Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi on Aug. 29, 2005, 15 years ago tomorrow, and CNN chief media correspondent and Reliable Sources anchor Brian Stelter remembers TV news coverage of that event vividly. At the time, he was covering the news for a site he created named TVNewser.
“Cable news shined,” Stelter told TVNewser in an interview Thursday. “I remember feeling that broadcast networks were lagging because they weren’t breaking into prime time. They weren’t covering the story wall to wall. But CNN and Fox News and MSNBC shined. CNN, with Jeanne Meserve in tears describing people begging for help from their roof, Shep Smith for Fox News, on a bridge pointing to a dead body left to rot in New Orleans. Cable news was at its best 15 years ago this week, and I remember pulling 18-hour days just trying to chronicle at all, which is the least important thing in a moment like that, but someone still needs to write it all down and record what those key moments were on the air. That still stands out.”
Fast forward to today, and Stelter’s new book is taking a look at the uglier side of cable news. Hoax, released Tuesday, analyzes Fox News Channel, its national and global impact, and its relationship with President Donald Trump. TVNewser spoke with Stelter over the phone about Hoax and about what he’s learned so far chronicling the cable channel’s evolution.
TVNewser: Joe Biden said President Trump’s “very fine people” line after Charlottesville was a key driver in his decision to run in 2020. Was there a specific moment when you said to yourself: “You know what? I need to write a book about the connection between Trump and Fox News?”
Stelter: I felt like I had all these puzzle pieces on the floor, and I wanted to fit them all together and solve the puzzle. You and me and so many other reporters have been tracking every development of the Fox-Trump alliance, but I think that when it’s all put together, it’s even more shocking. And it’s even more revealing about the state of our country. In terms of going and pitching a book, for me, it was about that. And it was about knowing that there were many people inside the network and around the network uncomfortable with the state of affairs. We can see that a little bit in public through Shep Smith’s resignation and some other departures.
Of the people you talked to for the book who work at Fox, but have their own grievances, why do they stay?
I think there are several chapters that try to answer that question, because there are several different reasons. Some people are very well compensated, and don’t think they would make as much money anywhere else. Some people don’t think they would get hired anywhere else at all. Others like the influence and the power that the network provides. Others really appreciate the sense of family and community at Fox. I tried to respect that because saying “it’s all about the money” can sound negative or critical, but it is about more than money. It’s about a sense of community. It’s about a sense of “us against the world.” There is a legitimate argument about providing a conservative point of view on the news. Now, where it starts to go off the rails is when Trump’s line is excused when truth telling is suffocated. When propaganda replaces news.
However, there is a lot to respect and admire about Fox News, and I tried to say that early on in the book by writing about the network’s ratings power. There are some good reasons why the network is so appealing to so many viewers. [The late Fox News founder and CEO] Roger Ailes and his team knew early on how to produce a lively screen, a screen that makes you pay attention and makes you turn up the volume, with some things that are as simple as the colors they choose in the graphics. I think there’s a lot to respect about the television production at Fox, the sense of family at Fox. Those sorts of attributes. Those came up in these interviews with staffers. For example, even though this was kind of small, it was a big deal to the staff—the renovations that took place after Roger Ailes was forced out were a big deal to them. I had numerous anchors and commentators say to me that was a big morale boost. Those sorts of things that can compel someone to stay who otherwise might want to leave.
Was there ever a thought to delay the book until after the election or the pandemic? Seems as though these two events are significant for any media outlet, including Fox News, and maybe looking back on coverage would be interesting.
I don’t want to say I was finished with the book in March, but I was close to the finish line when the pandemic upended everything and we came up with a new title, thanks to my editor Julia Cheiffetz. We came up with a new beginning of the book and a new ending to this book, and I think it was crucial to write about the pandemic because Fox helped to lull Trump into a false sense of security about the pandemic, and some shows on Fox downplayed the threat, and we will never be able to measure the costs or the toll, but we know there was a toll. So, it was important to do that.
I thought it was also important to have this published before the election because it’s obviously about Trump’s first term. We don’t know what’s going to happen in November. But I think this layer of the Trump presidency needs to be explored. In the chapter about inauguration weekend, I make the case that right then, on the first weekend, everything gets set, and it’s been the same ever since that weekend—where Fox is going to support the president, be a safe space, not humiliate him, not point out embarrassing news. It’s been that way ever since. Some of the examples since then are astonishing to think about, and I hope for people who feel numb to what’s happened the past two years, I think this book will newly shock them. Like Tucker Carlson helping stop an airstrike. Things like that.
How do you think Fox News will be different if Biden is elected?
I think the consensus view inside Fox is that the network is stronger when it’s on offense than when it’s on defense.
In 20 years, we may look at the Trump years as an aberration because the president was a TV addict, and Fox happened to be his drug of choice. It wasn’t like this with Fox during the Bush years. There was not an addiction there. There wasn’t an obsession with Fox. Obviously there were times where Ailes would use the network to advance the GOP agenda, but there wasn’t the same addiction. So, a Biden presidency—Biden would not be a Fox addict, but the network would challenge him at every turn. In fact, it already is. It already treats him as if he’s president and is already tearing him down.
I want to be clear when I say this: I know that not every hour of Fox is the same. The viewers know that there are newscasts and that there are talk shows, but the newscasts are being suffocated and the [talk] shows are winning this tug of war. In fact, it’s not even close—look at the ratings of 7 p.m. (The Story with Martha MacCallum) versus 8 p.m. (Tucker Carlson Tonight). It’s extraordinary. So I want to add that there are great journalists at Fox, but they are operating in very difficult circumstances, and they work alongside colleagues who lie about their work, about their jobs. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have Sean Hannity, your biggest star, claiming “journalism is dead,” when you have Fox correspondents along the Gulf Coast risking their lives to produce journalism today. Hannity can say it’s hyperbole, but his viewers soak it up like poison, and because there’s not a strong leader at Fox, there’s no one to stop these lies.
The big point is Fox is more anti-Democrat than it is pro-Trump, and I think many people at Fox, including in the executive ranks, will breathe a sigh of relief if Biden is elected, because that is an easier story to cover. The Trump years have been stressful as hell for a lot of people at Fox. That’s what’s under-appreciated. It seems like the best of times, the most profitable of times, and they are the most profitable of times. But I have executives in the book saying [President Trump is] crazy—”He’s not well, he needs to watch less TV.” That’s one of my all-time favorite parts of the book toward the end—the Fox corporate management ranks saying the president needs to watch less TV.
For the first time in its history, Fox has competition from other conservative outlets. Are those other outlets (like OANN, Newsmax, the Blaze, The First) making a dent?
During my research for Hoax, when I brought up Newsmax and OANN and other right-wing challengers, people at Fox laughed. They ridiculed and mocked them as wannabes, and that’s because none of them have been able to get a real foothold in the marketplace. The ratings tell the story. The lack of ratings in this case tell the story. I think OANN is viewed inside Fox as a far-right-wing conspiracy crazy network. There’s very much the sense that these other channels are fleas on the elephant’s back.
I’m of the view personally that Fox is bigger than any of those and Fox is bigger than Trump. Meaning: It can weather any of these storms. I suppose Fox would consider that a very positive thing for me to say. There’s a quote on page 289: “We’re just a monopoly,” a Fox anchor observed. “We are benefiting from our monopoly status.” I think that’s a big part of the story of the Trump years at Fox. They’ve consolidated their gains. They have an audience that has been told over and over again not to trust anything else. It’s working.
In the book, you claim Sean Hannity has more free rein to say what he wants now that Roger Ailes isn’t around—“no one to stop him from following his own worst instincts” (page 74). How else has Fox changed with Ailes out of the picture?
Well, about Hannity—I think Trump and Hannity have brought out the worst in one another. It seems like a codependent relationship, but it has hurt them not in ratings but in reputation. For the president, if he had followed a more accurate path, if he had relied less on Sean Hannity and more on [Fox News Sunday anchor] Chris Wallace, for example, or Shep Smith, it could have been very different. That’s a silly alternative history, but I would love to read a novel that starts on inauguration weekend, with the president not freaking out about CNN coverage of his crowd size and not wasting his first weekend on a silly story.
The biggest surprise in my reporting was that the ghost of Roger Ailes still looms so large over Fox, and many staffers wish he were still in charge. As an outsider, that was uncomfortable to hear, given all we know about how Roger Ailes was abusive. Even though he was a bully, he was a clear leader. Everybody knew what he wanted. By 2016, he was starting to fade and he was not as strong as he had been before, but at least in those key years people knew how to produce the channel for him, and knew what he wanted. Some people at Fox like having so much autonomy, but many people want a firmer hand on the steering wheel, and I think one of the big reasons why so many people leaked to me is because they feel that there’s not a clear vision or direction. There are quotes in there saying, “We’re on cruise control.” Well, when you’re going 70 miles per hour down the highway on a straight road, but not a lot of traffic, that’s great. Cruise control is great. Cruise control works. Cruise control can get you there fast. But we’re in the midst of an unbelievable time in this country. A clear war on truth. There’s a lot of traffic out there, and you’ve got a lot of employees who want clear direction and support.
How has your job changed during the pandemic?
Well, I’m talking to you from a walk-in closet that we’ve converted to a broadcast studio. I have my camera, lights, microphones and CNN background in this room.
I think one of the challenges journalistically right now with the pandemic is keeping the pandemic front and center—finding new angles, finding new stories to tell, finding new guests to book. This virus is not going away, but I think many people have a numbness from their continuous coverage and from the ever rising death toll. So finding new ways to tell the story, keeping it front and center, is vital.
You have been reporting on the news media for half of your life.
My earliest research for this book was launching TVNewser. I just didn’t know it in 2004. I went back and reread some of the old blog posts, some of the old stories to refresh my memory as I was getting to work on this, and I leaned on relationships with sources that I had started 16 years ago. And that’s why in the beginning of the book, I talked about my experience with TVNewser, and I describe my relationship with Fox stars, because I want readers to know I’m in this television world.
Do you see yourself ever doing something else?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is that there’s never been a better time to be a media reporter. The media is changing every day and we’re in the middle of this war on truth—this attempt to say everything could be a hoax, this attempt to redefine what reality is. And producing real journalism is the way to fight that war.