For years, Fox News has served as a megaphone for right-wing talking points and a defender of conservative politicians. But under the Trump administration, for apparently the first time, this relationship has turned into a two-way street. With the help of CNN's Brian Stelter, Bob breaks down the new, symbiotic relationship between an increasingly propagandist cable news channel and our "first cable news president."
The Commission by Breton
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I’m Bob Garfield.
We will momentarily address a devolutionary change, but first, what you already knew, namely that for 20 years Fox News Channel has been a right-wing blast furnace.
AMERICA’S PULSE HOST E.D. HILL: A fist bump, a pound, a terrorist fist jab? The gesture everyone seems to interpret differently.
FOX & FRIENDS HOST BRIAN KILMEADE: We keep marrying other species and other ethnics. The Swedes - the Swedes have pure genes, ‘cause they marry other Swedes, ‘cause that’s the rule. Finland - Finns marry other Finns, so they have a pure society. In America, we marry everybody.
FOX NEWS ANCHOR LAUREN GREEN: You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?
REZA ASLAN: Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament.
BOB GARFIELD: Fox News Channel does boast a relatively straightforward news operation but, as with its competitors, actual news is more fuel than product. Indeed, the daylight news reports are mainly just window dressing. The channel’s big audiences, its clout and its very raison d'être, as counterprogramming to the supposedly liberal agenda of the mainstream news, have always resided in the morning and prime time talk shows. On such programs as The O’Reilly Factor, Hannity and Fox & Friends, the channel has spent two decades as a de facto house organ for the Republican Party, sparing no amount of bile, bellicosity and distortion in the process.
FOX & FRIENDS CO-HOST ELISABETH HASSELBECK: This evil, evil man. This comes out of Louisiana State University. A professor there has examined just what damage Mr. Rogers may have done to this whole crop of kids who now feel entitled just for being them.
BOB GARFIELD: Mr. Rogers, enemy of the people. And here, with Bill O’Reilly, the son of a 9/11 victim.
JEREMY GLICK, GUEST: You evoke sympathy with the 9/11 families, so that means I’m a 9/11 family -
BILL O’REILLY: Okay, that’s a bunch, that’s a bunch of crap.
I’ve done more for the 9/11 families, by their own admission, I’ve done more for them than you will ever hope
JEREMY GLICK: Okay.
BILL O’REILLY: So you keep your mouth shut!
BOB GARFIELD: Crusader in the culture wars, demonizer of liberals and Democrats, blah-blah-blah. The self-described “fair and balanced channel,” that relentless sledgehammer pounding a political wedge, might well recast its famous slogan, “We purport, you divide.” And on dividing, maybe one last excerpt, courtesy of the Blonde Bomber, Ann Coulter.
ANN COULTER: So I used to think women just shouldn’t be able to vote. Now I think at least liberal women should not be able to hold office.
BOB GARFIELD: [MAKES SOUND] Sort of amazing but also more or less routine. Fox has made billions of dollars exploiting the politics of resentment. It is so predictably incendiary and partisan, in fact, that this program ordinarily pays it little mind. If OTM were to focus on every Fox outrage, we’d have to change our name to the Henhouse and be all-Fox criticism, all the time.
But in the past month, simply put, conditions have changed because the biggest megaphone of the so-called “vast right-wing conspiracy” has suddenly become a walkie-talkie. The president, who declared war on mainstream news organizations, has found a BFF and creepy codependent in Fox.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Fox & Friends in the morning, they’re very honorable people. They’re very – not because they’re good, ‘cause they hit me also when - I do something wrong, but they have the most honest morning show.
BOB GARFIELD: Foxism and Trumpism were made for one another. The problem is, like fertilizer and fuel oil, the whole is more dangerous than the sum of its parts. The Trump-Fox symbiosis is a perfect feedback loop in which the president's agenda informs Fox's obsequious coverage and Fox's reactionary coverage informs the president’s thinking. The second element of that symbiosis is the consequence of a president of the United States who reportedly gets most of his intelligence on domestic and world affairs by surfing cable in his jammies.
BRIAN STELTER: One of the best examples came before dawn, 5:50 in the morning, one of the president’s first days in office.
BOB GARFIELD: Brian Stelter, senior media correspondent at CNN and host of Reliable Sources.
BRIAN STELTER: He's watching a segment on the Fox & Friends First show about Chelsea Manning being critical of President Obama.
FOX NEWS ANCHOR ABBY HUNTSMAN: In a new article for the Guardian, the disgraced former Army Private is slamming Obama as a weak leader with few permanent accomplishments.
BRIAN STELTER: The banner on the bottom of the screen said, “Ungrateful Traitor.” No subtlety on Fox News. So 14 minutes later, those are the exact words the president is using on Twitter.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The tweeted quote, “Ungrateful TRAITOR Chelsea Manning, who never should have been released from prison, is now calling President Obama a weak leader. Terrible!”
BRIAN STELTER: And we see this time and time again from Fox & Friends First at 5:50 am, all the way to the O'Reilly Factor and Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity at night.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, you know, coincidences happen.
BRIAN STELTER: [LAUGHS] But sure, some of the president’s tweets, it’s hard to determine what channel he was watching and exactly what he saw, but then there are times it’s very clear. On the O'Reilly Factor, a guest brought up the idea of sending in the feds to Chicago to try to stem the violence there.
BILL O’REILLY: The first 23 days of this year, 42 homicides in the Windy City, up 24 percent from last year.
HORACE COOPER: I don’t know another word besides “carnage” to describe the devastation that’s been taking place. If I were president of the United States, you know what, the next month we’re gonna have the Guard in these neighborhoods to stop this.
BRIAN STELTER: You know, within an hour, the president is tweeting the same statistic and suggesting the same idea, making the same threat.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The tweet reading, “If Chicago doesn't fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on, with 42 killings (up 24%) I will send in the Feds!
BRIAN STELTER: This is the kind of demonstration of President Trump watching cable news and reacting to it in real time that we've never seen from a president.
BOB GARFIELD: We’re speaking on Thursday. The week began with an assertion by the president at a campaign rally where he said this.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: You look at what’s happening in Germany. You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this, Sweden!
BOB GARFIELD: Now, that was odd because there were certain parties who were unaware of anything untoward happening in Sweden, and that includes a party called – Sweden.
They were at a loss to understand what Trump was referring to. But you know exactly what he was referring to.
BRIAN STELTER: Tucker Carlson, 9 pm Friday night. Tucker Carlson had interviewed a conservative filmmaker who went to Sweden trying to investigate what he says, the surge in violence caused by refugees and migrants in the country.
ED HENRY: Perhaps no nation on Earth is more committed to accepting foreign migrants and refugees than Sweden.
AMI HOROWITZ, FILMMAKER: There was an absolute surge in both gun violence and rape in Sweden –
TUCKER CARLSON: Yes –
AMI HOROWITZ: - once they began this open-door policy.
BRIAN STELTER: Now, our own State Department and other government sources, as well as Swedish government sources, contradict a lot of what this filmmaker was saying. But the president was receiving his information from that Fox News segment and then, strangely, referring to “last night in Sweden” when what he meant was “last night on Fox News when I heard about Sweden.”
BOB GARFIELD: What’s happening here?
BRIAN STELTER: What we are seeing is a pro-Trump channel. And there is this walkie-talkie effect that you’re describing between them. When the president says something that’s false, you’re not going to hear as much about that on Fox News as you are from other corners of the media. But I would tell you, the Murdochs, who own Fox, would disagree with that sentence. They would say, no, that’s not what we are; we’re not pro-Trump. We are a right-leaning channel holding Trump accountable from the right. And Bob, I'm trying to find examples of that because that's gonna be a big story. If, if Fox News really is there to hold the president accountable from the right, then that’s going to make for some compelling television.
BOB GARFIELD: Brian, thank you very, very much.
BRIAN STELTER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Brian Stelter, host of CNN's Reliable Sources.
The problem is the accountability bit isn't true. An occasional expression of skepticism about the president’s conservative bona fides is lost in the cacophony of Trump talking points and boosterism, more than boosterism, actually, because when Trump lies or deflects his own outrages, Fox can be counted on to click its heels. For instance, when his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was revealed by leaked intelligence to have lied about talking with the Russians about sanctions, the president tweeted his anger not about diplomatic subversion but about the leaks, themselves, followed by his fave rave Steve Doocy on Fox & Friends with this.
STEVE DOOCY: It looks kind of shady. Just the fact that there are these leaks inside the permanent government is troubling.
BOB GARFIELD: And when Trump made the preposterous claim that the media, following some sort of freedom-hating agenda, were suppressing news about terror attacks, Sean Hannity rushed to his aid.
SEAN HANNITY: That was President Trump yesterday claiming the mainstream media often underreports terror attacks all across the globe, which I agree with. Naturally, many members of the press took offense to those comments, even with some suggesting that the president was actually lying, which is now their favorite obsession.
BOB GARFIELD: Fox maintains that journalistic rules don't apply, that its primetime stars are commentators, not reporters. True, Hannity, O'Reilly and Fox & Friends don't constitute news, but nor do they trade in the informed, rigorously-argued opinion that is a hallmark of journalism. What they offer is more like propaganda, political messaging on behalf of a regime often shamefully untethered from the truth. Under the Trump presidency, Fox has finally devolved into state television of the Putin kind. If you wish to see its like on cable TV, don't tune to CNN or even MSNBC. Try the channel RT, which is short for Russia Today.
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Coming up, will sanctuary cities save undocumented immigrants? Probably not. This is On the Media.