Brian Stelter’s new book, “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth,” covers much the same ground and offers much the same argument, but in a catty, chatty tone that makes for an easy read, though a less substantive one. Based on three years of interviews with more than 140 staffers at Fox and 180 former staffers and other knowledgeable sources, Stelter describes how the network evolved from a serious news operation with a decidedly conservative perspective to what he asserts is essentially “state-supported TV.”
Stelter, chief media correspondent for CNN Worldwide, does not assume Mayer’s detached, neutral tone. As he writes in his opening: “What you’ll get in these pages is not the Stelter in a navy blue blazer that you see on CNN. I’m writing this book as a citizen; as an advocate for factual journalism; and a new dad who thinks about what kind of world my children are going to inherit.”
He continues: “This story is about a rot at the core of our politics. It’s about an ongoing attack on the very idea of a free and fair press. It’s about the difference between news and propaganda. It’s about the difference between state media and the fourth estate. So excuse me if I swear a little — but I am alarmed, and you should be too.”
The profanity is there in repeated usage of the words “s—” and “bulls—,” as in “Fox spoon-fed bulls— to Trump,” and the point of view is alarmist. Fox, Stelter writes, “is an addictive substance. For its biggest fans, Fox is an identity. Almost a way of life.” And the biggest fan of all, though sometimes a mercurial one, is the real estate developer from Queens who rode a wave of resentment to the White House and desperately relies on Fox for inspiration and validation.
Stelter takes his story back to October 1996, when Roger Ailes launched Fox News, fueled by Rupert Murdoch’s ample fortune and a burning ambition to provide a counterpunch to the liberal and centrist networks that then dominated cable news. Ailes and Trump ran in the same New York media circles for decades, and each became adept at exploiting their cynical, mutually transactional relationship.
By 2012, when Trump was sullying the political arena by waving the racist banner of birtherism, Ailes gave him a weekly call-in segment on the morning “Fox & Friends” show. That, more than “The Apprentice,” allowed him to build an adoring audience for his fact-free crusades, according to Stelter. “ ‘Monday Mornings with Trump,’ ” he writes, “changed the course of American politics.”
Trump’s weekly gig ended when he rode down the Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy, but that didn’t stop him from maintaining a regular presence on Fox’s shows, both news and opinion. A few journalists were willing to challenge the candidate who became president on his repeated lies and obfuscations, but gradually they were pushed out or, exasperated and demoralized, left Fox.
Megyn Kelly, who during a televised debate famously asked Trump about his ugly characterizations of women, was among the most notable; another stalwart, Shepard Smith, held on longer. But Stelter’s narrative is studded with lesser-known reporters, producers, editors and anchors who could no longer muster the blind loyalty required of them, even though some had to relinquish lucrative contracts and the quiet power of knowing they had the president’s fawning attention.
“Journalism at Fox was being suffocated,” Stelter writes. To management, it didn’t seem to matter. Thanks to its loyal viewership, and a business model that privileged ratings above all else, revenue continued to flow.
Beyond elevating an extreme form of tribalism, Stelter shows, Fox News accelerates and amplifies Trump’s denigration of truth, disregard for facts and manipulation of a pliable public into believing an alternative reality. Here, Hannity was — and remains — the overpowering central force.
“Hannity and Trump worked hand in hand to tar practically the entire American news media as ‘fake.’ Both men’s hypnotic message was that Fox was the only legit network while everyone else was fraudulent,” Stelter writes.
Now that message is increasingly shaping the workings of the federal government. By mid-2020, according to Stelter, 20 people had jumped from the network to the White House, including a member of the Cabinet and a deputy chief of staff. The pipeline flows in the other direction as well. This isn’t just a matter of an administration hiring like-minded acolytes; it meant that the Fox worldview would directly affect American policy and American lives.
In what surely was a last-minute addition to his book, Stelter catalogues how Hannity and other Fox “talent” dismissed or minimized the threat of the coronavirus, echoing and egging on Trump’s unconscionable mismanagement of the pandemic and its dire economic, educational and communal consequences.
For a book that purports to document how a dereliction of journalistic duty can cost lives and damage institutions, “Hoax” too often relies on assertions, blind quotes and unverified accounts. In several instances, Stelter quotes an unnamed source making an accusation that ought to have been fact-checked or simply omitted. It would have strengthened his important argument, especially given his open feuds with Ailes (until he died in 2017) and Hannity.
I doubt “Hoax” will convince die-hard Fox fans of the error of their ways, but it should reach those unaware of the network’s dangerous, complicit slide into demagoguery. Stelter’s critique goes beyond salacious tidbits about extramarital affairs (though there are plenty of those) to expose a collusion that threatens the pillars of our democracy.
“The Trump age was really the ‘hoax’ age,” Stelter concludes. The question is whether he is correct in putting that observation in the past tense.
Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth
Atria/One Signal. 350 pp. $28