As Brian Stelter wrote the final draft of “Hoax” in his midtown apartment, the ominous sirens he heard in the background served as constant reminders of the book’s purpose. The host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” was working on proving just how greatly Fox News influences President Trump’s decision making, and the way in which the network covered the COVID crisis seemed to fit seamlessly into his narrative. “There’s a lot of blame to go around for what went wrong last winter and spring, but Fox had the biggest platform on TV and Trump had the biggest platform of anyone,” he began. “So downplaying the pandemic and covering it as politics and not a medical crisis had real consequences.”
Through interviews with current and former employees, Stelter gives a behind-the-cameras look into the conservative network that has 500,000 loyal fans already tuning in by 4 a.m. According to his sources, Fox has blurred the line between news and opinion during the Trump presidency, posing a “threat to democracy” as Trump relies heavily on the information he hears on shows like “Fox & Friends” and “Hannity.”
The husband to NY1 anchor Jamie, and father of two has been covering Fox for 16 years - on the cable news blog he launched as a college freshman, then as a reporter at The New York Times and now at his current role with CNN.
Explain the implications of the word hoax and what it was used to describe.
Hoax is a bitter, malicious word. It suggests that the hoaxer is trying to hurt you or fool your family. And Trump has relied on this word to prop up his alternative reality. He used to say, “fake news” every day, but that term started to lose its meaning and power. So he has moved on to these even uglier words, like “hoax,” to de-legitimize the media and destroy our shared sense of truth. And the reason I titled the book “Hoax,” is because he used the word at the end of February to complain about the Democrats for raising alarms about the coronavirus. He said they politicized the virus. But by using the word “hoax,” he gave permission to his fans not to fret about the virus. And that was incredibly damaging.
You state that Trump devotes six hours per day to watching Fox. Describe his regime and the TV setup in the White House.
He has recently been out confirming my book by talking in public about his Fox obsession. He listed six or seven shows that he watches. The way that he watches so much TV is with a really fancy multiroom DVR called the Genie, which allows him to start watching in his bedroom, hit pause, and resume watching downstairs near the Oval Office. And he fast-forwards through a lot of commercials and non-Trump segments, so what he’s really doing is he’s scanning all of these shows. And we can see it for ourselves on his Twitter feed, because he tweets about Fox almost every day. The heart of the problem is, what he’s tweeting is often misinformation. He is frequently misinformed by his favorite shows on Fox.
In the research for this book, you spoke with 140 current employees. What did you learn from them?
There’s an enormous amount of concern and disappointment with the direction Fox has headed in. Fox was always conservative, but it was never as conspiratorial and as extreme as it is today. The channel has become Trumpier and Trumpier every year. And many staffers are disturbed by that. Some even say it’s a danger to the democracy. And they don’t feel they have a lot of power to make change from the inside. There are numerous reasons why unhappy staffers stay. A lot of it has to do with the money, but it’s also about lack of other options, fear about not getting another job. There also some other understandable reasons, feeling like you’re part of a family, respecting your coworkers, wanting to improve the place from the inside. But a number of people have left, and one of themes of “Hoax” is all of the reasons why Fox has lost so many talented journalists. There’s been this real exodus from Fox and usually when people leave, they don’t say why they are leaving, but I have tried to report all of that in the book.
As for host Sean Hannity, you explain that he is the most powerful person at Fox and that he speaks to the president almost every day.
Hannity is, as The Washington Post once said, a “shadow chief of staff,” giving the president advice and counsel, recommending who to hire, coming up with talking points for the next rally. And some of this happens on the air, but a lot of it happens off the air in private phone calls and conversations. Sometimes they will even talk at 10 or 11 at night and review Hannity’s show from that day. No president has ever had a relationship like this with a television host. The Trump presidency would look very different were it not for Hannity and the rest of Fox News. They prop him up, but they also misinform him and end up hurting his presidency.
When Hannity refers to you on his show, you get negative feedback on Twitter and email. How do you respond to that?
It just speaks to how polarized and ugly the political culture has become. I used to be quite friendly with Hannity; he gave me great advice when I was starting out in the television business. I view him personally as a nice person and a family guy, but in the Trump years, he slings childish personal insults at all sorts of critics. That’s one of the differences between Fox and other networks. You don’t see people on other networks coming up with amateurish nasty nicknames for their critics. Again, it speaks to how Trump has hijacked Fox. Hannity engages in the same juvenile behavior as the president does. And it’s just an example of the rot at the center of our politics. How ideas are not met by other ideas, ideas are met by nasty putdowns and hateful lies.
What’s a typical day like for you as far as how you get your news?
Unfortunately, I’m scrolling through Twitter all day long, even though it is sometimes a sewer. I keep the TV on all day and I watch a lot of Fox and a lot of CNN. I try to have a really balanced media diet, just like an actual diet. And I think one of the biggest ways to improve the American information space is if more people had a more balanced media diet. On Sean Hannity’s show, Joe Biden is portrayed as a skeleton, someone in the throes of dementia, at the end of his life. And then I turn on CNN and Biden’s holding a live Town Hall, answering detailed questions. And obviously he looks nothing like the caricature that Hannity is portraying. But, if you don’t turn the channel, you don’t know that.
Follow Brian Stelter on Twitter @brianstelter