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As the presidential election approaches, questions are raised daily about not only the candidates themselves, but also how they are covered by the news media. In President Trump’s case, the attention focuses on his relationship with Fox News. Judy Woodruff reports and talks to CNN’s Brian Stelter, author of “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.”
As we get deeper into the presidential campaign season, there are questions being raised every day, not just about the candidates, but about how the news media cover them, and, in the case of President Trump, about his relationship to one particular news organization.
There's a new book about that.
And before we speak to its author, here's some background.
President Donald Trump:
The country's in very good shape, and we're set to rock and roll.
For an embattled president fighting for reelection in a year of crises and chaos, a friendly platform is just a phone call away.
Even as some journalists at Fox News have covered the human toll of the coronavirus pandemic and challenged President Trump on his record overseeing it…
I think we have one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.
That's not true, sir. We have a — we had 900 deaths on a single day.
… a number of its most prominent hosts have downplayed the seriousness of the virus and defended the president's handling of the outbreak.
The media and, frankly, most Democrats have been acting as though President Trump is directly responsible for every case of COVID-19 in the U.S.
The violence is fueled by dangerous rhetoric from far left politicians.
Fox's prime-time hosts also frequently have identical messages to the president's on largely peaceful protests that have broken out this year across the country over police killings of Black Americans.
This is clearly an effort to disrupt and take over the country.
And when the president said police are under siege in a recent interview with Fox's Laura Ingraham, she tried to steer him away from comparing controversial police shootings to choking while playing golf.
But they choke. Just like in a golf tournament, they miss a three-foot putt.
You're not comparing it to golf, because, of course, that's what the media will say.
No. I'm saying people choke.
But perhaps no one in the channel's stable of conservative hosts has been more influential than Sean Hannity. He's reported to have a direct line to the president, who, in turn, is a frequent caller on Hannity's show.
Mr. Trump has used the outlet to make false claims without pushback.
This will be the most fraudulent election in history.
Even so, the combination has drawn large audiences and made many millions in revenue.
In June and July, Fox News was the highest rated channel in prime time on all of television.
The president's relationship with Fox is the focus of Brian Stelter's new book, "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth." He is also CNN's chief media correspondent and the host of the show "Reliable Sources."
And he joins us now from New York.
Brian Stelter, thank you so much for being here.
You say at the outset that you wrote this as a citizen and a father, not as a journalist. Is it possible to separate the two?
I think it is possible to separate the two, because all of us, when we are journalists, are also humans living in this country, trying to make the best of it, and trying to create a better future for our kids.
I have two young kids. And I think, in 20 years, when they ask me, what was the Trump era all about, what happened to America, I think understanding Fox News is essential to understanding the Trump years.
You can't understand why the president is out there misleading the country about voter fraud and about anarchy in cities that isn't really happening without understanding where he is getting it from. He is getting from "Fox & Friends" in the morning, on "Sean Hannity" in the evening.
It is that feedback loop, the likes of which America has never seen before. And because he is oftentimes getting low-quality information, not the kind of high-quality information you get from the nightly news, he ends up misleading everybody as a result.
You do paint this remarkable picture of this loop, as you describe it, between Sean Hannity, other Fox hosts and the president, the sharing information, sharing perception of what is going on in the world.
How does it work? Who is helping whom here?
So, I have heard from a lot of readers and folks who have said, well, I didn't know it was this extreme, that there are even more examples than they realized.
I think Fox helps Trump more than Trump helps Fox at this point. But, also, these stars on Fox hurt Trump. When they are trying to help him, when they are trying to do him a service, they do him a disservice by misinforming him. And then it affects everybody.
This is the Foxification of America. And it is why we feel like we live in two separate information universes. When you have got a relative in your family, and you feel like they are talking a different language, it is oftentimes because of Fox.
Brian Stelter, you say some of the decisions that have most seriously damaged the Trump presidency could arguably be traced to his TV viewing habits.
Give us some examples of that, and how much TV does he watch?
Well, that is what I mean about, when they try to help him, they end up hurting him.
On the very first day, the first weekend, the inauguration crowd size debacle, the president was getting bad advice from Fox.
And, more importantly, with the impeachment saga, the president was hearing negative news about Ukraine on Fox. The seeds of the Ukraine scheme were planted on Hannity's show, and it led to Trump's impeachment.
So, a lot of this is about what sources of information the president is receiving. And that was most dangerous this year, Judy, with the pandemic. As Fox's stars downplayed the pandemic, Trump did as well. And that has had life-and-death consequences.
What are those consequences?
I mean, you write extensively about how dangerous this is. What are the consequences you see? And why do you think this program is so successful? As we said, their programming over the summer most-watched of all television anywhere.
Fox is like resentment news. It is like grievance news. It taps into white Christian Americans' grievances about what is happening in the country, an increasingly multicultural America. So, some of the narratives are about that.
That is why we heard all about caravans and an invasion in 2018 before the midterms. Now we're hearing about law and order, because Fox is emphasizing violence in the cities, in New York and Seattle and elsewhere.
Of course, the cities are not nearly as severely endangered as Fox portrays them. But the president watches, and then he reflects those talking points. And there is an echo back and forth. And that is why we live in these two separate information universes.
You do focus a lot, of course, most of this, Brian Stelter, on the prime-time hosts.
You also write about the other — the journalists at Fox, both current journalists, former journalists, who were your sources for information. How much do they take their orders, take their guidance from the owners, from management at Fox? Because — and we know what their political views are.
Rupert Murdoch is a right-wing political leader who has always wanted a close relationship with the president. And now he has one. His son Lachlan runs the company day by day.
But I think Fox takes his cues more from the audience, from the ratings every day. And that is what has made the channel Trumpier and Trumpier.
Hundreds of staffers in and around Fox confided in me, saying: We have gone off the rails. This is always a channel that leans to the right, and that is a good thing. There should be conservative-leaning news and liberal-leaning news, and lots of kinds of news. But they say: No, no, it has gotten too extreme now. The rhetoric is too extreme. The racism and xenophobia in prime time is too extreme.
Some journalists at Fox have left the network. Other stay because they want to try to make it better. And there are anchors like Chris Wallace, who is going to be moderating a debate, who's the exception to the rule.
But even anchors like Wallace have had a hard time trying to navigate the Trump years.
And "Hoax" has all the examples of why.
So, you are saying some of the journalists at Fox are able to escape this influence that you describe?
Yes, I think the problem, though, is that you the news side is losing and the propaganda side is winning.
And that is what Fox viewers seem to want. They prefer the pro-Trump talking heads. They prefer the propaganda. That's not just an issue at Fox. It's a problem for America.
When the president tells you to distrust the media every single day, when he uses the word hoax so often that nobody knows what to believe anymore, we're going to have a challenge in this country that's going to long outlast the Trump presidency.
A kind of bottom-line question, Brian Stelter.
You have got a great job at CNN. Would you ever want to work for Fox?
I think, if anybody at Fox could peel off an hour where it's all about fact-checking, all about being as accurate as possible, then there should be room for that.
Right now, though, the audience doesn't seem to want it, and neither is the network.
But I don't think Fox has to be this way. One of the Murdoch sons, James, Lachlan — he may try to take over someday. He's a more liberal-leaning son. I wonder what could happen if he tries to take over.
Brian Stelter, we thank you very much.
Thank you, Judy.
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