible under a stronger president.
Stelter is at his best when he is explaining the underlying forces that led Fox to embrace propaganda. (Once upon a time, he writes, Fox had a journalistic culture.) Part of the reason is money. Fox News makes nearly $2 billion a year. Its intensely loyal audience allows the channel to charge more for advertising and in fees assessed by cable companies. Inciting viewers is crucial for keeping ratings high.
But there is another force at play. Many Fox employees view their job as catering to the president. Nothing gets people buzzing like a @realDonaldTrump tweet. “Everyone at Fox could see that the way to get attention, to get promoted, to get ahead was to hitch a ride with Trump and never look back,” Stelter writes. Some Fox journalists — yes, they still exist! — find this troubling. Very few have the guts to say so publicly.
Stelter traces the Trump-Fox synergies to 2011, when Roger Ailes, the channel’s longtime boss, gave Trump a weekly phone-in slot on the “Fox & Friends” morning show. The platform provided him a direct line into the brains of millions of Republican primary voters. For its part, Fox got someone whose penchant for bombast and demagogy proved a ratings winner.
That symbiosis inspired other Fox hosts, none more so than Hannity.
Pre-Trump, Hannity was in trouble. He was churning out bland, predictable screeds against President Obama. Some producers were considering pairing him with a female co-host to spice things up. In Trump, Hannity sensed a chance to turn things around. He glommed onto the ascendant candidate, stoking fears of rigged elections, violent immigrants and murderous Democrats, and pitching Trump as the panacea.
By the time Trump was sworn in, Hannity’s entwinement with the new president went far beyond sycophantic interviews and concocted conspiracies. On a near-daily basis, Hannity served as a presidential sounding board, and Stelter amusingly describes the TV star as exhausted by the round-the-clock counseling.
Stelter is far from an impartial observer. He is the host of a CNN show about the media, and his regular criticisms of Fox have made him a popular punching bag for Hannity and others.
Early on in “Hoax,” Stelter acknowledges that he is “shocked and angry” by what is going on at Fox, and his emotions sometimes seem to get the better of him. He resorts to name-calling and spreads gratuitous gossip about Fox personalities, at one point quoting an unnamed source’s assertion that a female anchor “knew how to use sex to get ahead.” Coming from a victim of Fox’s smears, it feels a little retributive.
Stelter also glosses over the fact that CNN is guilty of its own, Fox-lite version of partisan pandering. Certain hosts tend to ask leading, left-leaning questions. Everyone is incentivized to say things that go viral; hyperbole trumps nuance. This is not new. Tucker Carlson — who has emerged as Fox’s leading promoter of racist lies — rose to notoriety as a flamethrower on the CNN show “Crossfire.”
To be clear, there is no equivalence between the occasionally inaccurate and misleading “liberal media,” which generally owns up to its mistakes, and the highly productive factory of falsehoods at Fox. But in a polarized America, cable news networks reflect and to varying degrees contribute to that polarization.
My biggest disappointment with “Hoax” is that Stelter doesn’t unpack the greatest mystery of Fox’s success: Why is the channel’s unbridled demagogy so enticing? Do viewers realize they’re getting played? Do they care?
The book cites research that shows Fox viewers are especially likely to hold inaccurate views of important issues, but what is actually going on in their heads when they sit down in front of the TV? The closest Stelter comes to answering this question is when he asserts that for some, “Fox is an identity. Almost a way of life.”
That may be true, but I would be curious to hear from and better understand those viewers. There is no sign that Stelter spoke to any. Readers are left to look down on Fox’s millions of loyalists as gullible members of an extremist cult. It is just the sort of easy-to-digest but unnuanced conclusion that would play well on cable news.