The hypocrisy at the heart of Fox News is so glaring and protrusive it can probably be seen from outer space.
That’s just one conclusion drawn from reading Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth, by Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Reliable Sources and previously media reporter for The New York Times. After reading the book, it’s hard to know where to start.
First, though, there’s the money. As Stelter points out, Sean Hannity earns about US$30-million a year at Fox News. He lives in a mansion in a compound on Long Island that he rarely leaves. If he does, he’s got his own private jet, a helicopter and limo-with-chauffeur. Long before the pandemic forced some broadcasters to work from home, Hannity did it all the time, having his own studio in the mansion.
This is the same Hannity who often attacks “media elites” and has declared on air, “My overpaid friends in the media, well, they have their chauffeur-driven limousines, they like their fine steakhouses and expensive-wine lifestyles.” The fact that he wasn’t immediately struck by a thunderbolt from the deity is enough to make a person a lifelong atheist.
Tucker Carlson now earns US$10-million a year. He has a house in Washington but his principal residence is a mansion on an island in Maine. He has a nearby private studio to do his show. Laura Ingraham is also on US$10-million annually. When Megyn Kelly was threatening to leave Fox News, the contract offered to keep her on-board amounted to US$100-million.
The book began as Stelter’s examination of the strangely incestuous relationship between Fox News and the Trump White House. Donald Trump often forms opinions and issues tweets based on what he hears on the channel. In turn, Fox News depends on access to Trump to maintain its air of exclusive truth-telling. Trump talks to Hannity every week, sometimes daily. Hannity offers advice to him and Trump tells Hannity what works on Fox News and what doesn’t. It’s a co-dependency relationship unique in the history of television or U.S. politics.
That would be enough material, but Stelter was further spooked by the role of Fox News in downplaying the COVID-19 virus and its support for Trump’s early dismissal of the virus as any real threat to the United States. Stelter writes angrily about how the channel’s viewers had “been trained to disbelieve what other outlets said.” Fox News viewers simply denied the reality of a pandemic crisis, and viewers took risks in their lives, because the channel told them what was being reported by others was “fake.”
At the core of the book is the unedifying tension between what remains of the “news” side of the channel and the pundit-propaganda side that thrives in prime time. You’re left wondering how a figure like Chris Wallace, or Bret Baier, can stand it there. Wallace reports and interviews and the prime-time hosts present an alternative reality. In particular, Stelter tracks the case of Shepard Smith, whose reporting was undermined by the propagandists and, in particular, Tucker Carlson.
Exhausted by the inside-Fox conflict, Smith walked away from the outlet, saying goodbye to a US$15-million annual salary. He signed off Fox News saying, “Even in our current polarized nation, it is my hope that the facts will win the day, that truth will always matter, that journalism will thrive.” His sentiments found little support at the channel.
Stelter locates the source of the scarifying triumph of opinion-anchors in the dismissal of former boss Roger Ailes. The departure of Ailes, after multiple accusations of sexual misconduct (a story now dramatized in the TV series The Loudest Voice and the movie Bombshell) coincided almost exactly with Donald Trump getting the Republican nomination in 2016. The Murdoch family, owners of Fox News, did not replace him immediately. Into the ensuing vacuum stepped Hannity, whose close relationship with Trump meant he had formidable power, and Hannity sensed that Trump-boosterism was the future. The news reporting was irrelevant.
The book is an exhausting read, to be honest. It’s one workplace scandal after another, one conspiracy-theory promotion by opinion-anchors after another. And yet it’s deeply illuminating about the dynamic of the Fox News operation and its hold on the Trump-supporting audience.
It is especially vivid on the battle between reporting and opinion. Two weeks after this book was published, we can witness how Fox News reporter Jennifer Griffin confirmed and corroborated details in The Atlantic story about Trump disparaging military members. Then how, within hours, Fox News hosts were dismissing The Atlantic’s reporting as a “hoax” and saying it had “already been debunked.” As if their colleague Griffin’s reporting didn’t exist. Trump called for Griffin to be fired. For reporting, no less. He’s not used to that from Fox.
It all amounts to watching a hot mess of Trump fandom collide, in a surreal way, with facts that are blithely disregarded. The word “hypocrisy” doesn’t do it justice.
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