CNN's Brian Stelter: Fox News "is bigger than Trump" — if he fights the network, he'll lose

CNN media critic on his new book and the "unhealthy relationship" between Fox News, Donald Trump and the audience

Published September 14, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Hoax by Brian Stelter (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/One Signal Publishers)
Hoax by Brian Stelter (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/One Signal Publishers)

Do executives at Fox News secretly hope that Donald Trump loses this November because that would be good for the network's ratings? Before you dismiss that as crazy talk, given the record ratings Fox News has seen during Trump's presidency, realize that Fox could see even higher ratings when it no longer has to defend Trump's unpredictable words and deeds and can solely focus on what Brian Stelter calls its "secret sauce": attacking Democrats and liberals.  

Stelter, the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and author of the new book, "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth," raised that very scenario during our "Salon Talks" conversation. As he explains it, Fox News has always been more comfortable attacking Democratic administrations, which traditionally has yielded a ratings boon for the network. "The network in a Biden presidency is almost a situation where tails you win and heads you win," he said. Fox News might face other problems with Trump as a former president, however. Stelter describes Trump as the Frankenstein monster that Fox News helped create, and as in the tale of Frankenstein, he could end up turning against his creator and starting a competing right-wing network. 

In our recent conversation, Stelter also addressed Trump's nonstop attacks on the media, which Stelter says have taken a toll on the credibility of the Fourth Estate: "He has said 'fake news' and 'hoax' so many times that it has poisoned the public discourse. It's like a slow-acting poison that kind of gradually moves to the veins of the American body. And we can't fully know what the impacts are of that yet." 

Watch my "Salon Talks" interview with Brian Stelter below or read the following transcript of our conversation — lightly edited for length and clarity — to learn more about "Hoax," his harsh words on the Fox News obsession with ratings and his blunt advice for how larger media outlets can rehabilitate their credibility in a post-Trump America. 

Your book "Hoax" is like a feedback loop. Does Trump drive Fox News, does Fox News drive Trump, or does it move back and forth all the time?

It is hard to tell where Fox ends and Trump begins. But if I had to choose one side of this, I would say Fox drives Trump more than Trump drives Fox. Fox has more of an agenda setting role than the President does, which is an astonishing thing to say. But when you look at the power of "Fox & Friends," when you look at the power of Sean Hannity and recently Tucker Carlson, who is achieving policy goals based on segments he produces on his show. I think it's clear that Trump is usually in a reactive mode, reacting to what he sees and hears on Fox.

Just this morning Trump was tweeting again about what was going on on "Fox & Friends." It really is his morning briefing. You mention in the book that Fox News does not have a traditional standards-and-practices department like other news organizations do. Even I have encountered this as a columnist for CNN Opinion. Just this past weekend, the standards department made me rework an op-ed. I was like, "But it's an opinion piece!" They still had issues because they had our common best interests in mind. Could you share with people what standards and practices do traditionally? And by contrast what is going on at Fox News?

Fox is described as a news operation, a news network, but it's also a political operation. And right now the propaganda is winning and the news is losing. I had staffers at the network say to me that it's like working at a place that's anti-journalism. So you're trying to produce journalism at a place that's anti-journalism. I'm wearing my CNN hoodie right now. It says "The World Needs Journalists." The sense that the world needs journalists, that should be a pretty basic concept. It's hard to disagree with that idea. However, at Fox, there is disagreement. So Sean Hannity says journalism is dead. You've got all these folks on Fox denigrating the media every single day and saying the world doesn't need these journalists.

That creates a real hostile environment for the actual reporters who do still work at Fox. I point out in "Hoax" that many have left. And I have a lot of stories about people that have left for various reasons, including Shep Smith, but a lot of other names you might not know. For the journalists who remain there, it's this really awkward, tough, sometimes hostile environment. I think the lack of standards and practices speaks to this problem. There is not a unit, a desk or a division that's charged with vetting news before it gets onto the air. There are some informal processes, but there's not that official checks and balances system that CNN has. And every other outlet has — forget about CNN — at the New York Times or Washington Post, there are reasons why there are editors and vetters and researchers. That structure just doesn't exist at Fox.

You make the point that at Fox, ratings are everything. Everyone is profoundly afraid of losing the audience. Does that then mean that the people bringing in a lot of money, Hannity or Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham, can literally say anything they want on air, as long as it feeds the audience? Is there no one at Fox News who will say, hey, that's beyond the pale of what's acceptable?

There are some exceptions, but what you just said is broadly correct, broadly true and really problematic. There is not this kind of follow-through or accountability that I know happens at other networks and should happen everywhere. This is really most clear in primetime with Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. When something really bad happens, when something really outrageous or racist happens on the air, there's finger-pointing that goes on inside Fox. Some people will point the finger at the head of the network, Suzanne Scott. Others will point at a woman named Meade Cooper, who's the executive vice president of primetime. Others will point at the executive producers for those specific shows, right? So they'll shift the blame, no one agrees on who's responsible or who's at fault. And then there's an attempt to move on and pretend that these embarrassing episodes didn't happen.

That's when they go on vacation, right. All of a sudden Tucker Carlson is on a pre-planned vacation?

Sometimes. Although I promise some of these vacations are actually scheduled, they're just at bad times. Bill O'Reilly truly was always going to go to Italy when the scandal erupted about his secret settlements with women that accused him of harassment. So he decided to go on the vacation that he already scheduled, and then of course, he never came back. He was forced out when he was in Italy. But there are other times, yes, where Fox uses this vacation illusion where they'll say someone's going on vacation to let the noise subside around their program and try to preserve their advertisers.

One of the really interesting things in the book are the little details. You mention Bill O'Reilly going to Italy and meeting with the pope. It seemed like, at least the way you were shaping it, that perhaps the pope could save his job. Even that didn't work out. 

I think there's so many stories about the last five years, these big stars at Fox, who thought they were kings of the world, who thought they were bigger than the network. And it turns out no, Fox is the star, not these individuals. No matter who's on at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., Fox's ratings are going to remain really high. It speaks to the fact that Fox has a monopoly position in this area of the media.

You write about how Fox got sued because of what some people viewed as misinformation regarding COVID-19 by some of the hosts. When it comes to Fox News and the misinformation that it has shared about COVID, do you feel that the network has responsibility for misleading Americans?

I think there's a lot of blame and a lot of responsibility to go around about the pandemic, but Fox had the biggest platform on cable and President Trump had the biggest platform in the country. He has the loudest megaphone and he knows how to use it. So the failures of Trump and his media allies to warn the country and prepare the country for what was coming were absolutely shameful. That's why we called the book "Hoax." We were originally going to call it "Wingman." But when Trump came out and said, "These Democrats, they tried to impeach me, now they're hyping coronavirus, they're politicizing the virus. It's their new hoax." And Sean Hannity said something very similar a week and a half later. They were viewing this as politics, not as a medical emergency. That was the fundamental problem.

And they were always two or three weeks too late, meaning that when Trump finally took action involving flights from Europe, the virus had already gotten in and it was spreading silently across New York City and several other states. And of course, when he announced the European restrictions, there were these long lines of people all shoved together at airports. Fox, to its credit, had a reporter who called that out and criticized the government for it. There were these moments on Fox where there was great reporting, excellent medical advice, excellent segments with doctors. But I think those segments were drowned out by the downplaying of the disease, by the attempts to politicize this and downplay it.

I've never seen a president make life and death a partisan issue. And it's not over. In North Carolina, he and his supporters were not wearing masks. Donald Trump Jr. has been out there attacking the media saying that it's a lie, that people were wearing masks. Last week, Trump made fun of Joe Biden for wearing a mask. If you take a step back and look at this is, does it feel surreal that you have a president dealing with a life-and-death pandemic in this way, where it's all about him? Everyone's doing things to hurt him as opposed to wanting to simply save lives.

It's embarrassing. And sometimes you need a little bit of perspective, you need to zoom out a little bit. You need to think back six months — it's been about exactly six months since all our lives changed and these lockdowns began. Now we're slowly coming out of it and looking around and seeing what the world is like. And the words from the president six months ago sound even worse now, right? We had a sense when he was contradicting his science experts and health experts that he was doing damage. We had a sense when he was downplaying the disease that it was dangerous. We know now, much more clearly, how dangerous and damaging it was. 

This is true for his media allies as well. His pro-Trump propagandists. Trump was calling up Hannity at the end of March and saying, "How are my ratings? How do we rate? I called into your show, Sean, how did I rate?" A good friend would have said to him, "Donald, don't ever ask about that again, we're in the middle of a crisis. We've got hospitals overwhelmed by the surge, we're trying to order body bags. Don't ask about your ratings. Please don't tweet about your ratings again. Please don't do it, it's bad for you." But instead, his so-called friends feed his ego rather than trying to actually help him. I would argue that they actually hurt him when they claim to help him by telling him about his ratings.

The book could have been called "Ratings, Ratings, Ratings" because that's what Fox News is moved by. It's a profit machine. When your only touchstone as a news outlet is ratings, what compromises do you end up seeing on screen?

Let me be clear, I'm in television, I'm on CNN. I care about ratings. I care about my show doing well. I look at the ratings every day. But there's much more of a fixation at Fox on winning because this network's been No. 1 for 18 years. Everybody knows what's at stake and what's on the line, and there's this intense desire to feed the audience what it wants and keep the audience at all costs. I had producers at Fox describe this as a really unhealthy relationship, where sometimes they fear the audience. Sometimes they don't respect the audience, but they're desperate to keep the audience's attention. What that leads to is Trumpier and Trumpier segments. Segments that are unhinged from reality, that are based in conspiracy theory, that are feeding the audience's wants and desires and not what they need. And again, this is the problem across television. It is much more severe at Fox.

As you mentioned, at CNN, MSNBC and all the big media outlets, ratings are important. They are connected to profits. But when your only goal is ratings, it's going to cause massive compromises. Shep Smith and others behind the scenes at Fox News understood that they were putting their careers on the line given that ratings are everything.

Well, also, the ratings also tell you what the audience wants, what the audience expects. Shep Smith's show at 3 p.m. was the lowest-rated show in daytime, the lowest-rated hour of the day on Fox. It meant that viewers were turning the channel actively when he came on. They did not want to hear him with his corrections to what was aired earlier in the day and his fact checks of the president's lies.

In the ratings for notable Democratic events, like Joe Biden's speech or the funeral of John Lewis, you see dramatic declines in Fox's ratings. Viewers turn it off when the Democrats are speaking and they turn it back on when the rebuttal from the Republicans is starting. So you end up thinking that the audience has been radicalized. What else can you say?

They've been served a diet of red meat. Fox News should come with a warning: It serves so much red meat that it's not healthy. I mean, look, Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, they're more news journalists. On some level, though, they're part of the Fox News machine. Is it fair to say they're also complicit in what is going on?

Well, that's certainly what some of their friends say, or their former friends. The Trump era has done damage to those kind of gentlemanly, old-fashioned, courteous relationships that you see between television anchors and rivals and all that. And certainly throughout my reporting, talking to dozens of people that were complicit that came up a lot, this sense that the news anchors there are like fig leaves of respectability. One person once said to Chris Wallace at a Columbia event, "Do you think you are there to truth-wash primetime?" That was an interesting term, "truth-wash." Wallace is on one hour a week, Sean Hannity's on one hour, five nights a week, in a much, much higher-rated program. You've got to look at Fox and say that the identity of Fox is Hannity and "Fox & Friends," these bigger shows.

But I still think the journalists there do serve important purposes. I understand why they stay. They want to be there for big events. They want to provide a reality check, a fact check to the rest of the programming. But let's say Bret Baier's show, for example, is on at 6 p.m. "The Five" is much higher rated at 5 p.m., and then the ratings drop at 6. Not everybody wants to see a newscast, but even his newscast is tilted to the right toward Trump. His panels, for example, in the back half of the show, are tilted to the right. Sometimes the lefty will be a journalist and then he'll have a pro-Trump person and another right-wing figure.

He tells people that he does this because he wants to have left, right and Trump. And I get it that sometimes "right" and "Trump" are not the same thing, but those panels are not balanced. Those panels are not representative of where the country is, right? If you want to have a panel that represented the country, that's not how it would look. My point is, even on the newscasts, these programs are tilted in Trump's favor.

Clearly, Trump has had an impact on Fox News. You've mentioned that Trump is their Frankenstein monster, but I want to get a sense from you on how the rest of the media is doing. Do you think the media is better at covering Trump this time, in terms of using the right language? For a long time, people didn't want to call him a liar, you probably remember that. Now we're beyond that. We're two months out from 2020, using terms like "white supremacist" about Donald Trump, using the term "fascist" in an academic sense, not a hyperbolic sense. Are we at the point where the media can speak bluntly about it? 

The answer is always yes and no to something like this, because some outlets are using the L-word all the time and others are not. And no matter what NBC and CNN and the New York Times do, there will always be this megaphone at Fox, which is what's believed by a sizable minority of the population, and will always tread very lightly, be very cautious. What I find frustrating is that when I talk to folks at Fox on background, meaning anonymously — more than 140 current staffers and 180 former staffers and others around Fox World — some of those folks said they had the same concerns about Trump that the rest of the media folks did. You hear on CNN about Trump's mental fitness, about his fitness for office. There are people at Fox asking those same questions, but they're only asking them off the air. They're not asking them on the air.

That's the fundamental part of the problem. You're always going to have this pro-Trump universe of media that is not going to call them out on the serial lying and fabricating, and not going to call them out on the racist rhetoric. But I do think the other major outlets have more of a — I don't want to say a willingness to call it what it is, but you do see that happening more often in the news coverage.

Trump is a unique person, we get it. He understands the media, he was a household name before he ran, he has a lot of money. At some point, Trump will no longer be president. Do you think Fox News finds their new Trump? Because he has been really obviously great for ratings. They've set records.

There will be others that try to pull a Trump and use the same entertaining techniques and use the same rally techniques, and Fox may well glom onto that and give that a lot of attention. But Fox's true secret sauce is that it's more anti-Democrat than it is pro-Trump, it's more anti-Democrat than it is pro-Republican. That's what is preferred by a lot of the staffers there, a lot of the stars there. It's easier to be against something than for something in the Fox universe, sad though tat may be. So actually, the network in a Biden presidency is almost a situation where it's tails you win and heads you win. They win either way because the audience is so loyal and so committed to these shows that whether it's Biden or Trump, the network stands to gain either way.

You make the point that if Trump loses he might not go on Fox as much. He might even start his own competitive network.

Right, he might become a rival. And in that case, I think Fox is bigger than Trump. I do. I may be proven wrong. Now I'm on the record saying this, but I think that Fox is bigger than Trump. He would have a hard time launching a Fox rival. It would be one thing to start what he's doing for his campaign, which is web video shows. But for him to launch a widely distributed television network in 80 million homes and get a Nielsen rating on it, I think would be very, very difficult. It's possible, but I think it'd be very difficult.

Big picture, do you think Trump has done lasting damage to the credibility of the media overall?

I don't know if lasting means 10 years or 50 years. I think for the 10-year horizon, yes, he has done damage. He has said "fake news" and "hoax" so many times that it has poisoned the public discourse. It's like a slow-acting poison that kind of gradually moves to the veins of the American body. And we can't fully know what the impacts are yet. I'd like to think that in a longer time horizon, let's say a 50-year time horizon, hopefully his attacks on the media will be viewed as an aberration, not the new normal. Hopefully other politicians will not follow this same shameless path, but I don't know what Donald Trump Jr. will do, for example.

You're a media critic. What can the major media do to bolster credibility in a post-Trump world, to try to get people, at least a big swath of this country, to have confidence in them again? There are people on the left who have issues with the media the same way people on the right do, but from different points of view, like they're not tough enough on Trump. While people on the right go, "You're too tough on Trump." Is there anything we can do, or is this now a world where everyone gets their own cable channel and you can watch whatever you want any time. 

Well, I think everybody trusts some form of media. It's just that everybody trusts different outlets and different forms of media. There's a sense of media distrust when, in fact, everybody has their own silos that they do trust. I think what big mainstream brands that try to appeal to everybody can do is to take on these issues and these concerns head-on. Don't be afraid of them. Talk about why we do what we do. Be accessible and transparent. Show that we are human beings and not robots reading the news and reading our columns. Show that we have reasons for why we do what we do and let people find the primary sources for themselves.

When we say the president is lying about something — it's one thing for me to say it, and another thing for me to show it. During his inauguration, he said the sun came out at the end of his speech, when in fact it was raining. It doesn't take me to say that. All I have to do is show you the video of the speech and then show the lie. Primary source material, letting people find it for themselves and being transparent with the audience — I hope that gradually helps. with these. It's not a full solution. These are all partial solutions.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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