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Brian Stelter on How the 2020 Election “Radicalized” Fox News

“The number of Fox staffers who said to me, ‘I miss Roger Ailes’ absolutely astonished me.”

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“The Fox of 2021 is different even than the Fox of 2019.” That was the key point that CNN anchor Brian Stelter wanted to stress in his recent interview with The New Republic. Stelter’s recent book, Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth, an updated edition of which was published in paperback on Tuesday, covers the network’s metamorphosis and accelerating radicalism in the Trump era in exacting depth, offering a rare look inside the profoundly influential cable news network and providing a disturbing inside portrait of how it came to enable Trump’s disastrous presidency.

The book also provides the most detailed account of how Fox came to advance the two big lies of 2020: its decisions to downplay the danger of Covid-19 and back Trump’s deceptive claims about the presidential election. I spoke to Stelter over the phone about the blowback the network received after it called Arizona for Biden early, the sad state of its news division, and where Fox goes from here. 

Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth
Brian Stelter
Atria, 448 pgs, $16.56

How has Fox changed in the Trump era? Was it more of a catalyst for the accelerating radicalism of the right, or was it merely following its viewers as they adopted more and more extreme views? 

I think of Fox as much more of a leader than a follower. I think of Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham as more influential than your average GOP lawmaker. These lawmakers and these base activists are taking their cues from Fox. So Fox is programming the Republican Party. 

We kind of knew this in the Bush years. We sort of saw it in the Obama years. But it wasn’t clear as day, it wasn’t extreme until the Trump years. My gosh, in the Bush years there was a liberal in prime time! In the Obama years, Roger Ailes wouldn’t let the stars talk about birtherism. But in the Trump years, there were no rules. There were no leaders. In the same way that the GOP felt reckless and leaderless, Fox felt reckless and leaderless. 

Is there a way that things could have gone differently over the past five years? 

That’s the alternative history of Fox. Sometimes I joke that the next book I write should be a novel about how it could have gone differently. The number of Fox staffers who said to me, “I miss Roger Ailes” absolutely astonished me. It’s hard for any of us on the outside to understand where they’re coming from. But they knew who was in charge. Ailes, for all of his faults, and all of his crimes, did sometimes try to lead Fox away from the darkest fringes of the right-wing world. Who knows what he would have done in the Trump years? Who knows how he would have responded? But clearly, staffers at Fox believe he would have had a backbone, or at least would have tried to hold the line in some ways. 

Donald Trump took office, and he needed help. He needed reality-based news. I understand he didn’t want to listen to it. He needed his Fox & Friends to help him, but they actually hurt him, again and again and again. I suppose if you’re a liberal critic of Fox, you could say, “Thanks, Fox,” for filling his mind with lies and conspiracy theories and poisoning his understanding of America. It’s undeniable, at this point, that Sean Hannity and his friends hurt the guy they were trying to help. In a normal, rational world after losing reelection and being defeated in a rout, there would be reflection and reassessment and, say, “Maybe these talk shows are not helping the party’s cause.” I don’t see any of that happening now. In fact, I sense the opposite. 

Fox has clearly had a profound effect on increasing polarization and, in many cases, radicalizing its viewers. Has new competition from its right, in the form of Newsmax and One America News Network, made things worse? 

That’s a word that I was worried about using two years ago that I’m no longer worried about using: radicalized. It kept coming up in my interviews with Fox staffers, with sources who were frustrated and willing to leak—they were the ones who kept using the word radicalized. But it took me a while to come around to it. But it’s undeniable. The polling is there. The data is there. All of our experiences with viewers back it up. 

In talking with Fox staffers last fall and last winter, the fear was palpable: the fear of the audience, the fear of losing the audience. I don’t want to say it was debilitating for these staffers, nor do I want to leave anyone off the hook. But producers kept saying to me, “We’re bleeding eyeballs,” and “Our viewers hate this.” I remember one saying, “We’re scared,” and what he meant was, “We’re scared of Newsmax and Netflix and all these places that our viewers are retreating to.” That’s real for these producers who only know one thing, which is winning. That was yanked out from under them when Trump lost the election. 

Now, with all of that said, Fox has come back. The audience has come home. Nobody for a minute should think that Fox is in a markedly worse position than it was a year ago. It is in a very strong position. Newsmax has come off of its high. They’re still taking some of that audience, but they’re not a major threat. Trump went on Newsmax a couple weeks ago and only got 300,000 viewers. Fox is still the beating heart of the GOP, and that heart is seemingly quite stable and strong. I think what happened when Trump lost shows the base’s refusal to hear reality. They don’t want to watch the real news. That was a hell of an experience for these executives and anchors who were torn between knowing Biden is president-elect versus wanting to satisfy demand for the Big Lie.

You write about Fox’s early call of Arizona for Biden, in the new edition, and the furious response the network received. How would you rate the network’s election coverage?

I think there were individual minutes on live TV where they pulled up at the controls. But those individual minutes are far outnumbered by the overarching narrative of Fox, which is a victimhood narrative, which is a resentment narrative, which is an anti–Democratic Party narrative. It’s like a rubber band—you can pull on it for a moment, but it will always snap back. And it will always snap back to an anti-Democrat, anti-woke place, no matter how hard you pull on it. 

I thought the Arizona call was really important because when a self-described news network freaks out when the news division breaks news—that’s a very bad sign. Every television news network works the same way with elections. We all have a decision desk, we all have a magic wall, we all have a control room that’s staffed 24/7. The fact that Fox’s election-week coverage was so weak, with so many mistakes, with so many dropped balls—it just shows how second-rate the news operation had become, which is a shame for Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. Fifteen minutes late when everyone knew Biden was going to be declared president-elect on Saturday morning? None of it makes sense through the rubric of a news division. But it all makes sense through the rubric of a conservative culture-war channel. 

One of my favorite quotes in the new edition [of Hoax] is, “The decision desk people are arrogant fucks,” one senior staffer told me. “They are rubbing it in our viewers’ faces.” “Rubbing what?” “Biden.” The person said, “They are rubbing Biden in our faces.” That was one of the crystallizing moments for me. What went wrong at Fox on election week: When the decision desk got the story right there was a resistance inside the company to the truth.

You write about people inside Fox who are committed to reporting the real news—how many of them are there? And how have the changes the network has undergone over the last year affected them? 

I had a staffer who said, “It’s really emotionally taxing to do this job. We denied the pandemic, and now we’re denying the election outcome.” Those people who were in on it, so to speak, who saw the denialism for what it was, who were uncomfortable with being a part of it—they exist. But they’re not on the air very often. And they’re drowned out by the overriding agenda of the network.

The people who are getting booked are true believers. The true believers tell themselves a story that a lot of Republicans tell themselves: “Our cause is just. Our cause is right. Trump is an imperfect vessel, but the real threats are from China and antifa and socialists.” They tell themselves they are part of a cause that is much bigger than on their hour of Fox. 

The Fox of 2021 is different even than the Fox of 2019. That’s where Foxologists—either people who appreciate the network or who want to vanquish it—need to recognize how it’s changed and how it’s different. The number of news hours has gone down. The number of liberal guests has gone down. I had a commentator say to me, “Fox is a really different place than it was preelection.” This person has seen changes even in the last six months, in terms of how radical, how extreme the content is. 

Along those lines, you write in Hoax about the decline of Fox’s news division and the angst of the few remaining journalists at the network. 

The opinion side is this ever-expanding blob that’s swallowing up the news division. That’s what it is. If you view Fox News as two things [operating] as one—a giant opinion operation and a relatively small news operation, opinion is a blog that is swallowing up the news side. I know it’s archaic to even talk about these two sides because obviously the news side reflects GOP priorities and covers conservatives’ concerns more than anything else.

If you go down the list of what makes a news division, Fox has a news division. However, they don’t have a single bureau in Asia. They don’t have a single bureau in Africa. They basically only have two overseas outposts: London and Jerusalem. This is such a bare-bones news division that they were covering the spread of Covid in China from London! There are clear, undeniable data points that show the weakness of the Fox news division. Also, there are all the people who left who have not been replaced. What’s happened in the last couple of years is that Fox correspondents have quit and joined CNN or CBS or other networks or have left the business altogether in some cases, which is very revealing. That hurts morale. It means there are even fewer reporters to cover the news. And it means that Fox isn’t setting the news agenda, only the culture-war conservative agenda. It’s fun to play the game of “What’s the last big story Fox broke?” You get silence. 

And as all this has happened, Fox’s news side seems more and more invested in covering culture-war stories that drive its opinion programming.

The anti-wokeness stuff has been led by the news side; it’s been led by daytime [programming]. 

We say “culture war,” but there are specific narratives that Fox advances. One is about threats to white Christian-conservative culture. That’s about fear of losing status in an increasingly multicultural America: What others perceive as progress, Fox viewers perceive as loss. Another version of the culture-war story on Fox is, “Democrats are evil or stupid or silly or foreign or ignorant or illiterate.” There’s an anti-Democrat push. Slate comes out with a sex column where one woman says her husband won’t take off his mask during sex, which I thought was hilarious. And Fox’s take is, “Terrified Liberals Keep Their Masks On During Sex.” There’s this effort to demonize and otherize Democrats that just has no equivalent on the left. I think everyone has to be really conscious of that. 

I had a Fox staffer, as I was writing the last page of the paperback, say, “The Biden team has no idea what they’re up against.” Maybe in three years, we’ll say that Fox was immaterial to the Biden presidency. Maybe we’ll say that Fox barely made a dent. But it won’t be for lack of trying.