There is a much quoted line about America’s most influential news network that sounds quaint to repeat now.
“Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox,” David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W Bush, declared in the days when Mitt Romney was in the ascendant and Roger Ailes still micromanaged the camera angles in Fox News’s Manhattan studios.
Donald Trump was barely a twinkle in Ailes’s eye back then, but now that the media-obsessed president has reshaped the Republican party in his image, who works for whom?
It is four years since sexual harassment allegations cost Ailes his chairmanship of Fox News and three years since he died, yet he remains an animating character in Hoax, Brian Stelter’s attempt to answer that question.
“I think it would be good for the country right now if Roger Ailes were still in charge of Fox,” one unidentified insider tells Stelter. Ailes’s absence has left the “talent” free to indulge in slavishly flattering coverage of Trump’s presidency with no fear of Ailes’s wrath, Hoax argues. Primetime opinion merchants such as Sean Hannity have the power, its author writes, and “management [has] no control over prime time.”
Stelter is an informed but not impartial observer. Obsessed with news since childhood, he began blogging about cable news at 18, earning the respect of industry stars including Hannity. Even Ailes remained cordial after he moved first to the New York Times and then to CNN.
But having morphed from prodigious observer of the cable news wars to strident participant, Stelter is angered by the baleful influence he believes Fox has had. “This story is about a rot at the core of our politics,” he tells readers: “It’s about the difference between news and propaganda.”
He is not the first to make that charge. Most days bring fresh evidence of Fox’s partisan disdain for journalistic norms, such as its decision to feature Trump’s recent denial of having called dead US troops “suckers” above its own correspondent’s confirmation that he had.
Yet Hoax captures Fox at a unique moment, in which the president still counts on it to mobilise his voters but his tweets expressing fury at any coverage that falls short of total loyalty are getting more frequent.
Policy and personnel in this White House are set by a “Trump-Fox feedback loop”, Hoax argues. “Trump attacked Google because of Fox. He raged against migrant ‘caravans’ because of Fox,” Stelter says, “and he got the facts wrong again and again because of mistakes . . . by the network.”
Most consequentially, Stelter contends, the president was lulled into complacency about Covid-19 by Fox hosts dismissing the pandemic as a media hoax.
“Viewers like Trump had been trained, by Fox, to disbelieve what other news outlets said,” Stelter notes. Stelter paints Trump as both victim of and participant in this misinformation loop, needing Fox’s affirmation of his preferred version of events while colluding in a system which “delivered un-news while trying to destroy traditional sources of news.”
Hannity, meanwhile, is portrayed as a millionaire railing against media elites who tells friends that he thinks the president is crazy but whose business model will not let him say so in public. That, Stelter says, is because everyone at Fox lives in fear of losing an ageing but lucrative audience that cannot stand to see bad news about their hero.
Given the roughly $2bn in cash Fox generates each year, can we at least say it still works for Rupert Murdoch? Fox’s part in Trump’s 2016 election victory gave its controlling mogul unprecedented presidential access, possibly smoothing the sale of his entertainment assets to Disney. But growth is getting harder to find and Fox has divided his family: Stelter‘s sources say James Murdoch, the more liberal son, could try to wrest control of Fox Corp from his brother Lachlan in the event of Rupert’s death. (One person close to the family doubts this.)
A more pressing concern for the elder Murdoch is that presidents have term limits. Whenever Trump leaves office, backers will be lining up to help him launch Trump TV. When the president tweeted that Fox “isn’t working for us any more”, it was a warning that the network that still has a grip on Republican voters may not wield that power forever.
So who does Fox work for now? That is far from clear.
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s US business editor
Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth, by Brian Stelter, One Signal $28, 368 pages
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