Fox News Channel said it was addressing an issue with employees who communicated with an aide to former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt ahead of a "Fox & Friends" interview. Emails show Fox producers allowing Pruitt's team to choose interview topics, know questions in advance and even approve part of the show's script.
The co-hosts of "Fox & Friends" have long acted as cheerleaders for President Donald Trump, who has called the program his favorite morning show, and his administration. But emails between Fox producers and a Pruitt aide, uncovered in a Freedom of Information Act by the Sierra Club and first reported by The Daily Beast, is another example of an unusually close relationship between a news network and the White House that often veers or outright tramples on questions of journalism ethics. Fox's most ardent critics have lambasted the channel as state-run TV.
The cozy relationship goes beyond the network's non-confrontational interviews with Trump administration officials and allies, as well as endless praise of the president. News of the emails follow the appointment of Bill Shine, the former Fox executive who was ousted from the network for his mishandling of allegations of sexual misconduct, and now works as the president's communications director. And, ahead of this fall's midterm elections, Fox anchor Sean Hannity appeared onstage with the president at a Trump rally, after explicitly saying he would not, and blasted all the reporters covering the event, his Fox colleagues among them, "fake news."
Following the incident, a Fox News spokesperson told Salon in a statement that it "does not condone any talent participating in campaign events. We have an extraordinary team of journalists helming our coverage tonight and we are extremely proud of their work. This was an unfortunate distraction and has been addressed." However, The spokesperson did not make it clear whether Hannity or Pirro would face any consequences for breaking the network's rules.
Fox told the Associated Press that it was disciplining employees involved in the communication with Pruitt's team, but did not offer specifics on who would face consequences or how it planned to act. "This is not standard practice whatsoever, and the matter is being addressed internally with those involved," said a Fox News Channel spokesperson.
In May 2017, Pruitt's team wrote to Fox saying that the administrator would be in New York and interested in an in-studio interview to discuss the environmental reforms he was implementing to help communities "poorly served by the last administration," according to The Daily Beast.
"Pruitt has been outspoken about the lack of environmental accomplishments under the Obama administration, calling President Obama 'no environmental savior' and he would like to expand on these comments," wrote then-press secretary Amy Graham.
"Fox & Friends" producer Andrew Murray agreed to the interview, although Graham pressed him "to stick with this as the topic" and asked for confirmation. Murray again agreed and copied producer, Diana Aloi, and said she would follow up with "pre-interview questions on the agreed-upon topic, the new direction of the EPA and helping communities that were poorly served by the last administration," the Daily Beast reported.
After Aloi exchanged emails asking for "talking points" and what the "top three priorities are for the EPA that Mr. Pruitt would like to discuss specifically," she sent Graham the script introducing Pruitt's segment.
"Would this be okay as the setup to his segment?" the Fox producer wrote.
"There’s a new direction at the Environmental Protection Agency under President Trump—and it includes a back-to-basics approach. This after the Obama administration left behind a huge mess more than 1,300 super-fund sites which are heavily contaminated—still require clean-ups. So why was President Obama touted as an environmental savior if all these problems still exist?" read the script.
"Yes — perfect," Graham replied.
During the interview the following day, "Fox & Friends" hosts recited the approved script near verbatim.
"President Trump trying his best to drain the swamp and much of that draining happened at the Environmental Protection Agency after the Obama administration left behind—get this—a huge toxic mess," said co-host Brian Kilmeade.
"More than 1,300 Superfund sites that are heavily contaminated still require cleanup," co-host Ainsley Earhardt continued.
"The press made President Obama out to be the environmental savior and yet when you look at the number of toxic dumps left on your plate, it’s a big number," co-host Steve Docy added.
"Absolutely," Pruitt said.
While it is common for journalists and TV producers to discuss topics in advance with subjects and their representatives, it is typically frowned upon to promise that certain topics are off-limits and to offer pre-interview questions to government officials, who are supposed to be accountable to the public.
"Every American journalist knows that to provide scripts or articles to the government for review before publication or broadcast is a cardinal sin. It’s Journalism 101," David Hawkins told The Daily Beast. He is a veteran of CBS News and CNN and now teaches journalism at Fordham University.
"This is worse than that," he added. "It would and should get you fired from any news organization with integrity."
Pruitt resigned from the EPA in July amid numerous ethics investigations into his behavior and handling of the agency, including excessive spending, among other scandals.