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Inside the unprecedented partnership between Fox News and the Trump White House

President Trump has long acknowledged top-rated Fox News as his favorite media outlet, and the network relishes its role as a conservative voice. But its increasingly close relationship with the administration is drawing criticism. William Brangham talks to the New Yorker's Jane Mayer about an unprecedented “feedback loop” and whether the president has made policy decisions to help Fox succeed.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Fox News Channel is one of the most successful news media ventures today, winning consistently top ratings in the competitive world of cable news.

    But while the network has always relished being an outlet for conservative voices, the network is drawing criticism for its increasingly close relationship with the Trump administration.

    William Brangham looks at that criticism and at the multiple connections between Fox and the White House.

  • Tucker Carlson:

    Now, people in Washington never tire of being shocked by what an incredibly bad man Donald Trump is.

  • William Brangham:

    Fox News has long been accused by critics of being a mouthpiece for the Trump administration, and, oftentimes, its anchors and guests do sound just like the president.

  • Alan Dershowitz:

    Mueller is not going to produce a neutral report. He's not going to be fair.

  • Laura Ingraham:

    Now is the time to talk about the wall and to awaken citizens.

  • William Brangham:

    And, in return, President Trump makes no secret of his love for Fox News.

  • Donald Trump:

    We got a lot of good people. Do we — do we like Tucker? I like Tucker.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Donald Trump:

    How about Ainsley, Brian? We got a lot of great friends.

  • William Brangham:

    Here he is in the Rose Garden last month.

  • Donald Trump:

    Now, Sean Hannity has been a terrific, terrific supporter of what I do. Not of me. If I changed my views, he wouldn't be with me. Laura's been great, Laura Ingraham. Tucker Carlson's been great. They don't decide policy.

  • William Brangham:

    And the president promotes Fox News in other ways as well. Since August of 2018, Trump tweeted Fox News stories to his 58 million Twitter followers more than 200 times.

    His favorite show seems to be the morning show, "Fox & Friends." He shares their stories often in real or near time, like this "Fox & Friends" segment from last January. It aired at 8:17 a.m., and was followed by a tweet from Trump at 8:44 a.m.

    Matthew Gertz is a senior fellow at Media Matters, a watchdog and frequent critic of Fox News. And he has spent more than a year tracking how closely Trump's tweets correspond to Fox News segments.

  • Matthew Gertz:

    The most valuable square foot of real estate in Washington, D.C., is the president's head, and where he is learning about the world is important.

    If he's not getting his information from the national security apparatus or the experts in government, and is instead listening to "Fox & Friends" and the guests that they book, that gives that show an incredible amount of power, and power without accountability. Fox News is only accountable to its viewers and to its advertisers.

  • William Brangham:

    When it comes to presidential interviews, Fox is also a clear favorite. The president has appeared on Fox News 46 times since becoming president, compared to just 10 times for every other network combined.

  • Donald Trump:

    Come on up, Sean Hannity.

  • William Brangham:

    Fox News' marquee host, Sean Hannity, even showed up at a presidential rally.

  • Sean Hannity:

    I had no idea you were going to invite me up here. And the one thing that has made and defined your presidency more than anything else, promises made, promises kept.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • William Brangham:

    After an outcry over Hannity's appearance, the network put out a statement saying — quote — "Fox News doesn't condone any talent participating in campaign events."

    The Trump administration doesn't deny that there are connections, but top officials tell our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor, that critics exaggerate how it works and that it's not a simple feedback loop.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The White House stance is that it's natural for the White House and Fox News to have overlapping interests, because they think that President Trump's base looks a lot like Fox News viewers. So they say it's natural. If the president wants to do something or likes some sort of strategy, it's interesting, but not surprising that Fox News hosts would endorse that view or that policy.

  • William Brangham:

    And it's true: Not everything on Fox is supportive of the administration and its policies. Several Fox anchors are well-known for giving administration officials and supporters a tough grilling.

    For example, Fox's Bret Baier last week pressed Congressman Jim Jordan about the president's allegedly illegal hush money payments to different women.

  • Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio:

    Michael Cohen can't be trusted.

  • Bret Baier:

    But what about the substance? I mean, the president writing a check to him while president for these payments, these 11 payments, that he says were to pay off Stormy Daniels and the other woman, is that not true?

  • Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio:

    Right.

  • William Brangham:

    Fox's Chris Wallace is another example, like here, when he challenged Press Secretary Sarah Sanders about the claim that terrorists are coming across the U.S.-Mexico border.

  • Sarah Huckabee Sanders:

    Nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally, and we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is at our southern border.

  • Chris Wallace:

    Wait, wait, wait. Do you know where those 4,000 people come, where they are captured? Airports. Airports.

  • Sarah Huckabee Sanders:

    Not always, but certainly a large number.

  • Chris Wallace:

    The State Department says there hasn't been any terrorists found coming across the southern border.

  • William Brangham:

    Like Wallace and Baier, Fox's Shepard Smith often fact-checks the president.

  • Shepard Smith:

    The president has called it an assault at the border. It is absolutely not.

  • William Brangham:

    In a statement to the "NewsHour" today about its record, the company said: "Fox News has been the number one news network in the country for the past 17 years because we are the only news organization to provide a thorough look at every side of every story. Our award-winning anchors and reporters are widely respected throughout the industry for their fearless approach to the news, while our opinion hosts offer insightful commentary analysis on the leading issues. We are proud of our team and the product we deliver."

    But there is another important connection between the White House and Fox News. Overall, more than a dozen current and former administration appointees have previously worked at Fox, including John Bolton, Trump's national security adviser. He was a longtime Fox News commentator.

    Bill Shine, a Fox News executive who now works as deputy chief of staff for communications. Hope Hicks was the former White House communications director, but she left the White House in March, and was soon hired by Fox News' parent company, 21st Century Fox.

    For more on the revolving-door relationship between the White House and Fox News, I'm joined now by Jane Mayer of "The New Yorker." Her newest story, "The Making of the Fox News White House," details the many ways the two intertwine.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Jane Mayer:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    So, you report that Fox News proudly celebrates its conservative credentials.

    But, in your story, you feature critics inside and outside of Fox News who say they have never seen it quite like it is today. What are you hearing from them?

  • Jane Mayer:

    So, that was the thing that was interesting.

    Liberals have been bashing Fox forever, but what you now hear is there are a number of conservatives who are bashing Fox, because they think it's become a mouthpiece for Trump, not conservative, so much as almost kind of a platform for authoritarianism. And they're worried about it.

    So you don't hear dissenting voices on Fox even within the right. You don't hear other kinds of conservatives.

  • William Brangham:

    If I were to turn on Fox News on any given day on a big news day, how does it manifest itself?

  • Jane Mayer:

    Well, they're — so, in the past, you might have heard Bill Kristol, or Jennifer Rubin, or George Will. These are all so-called never-Trumper conservatives, who are critics of Trump, but they're from the right.

    You don't see very many of those people there anymore.

  • William Brangham:

    Those people have largely been exiled?

  • Jane Mayer:

    They have been exiled.

    And what you see is a celebration pretty much night and day of our President Trump.

  • William Brangham:

    There are a lot of people who will look at this and say: Well, that's their business model. It's totally fine. There's nothing illegal about it. And the fact that they have found an audience with the singular occupant of the White House, what's the big deal?

  • Jane Mayer:

    I suppose what the big deal is, is that the — kind of the understanding, if you're in the news business, is that you're not supposed — there's a line between news and politics, and that we're independent. We're a separate branch. And we're not part of the government. We're the fourth estate.

    And it's important for democracy that people get independent information, so they can make good choices about politics.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, the conservative critics, including some voices on Fox News, would say, but the press is largely liberal. And they point to the way certain parts of the press dealt with the Obama administration.

    You, in your own piece, report how JFK had a very tight relationship with the press, and they didn't report certain stories that were unflattering to him.

    Is this, do you really think, philosophically that different?

  • Jane Mayer:

    I do think what's different is that there's coordination now, where you have — really, you have got the largest cable news network in the country is coordinating, it appears on a daily basis, with the White House.

    So there's this revolving door, where the former president of Fox News is now the director of communications for Donald Trump.

  • William Brangham:

    This is Bill Shine.

  • Jane Mayer:

    This is Bill Shine in the White House.

    And the highest rated talking head for Fox News, Sean Hannity, is the best friend of Bill Shine, so the best friend of the White House communications director, and is on the phone almost every night after his show with the president.

    So you have got this very, very tight-knit group of people who are messaging using one of the big networks in the country.

  • William Brangham:

    Throughout your piece, there is a debate that seems to course through it, which is, is Trump driving Fox, or is Fox driving Trump?

    And I wonder where you come down on that.

  • Jane Mayer:

    So, that was one of the things I was hoping to find out, as a reporter, because I couldn't tell. Who's driving this train?

    And on any given day, it's very hard to tell. What you will often see is something that's on Fox then echoed by a tweet from the president. Then Fox is encouraged to do more of it.

    It's kind of — someone said to me, it's — you could call it either a vicious circle or cycle or a virtuous circle or cycle. It's a loop. It's a feedback loop. And somewhere in there, in some ways, among the most important dynamics is the audience, because Fox is trying to capture the audience and make it constantly watch Fox.

    And the president is trying to capture the same audience and make them vote for him. This is a segment of the American population. And the way they do it is the same. They try to make that segment of the American population angry.

    So, they're both playing really towards the audience.

  • William Brangham:

    One of the media analysts you quote in your story says: "Fox's most important role since the election has been to keep Trump supporters in line."

    What does he mean by that?

  • Jane Mayer:

    So, what he's saying is that, whenever there's a story that's negative for Trump in the rest of the media, what Fox does is, it has a counternarrative that it spins out there that keeps Trump supporters happy and says, don't listen to those critics. They are the deep state.

    Or, if it's law enforcement, from the FBI on down, coming after Trump, they're crooks. We have got the real story here that the mainstream media won't tell you. Stay tuned. Stay with Trump. Stay with us.

  • William Brangham:

    But there are many instances where Fox News anchors will really grill the president's supporters, members of the administration.

    For instance, I'm just thinking about what — after Michael Cohen's testimony about those alleged hush money payments, Bret Baier really went after Congressman Jim Jordan about, doesn't this evidence trouble you?

  • Jane Mayer:

    Well, there are a handful of actually excellent reporters at Fox. And Bret Baier is considered a solid reporter. And…

  • William Brangham:

    Chris Wallace.

  • Jane Mayer:

    … Chris Wallace is a solid reporter, Shepard Smith.

    There are a number of them. And they work for the news side of Fox. What most viewers have no idea is, there's a separate division that's actually considered news reporters. And the rest of it, in Fox's view, is entertainment. It's all labeled Fox News, but you wouldn't really know it as a viewer.

    It's the entertainment guys and women that you would think of as Fox. They're on all night long in prime time.

  • William Brangham:

    In your story, you also report how the Trump administration, when it comes to regulatory matters, has also taken a very favorable approach to Fox News, specifically with regards to the Time Warner acquisition.

    Can you explain?

  • Jane Mayer:

    Well, what I found was, Trump actively tried to stop that deal, block that deal. And he ordered Gary Cohn, who is — was his top economic adviser in the White House, to get the Justice Department to block that deal.

    And he not only ordered him once, but he said: I have told him 50 times.

    And there's this anecdote is in the story, which suggests that the president was trying to throw a wrench in one of the major sort of corporate deals that took place during his time, and in a specific way.

    That was a deal that would have helped CNN. And he wanted to hurt CNN, it appears. And it is a deal that, if you block it, would have helped CNN's rival Fox.

  • William Brangham:

    Jane Mayer of "The New Yorker," your current story is in the current issue of "The New Yorker."

    Thanks very much for being here.

  • Jane Mayer:

    Thanks for having me.

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