If anyone was born to write a juicy book about the democracy-threatening relationship between Fox News and President Donald Trump, it had to be Brian Stelter.
After all, at not quite 35, the Maryland native has been reporting on cable news for more than 15 years. As a college undergraduate, he started a blog, CableNewser, that he eventually sold to a digital-publishing company.
At 22, straight out of Towson University, he was hired by The New York Times as a media reporter, where he had a starring role alongside the columnist David Carr in the documentary “Page One,” about the inner workings of the paper.
And as CNN’s chief media correspondent, he is so ubiquitous — writing stories, producing a popular newsletter, tweeting prolifically and hosting the Sunday media-centric show “Reliable Sources” — that Columbia Journalism Review called him “unavoidable.”
Turning this bottomless drive and energy to one of the most consequential media stories of our time, the symbiotic ties between Fox News and Trump, Stelter talked to hundreds of current and former network employees for a new book published Tuesday, Aug. 25, by Simon & Schuster: “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.” (I obtained an early copy and interviewed Stelter last week.)
Not surprisingly, almost everyone spoke to him only on the condition of anonymity, which gives the book a certain “just trust me” opacity. Still, the insider details are believable and often stunning — like ultimate Trump loyalist Sean Hannity reportedly calling Trump “bats—t crazy” when speaking privately.
Or this, from someone identified as a Fox News star: “Trump is like Fox’s Frankenstein. They helped make him, and he’s out of control.”
The book’s depiction of the feedback loop between media company and president is undeniable. Media watchers and political insiders see it unfolding day after day, but Stelter pulls it together:
“Trump granted pardons because of Fox. … He raged against migrant ‘caravans’ because of Fox. He accused public servants of treason because of Fox. And he got the facts wrong again and again because of mistakes and misreporting by the network,” he writes.
“And then,” he adds, “there was the coronavirus.” Stelter writes about the deep reservations Fox News staffers harbor about the network’s early, mostly dismissive coverage of the pandemic, with some of them calling it “unforgivable” and “hazardous to our viewers.”
I asked Stelter what he found most surprising as he reported the book. (We overlapped briefly when I was The New York Times public editor, and I have been an occasional guest on his Sunday media show.)
First, he said, he was struck by “the number of staffers who miss Roger Ailes,” the network’s dictatorial co-founder who resigned in disgrace in 2016 after a horrifying string of sexual harassment allegations and died less than a year later. Under Ailes, these staffers told Stelter, there was at least some leadership, a clear vision and some journalistic standards — even if those standards were aimed squarely at maximizing ratings and pursuing an arch-conservative agenda. Ailes was the obvious “audience of one,” at the Murdoch-owned network, the boss whom all strove to please or suffer the consequences. With his fall from grace, a new, far stranger reality emerged: The audience that matters most now is Trump.
The second surprise, Stelter told me, was the number of Fox News staffers who acknowledge the harm it has done and its frequent failure to meet basic standards for truth-telling — and who struggle with whether to remain at the network. Some hesitate because they fear they are tainted by having worked at Fox News; others because the money is too good to walk away.
“These calculations are right there at the surface,” Stelter said, and not just among high-profile names such as news anchor Shepard Smith, whose abrupt departure as the network’s on-air conscience last fall captured the media world’s attention. “These are real moral and ethical struggles.”
Other staffers have reached a breaking point, he reports, such as former anchor Jenna Lee, who chose not to re-up when her contract expired in 2017, telling friends that “the real estate for real news was shrinking” at Fox News, though she wouldn’t say so publicly.
This was not long after the network’s disgraceful, conspiracy theory-fueled reporting about Seth Rich, the young Democratic National Committee staff member who was slain on a Washington, D.C., street in 2016. Hannity, among others, spent weeks trying to tie his death to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. How could such baseless reporting ever have been broadcast? Stelter delves into one reason: Fox News’ lack of traditional standards and practices, the kind that every respectable news organization has.
“The Seth Rich debacle happened because Fox operated without brake-tappers,” he writes. Stelter quotes a veteran Fox News anchor: “I was never never ever asked to get a second source.”
Then there was Abby Huntsman, the former co-host of “Fox & Friends Weekend,” who couldn’t countenance Fox News’ full-throated support of the Trump policy that cruelly separated migrant families at the border. Huntsman “had been quietly talking to ABC executives about leaving Fox,” but was on the fence. “Family separations tipped her off the fence and onto ABC.” (She left ABC News’ “The View” early this year to help her father, John Huntsman, with his gubernatorial campaign; he lost in the Republican primary.)
As for the future of Fox News, much depends on November’s presidential election, Stelter said. Should Trump lose his reelection bid, he thinks that Fox may change course — going on the offensive against Joe Biden’s presidency as it did against President Barack Obama and has never stopped doing against Hillary Clinton. Or, he speculated, it could return to meatier reporting overall.
But there may be a new player to consider: “The biggest question is does Trump become a competitor,” Stelter told me, no longer content to dominate a network but wanting total control in the form of a new entity that might be dubbed “Trump TV.”
That’s the problem, of course, with creating a Frankenstein — you may come to regret how he behaves.
But with Fox News “on a path to $2 billion in profits,” according to Stelter’s sources, that hasn’t happened yet.