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'Hoax' author Brian Stelter on why he's 'mad as hell,' how Fox News directs Trump's policies, and CNN's haters

Brian Stelter
Brian Stelter attends the 12th Annual CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute at American Museum of Natural History on December 9, 2018 in New York City.

Brian Stelter, host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and author of "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth" lives and breathes media. As an undergrad he founded TVNewser, then went straight to The New York Times, where he was mentored by the late, legendary media reporter David Carr

Now a mainstay of media reporting and criticism, he's turned his attention to what he sees as an unholy alliance between a corporate media network, Fox News, and the most powerful man in the world, President Donald Trump. In Stelter's accounting, "Fox and Friends" and a few primetime Fox hosts have more influence on the president than members of his own cabinet.

"Hoax" — a New York Times best seller in its first weeks of publication — is based largely information gleaned from over 140 sources within Fox News, and that's just the people that work there now

Stelter spoke by phone with Business Insider columnist Anthony Fisher last week. This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.

At the beginning of "Hoax," you make it clear that you're not neutral when it comes to your point of view as the writer of this book. You're "mad as hell." Does that pose a problem when you're not in author mode, but instead back in media reporter mode?

I think it is absolutely possible and important to be fair to everyone. In this case, to be fair to the subjects of the book and to be fair to media companies and networks and shows and TV hosts. But I also think it's appropriate and necessary to admit that we're living through a crisis and people have strong feelings about that crisis. So I don't think they're mutually exclusive. 

Roger Ailes has been gone from Fox News for just over four years. He founded Fox News, he was the unquestioned one man in charge. Who's calling the editorial shots at Fox now? 

The ghost of Roger Ailes is still in some ways running Fox News. After he was forced out in 2016, managers asked each other, "What would Roger do?" And there was very much a sense of the network running on autopilot. 

Now I can already tell you what the pushback would be from Fox News PR. They would say that there's a strong management team in place led by CEO Suzanne Scott, and that the culture has been reformed, and that hit new shows have been added to the schedule. And that is true. There were great programming choices made after Ailes was forced out. And there were big changes made internally to address this culture of sexual harassment that existed in the Ailes years. However, dozens and dozens of sources told me that they feel like the network lacks strong editorial leadership. And that is why when Jennifer Griffin corroborated key parts of The Atlantic story about Trump insulting the war dead, she was barely visible on Fox. The focus was more on Trump's denials than on the networks own reporting. 

I think one of the big reasons why people leaked to me by the dozens — I mean, I cite 140 current Fox news staffers —  one of the reasons they leaked is because there's a frustration about the leadership.

Trump Fox & Friends
President Donald Trump called into "Fox & Friends" on Friday, May 8

Parts of "Hoax" that are both horrifying and very readable in your book deal with how much "Fox and Friends" directly influences Trump's policymaking. 

This is the Fox-ification of America. The president is so addicted to Fox and so influenced by the content that what Fox does and doesn't do affects all of us. Even people who never watched Fox News, they're still impacted by what the network is doing, because he's so often misled. When you see the president tweeting about Big Tech censorship, when you see him attacking Google or challenging Amazon, he is getting those ideas right from "Fox and Friends" and Tucker Carlson. It's a daily pipeline to the president. 

People ask me who sets the agenda: Trump or Fox? I think Fox sets the agenda more than Trump because he wakes up, turns on the TV — just like millions of other people — and reacts to what he hears all day long. 

Based on the news broken by Bob Woodward [last week], we know Trump was lying about the danger posed by the coronavirus. And at the exact same time, Sean Hannity — who has a direct line to the president — was pushing the same message. "It's just the flu." Do you know if there was actual message coordination? Or was Hannity just doing what the boss said? 

There were a couple of things going on at the same time in February and March. Trump was getting these dire warnings in private, and he was sharing some of them with Bob Woodward. But he was also prospecting a sense of calm and complacency in public. My reporting indicates that Trump was influenced by Fox's downplaying of the disease. At the same time, Trump is hearing from officials in his government about just how deadly this is. So there are obviously multiple voices in his head at any given time. But he was calling into Sean Hannity' show and he was giving interviews elsewhere on Fox, where he was downplaying the threats. And those words had a real impact. 

For "Hoax," I went back and created a timeline of Fox's coverage and Trump's statements about the virus. They match up almost perfectly. What both Fox and Trump were doing in February was focusing on the virus through a political lens, not a medical lens. Now, obviously there were doctors on TV, there were warnings in the CDC — so there are exceptions to this — but by and large, the narrative was political, not medical. It was about "the Democrats trying to hurt Trump by politicizing the virus" and this country wasted weeks on that narrative while people were silently getting sick, not knowing they had the disease, because we didn't have the test. 

"News Nation" just launched for WGA America. It's billing itself as the real straight news. Do you think that's kind of a shot across the bow to CNN? The general perception is that of the three big cable news networks, CNN has always tried to play it as straight as possible. 

I'm just one person at CNN, but I have not heard any talk about "News Nation" internally. I'm really interested in "News Nation" as a media reporter, because I want to see if there's an audience for it. The sales pitch is that it is just the news. Let's see what that means in reality, because it is not an opinion that the president is a serial liar. There's an established public record. 

Oftentimes, I hear from readers of my newsletter who say they want a plain vanilla newscast, and there are really great vanilla newscasts out there, including on the big three broadcast networks at 6:30pm. But I am very skeptical that there's a big audience demand for a headline news service at night. I think if there was a big demand for headline news service at night, the channel formerly known as Headline News would be providing it. 

Did you see the Free Beacon supercut of CNN anchors and Biden surrogates using almost the exact same catchphrases to describe his campaign? 

I did not. 

Well it exists, I assure you. I don't think most reasonable people would think of CNN and any Democratic administration as being as cozy as Fox is with the current administration.

Yeah, there is no parallel.

So I'm not trying to make that parallel. But a good amount of the public believes CNN and MSNBC are ideologically sympathetic to the Democrats, and that they were way before Trump. Do you think that they have a reason to feel that way?

I think it's useful to be skeptical about the news media, but not cynical and certainly not hateful. I think that people should judge cable news coverage based on the 24-hour day and not the moment, not the second-by-second clips. I know that's not an easy thing to ask, but what I mean by that is any clips taken out of context can be misleading. I often see clips from Fox, from CNN, from MSNBC — they go viral on social media that are in no way a fair assessment of that network. And I'm saying this happens to Fox, too. It needs to be recognized that it happens in all directions. A 10 or 15-second snippet from a cable news show is almost never representative of the network as a whole. So I always suggest to viewers and critics to watch longer. Watch for a full day, watch for a week. See if you think that critique is still fair. 

Cable news exists on a spectrum. There is Fareed Zakaria on Sunday morning interviewing heads of state, having some of the most thoughtful conversations you'll see on television. And at the same hour on Fox, there's Maria Bartiromo, who hosts a "Deep State hoax" hour, full of interviews with Republicans who exist in alternative reality. So the spectrum is very wide. Cable news can, at its best, open people's eyes and help them understand the world. It can also just reinforce the presence of, and cause, division. 

I guess I'll still watch the [Free Beacon] supercut.

It's funny! 

By the way, I'm sure you can do a supercut of me saying "law and order" and then Trump says "law and order." What is the value of that other than trying to sow disdain for CNN?

putin trump
Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

Another one of these bugaboos that may have a kernel of truth in it is that particular shows on CNN and MSNBC overplayed their hand with the Russiagate story and had been maybe a little too eager to editorialize on things that ended up not happening. Do you feel that's the case and if so, do you think it's done any long term damage to the public's trust in media? 

So you said "overplayed their hand," which I believe is a poker reference. I don't personally play, but it's a gaming reference. And nothing about this as a game. I'm not saying that to mess with you. I'm just trying to reframe the conversation. I would say nothing about this. The job of journalists is to follow the story and figure out what is true. As Carl Bernstein has said, "the best best obtainable version of the truth at any given time." And certainly stories evolve over time. I think Michael Schmidt's book has reminded us how much we still don't know about Trump and Russia. Peter Sztrok's book has a lot of unanswered questions as well. I think to argue that the story was overplayed or overdone does a disservice to the fact pattern that we see in front of us. 

Right-wing media, led by President Trump, has been extraordinarily successful at emphasizing two words: collusion and hoax. And neither word was in the special counsel's charging papers. Neither word is all that relevant to the truth about Trump and his relationship with foreign countries. But through sheer repetition, he's been very successful in framing the conversation that way. And that's partly why my book is titled "Hoax" because of the president's rhetoric around the truth has been so destructive. He wants people to doubt everything. He wants people to disbelieve everything, unless he says it. He wants the world to believe that everything could be a hoax, starting with the Russia probe. And I think we've seen this year how damaging the consequences can be.

There's so much in the news about Fox right now that is related to "Hoax." I think Jennifer Griffin would be one of those examples, their handling of Bob Woodward's book is another example. What we see is an attempt to excuse anything and everything. It's a propaganda machine that any past president would have been thrilled to have, but it's not ultimately helping the public understand what is going on in the world. 

Read the original article on Business Insider

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