TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the new book "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, And The Dangerous Distortion Of Truth," my guest Brian Stelter describes how Fox News provides talking points for President Trump and how Trump controls kind of parts of Fox News. Stelter is CNN's chief media correspondent and hosts CNN's Sunday morning show "Reliable Sources," which covers how the media is covering the news. Before that, Stelter was a media reporter for The New York Times.
In his new book, Stelter writes, Fox effectively produced the president's intelligence briefings and staffed the federal bureaucracy. Never before has a president promoted a single TV channel asked the host for advice behind closed doors and demanded for them to be fired when they step out of line. The book is based in part on Stelter's interviews with more than 140 staffers at Fox plus 180 former staffers and others with direct ties to the network. He says some people who still work there told him Fox had become dangerous to democracy.
Brian Stelter, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start by talking about the Republican convention. And I'm going to start by saying we're recording this Monday morning. So as we record this, the convention hasn't yet started. To your knowledge, what role does Fox News want to play this week during the Republican convention?
BRIAN STELTER: You know, Fox's ratings declined quite a bit during the Democratic convention. Many of Fox's viewers did not want to see Kamala Harris or Joe Biden. This week is a mirror image. This week, the ratings will be likely at record levels, even topping 2016, because Fox has become so closely associated with President Trump. And many of the network's fans and Trump's fans don't trust any other source of news.
This convention is a four-night long Fox show, and it's a chance for the rest of America to see what Fox is talking about all year long - the culture wars, the grievances, the sense of victimization and victimhood that permeates Fox's programming. That's what we're seeing at this convention. But you know, the convention organizers have booked right-wing Internet celebrities, GOP lawmakers who are regulars on Fox. So what we are seeing at this convention is a reflection of what Fox is broadcasting every day of the year.
GROSS: To get a sense of how influential Fox has been on Trump, run through some of the people from the Fox News orbit who have become part of the Trump administration over the years.
STELTER: There are dozens of examples of this revolving door, Terry. For example, John Bolton, a longtime Fox News commentator hired by Trump - thanks, in part, to Sean Hannity. And when it was time for Bolton to go, it was Tucker Carlson telling Trump to get rid of Bolton. You know, this is a cutthroat world between Fox and Trump but oftentimes mutually beneficial. So Trump hires from Fox. He fires because of Fox. Someone like Hope Hicks, for example, worked on his campaign, joined the White House, then went to Fox. And now she's back at the White House.
GROSS: Name some other people from the Fox orbit who've been part of the Trump administration.
STELTER: I think some of the best examples are the behind-the-scenes individuals. For example, Bill Shine who, after Roger Ailes was forced out of Fox in 2016, became co-president of Fox News. He was like a caretaker president for a while. When it was his time to be exiled from Fox, Hannity started telling Trump to hire him. Trump did just that and made Bill Shine one of his communications gurus. But you know how it is with the president. He gets tired of everybody, so eventually, it was Shine's turn to go. He was given a cushy job over the Trump campaign.
What I find is that Fox and Trump, you know, they give each other soft landings. Fox is Trump's safe space. It's where he's not going to be humiliated, where he's not going to hear uncomfortable truths. He's not going to be called out for his lies and deception. And in exchange, Trump takes care of his people, you know? Although he does stress out people like Hannity, he also praises them, rewards them with interviews, invites them to the White House, gives them tours and then invites them to dinner. It's a cozy relationship like nothing we've seen in American history. There's just no example of this kind of alliance between a president and a media outlet ever before.
GROSS: Kellyanne Conway, who had been a regular Fox guest, became Trump's counselor to the president. She just announced that she is leaving after the convention to spend more time with family. I don't know how you count this, but Kimberly Guilfoyle, who'd been on Fox, is now Don Jr.'s girlfriend.
STELTER: Yes - and a key surrogate for the Trump 2020 campaign. Guilfoyle is a great example of someone who saw power and sought out power in the Trump years. I had sources say to me, you know, she'd be a raging liberal if it paid better, you know? There's a lot of figures at Fox that are kind of like blank slates. And they go in the direction they think is going to be most profitable and most powerful.
On the other hand, Kellyanne Conway, who of course ran Trump's 2016 campaign toward the end, you know, like a lot of people, she didn't think Trump was going to win. And I was told that on Election Day in 2016, she was talking to Fox about maybe getting a job, about maybe getting a commentator job. Instead, she, you know, appears on Fox all the time praising the president, sometimes trying to give him advice through the TV because his aides know one of the best ways to get through to him is through Fox. They try to get booked on certain shows on Fox in order to get their message across. We know that lobbyists and corporations do the same thing. Sometimes they even buy ads just on Fox in Washington to get in front of the president. But what people don't realize is he usually fast-forwards through the commercials.
GROSS: (Laughter) Guess he DVRs a lot of stuff (laughter).
STELTER: That's his only way to actually be able to watch so many hours of TV. You know, he watches most of the talk shows on Fox. But through the DVR, he can watch it at twice the speed.
GROSS: There are also people from Fox who became part of the Trump team opposing his impeachment. Who are some of those people?
STELTER: Yeah. This was essentially a Fox war room, you know, during the impeachment trial. You saw Ken Starr, of course, of the Clinton impeachment who had been a paid Fox News contributor. He briefly left the network to go defend Trump in the Senate. There were also other figures, like Robert Ray, who expressly credited Fox's Maria Bartiromo for, in essence, introducing him to the president. Ray said, you know, without you, Maria, I'm not sure I would have been a part of this. And that was true.
The president would look at Fox. He would notice talent. He would say to his aides, I like that person; I like this person; I want them working for me. That's how, for example, he recruited Morgan Ortagus, who's a State Department spokeswoman. He liked her appearances on TV.
GROSS: You said that Hannity at Fox News is known as the shadow chief of staff. What earned him that title?
STELTER: He was in touch - and is, to this day, in touch with the president at all hours. This is a relationship that is extraordinary because Trump shapes Hannity's show. Hannity advises the president on policy and personnel. And then at 9 o'clock sharp, the president is watching Hannity deliver the talking points that they have already discussed. Sometimes after the show at 10 o'clock, the two men talk on the phone again, review the show, talk about what worked and what didn't, talk about ideas for guests for the next day.
You know, it's as if the president is a shadow producer and Hannity is a shadow chief of staff. I think that, you know, we can argue whether that's a good or bad thing. Certainly, the president thinks it's a good thing to have the help of Sean Hannity who has 4 or 5 million loyal viewers a night. But I think Hannity misleads and confuses the president all too often by obsessing over stories that are not that relevant or not that important or not that real (laughter). You know, Fox is great at making mountains out of molehills. Hannity is the best at it. So when we see the president focusing on lawlessness in inner cities, talking about Portland or Seattle, talking about liberal anarchists. He's getting that straight from Hannity. And in effect, Hannity is distorting the president's view of the real America.
GROSS: What has Hannity been saying to Trump that you know about regarding that? And what has he been saying on the air?
STELTER: Well, a lot of the conversations between the two men - and just for our listeners to be aware, you know, this is coming from friends of Hannity, colleagues of Hannity and from White House aides, all of whom were sources for this book. You know, the two men sometimes are talking about their personal lives - talking about, you know, things like golf and sports. But at other times, they are talking about personnel and policy.
They are talking, for example, about, you know, how to win reelection, what the strategy should be, what the main messages at the convention should be. Some of this is obvious on the air because Hannity is giving Trump ideas right there on the television. In other cases, though, it's more private. You know, it's advice that's relayed more personally.
GROSS: So what do you think Trump has picked up from Hannity about how, you know, the violence that you've seen from the anarchists and the leftists in cities like Portland - that's coming to your suburb. And the Trump ads say that. The Trump ads show footage of demonstrations that turned to confrontations with police or where, you know, there were looters and just focuses in on that. And it basically says if you don't elect me - if Biden wins, this is coming to your suburb. And he said, like, the suburbs are going to be destroyed. So - or at least the ad has said that. So is any of that, do you think, coming from Hannity?
STELTER: The president's law-and-order narrative is absolutely coming from Hannity as well as Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and others at Fox. This is a direct correlation, just as it was in 2018 when the whole caravans narrative started, we hear - we all of a sudden heard about an invasion at the southern border. This was mostly made up, but it was televised on Fox. The president picked it up, ran with it and tried to win in the midterms with it. Now what we're seeing instead of a immigration invasion narrative, we're seeing this law-and-order narrative about lawlessness in America's cities.
Hannity and others do this by showing old video of protests, old video of looting, old video of fires. You know, sometimes they're showing videos that are weeks old. But when you see it on your television, you kind of think it's happening now. It creates a sense of fear and anxiety. And the president consumes so much of this and then, I would argue, spits it right back out on Twitter and in campaign commercials and in speeches. It's sometimes hard to know where Trump ends and where Hannity begins and vice versa.
GROSS: One or two of your sources told you that Hannity has said that he thinks Trump is crazy. There was more of an expletive in there, so I'll leave that part out (laughter). But - so what did you hear about what Hannity really thinks of Trump?
STELTER: I think this is really important because I was learning this from numerous sources - friends of Hannity, associates of Hannity - who say that, off the record, Hannity is complaining about Trump, saying he's a crazy person. I'm going to quote one of his colleagues - "Hannity has said to me more than once, he's crazy." But you know, Sean and these other stars of Fox, they're so committed to the business model, to their ratings. They want to make sure their viewers stay tuned, so they'll never say so publicly. They'll never call Trump out publicly.
Yes, once in a while, you know, news anchor Chris Wallace and a few others at Fox do fact-check the president. It makes a lot of news. It gets a lot of headlines. But that's because it's the exception that proves the rule. You know, if Hannity were to describe his true conversations with Trump, it would embarrass the president. It would hurt the president's reelection chances. And I think Hannity is too committed to his own business model to tell us what's going on.
GROSS: Has Hannity's relationship with Trump boosted Hannity's power at Fox?
STELTER: Yes. In fact, I'm so glad you mentioned that because I think it's an underappreciated aspect of this story. Many stars at Fox looked around and saw getting aboard the so-called Trump train was the way to get ahead. Hannity, for example, was starting to lose relevance back in 2015 and 2016. Some of the executives at Fox openly talked about whether they should change his show, maybe give him a liberal co-host to make it more interesting. His show had kind of gotten stale. And then came along Trump, the most interesting, wildest story in the world.
So Hannity very clearly saw that connecting to Trump - arguing on Trump's behalf, promoting Trump - was the way forward. It was the way to gain an audience, the way to keep an audience, a way to reinvent - not quite reinvent himself but to gain newfound relevance. And that's what happened all across Fox News. That's how the network has become Trumpier (ph) and Trumpier overtime. You know, it didn't happen overnight. It didn't happen on one, you know, climactic day. This was a slow and steady, gradual takeover of a television network by an American president.
GROSS: I think Sean Hannity represents himself as, like, a voice of the working white man. Is that a fair thing to say?
STELTER: Yes, it definitely is a fair thing to say.
GROSS: So meanwhile - like, Sean Hannity is so wealthy. Describe some of the things that he has and how much money he makes.
STELTER: (Laughter). You know, Hannity has become rich beyond belief thanks to his right-wing radio show and his right-wing TV show. You know, first he was a radio star. Then Roger Ailes plucked him from Atlanta, brought him to New York, put him on television. And now he's making thirty-five, forty, $45 million a year between radio and TV. Both are very lucrative gigs for him. Television, at this point, is the more profitable enterprise because he has 4 million viewers hanging on his every word at night. That is real incredible power, and it speaks to just how polarized the country has become. Every night he tells his fans that the rest of the news is fake and you can't trust anybody but Trump and Hannity. You can't trust anything else. That's a very powerful and corrosive feedback loop.
It has made him a very wealthy man. He flies his colleagues on his private plane. He has his helicopter, his Naples penthouse and his mansion on Long Island where he has a studio in his home. You know, I know these days with the pandemic, everybody's broadcasting from home, it seems like. But Hannity's been doing it for years. He even pre-taped his show from home on the night Trump was impeached. To me, this was the biggest night of the year, the biggest news story last year. But he phoned it in, you know? He he knew he could get away with it because nobody at Fox is going to tell him what to do. He really doesn't have a boss. And that's part of the problem at Fox.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brian Stelter, CNN's chief media correspondent and author of the new book "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, And The Dangerous Distortions Of Truth." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED NASH'S "THE FOUR FREEDOMS (FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Brian Stelter about his new book "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, And The Dangerous Distortions Of Truth." Stelter is CNN's chief media correspondent and host of its Sunday morning show "Reliable Sources."
You mentioned that Trump tries to use his power to silence people on Fox whose point of view he doesn't like or no longer likes. An example you give of that is Judge Andrew Napolitano, who's been a regular commentator on Fox for many years. But when the question of impeachment arose, he kind of stepped away from the Fox line about impeachment. And he said Trump has committed impeachable acts. So what did Trump do in response?
STELTER: Napolitano is a fascinating figure because he told the truth about Trump. He said the president has committed crimes. They're on tape. He's admitted to crimes. He's committed impeachable conduct. And for saying that, Napolitano was essentially exiled (laughter). He didn't get booked on TV much anymore. You know, he had a great relationship with Trump for decades going back to the '80s when they met for the first time. Trump once told Napolitano, everything I know about the Constitution I learned from you on Fox (laughter). Imagine that. Napolitano was both flattered but also horrified by that comment.
So they had a very friendly relationship. And Trump even talked with the judge about who he should nominate to the Supreme Court. But once Napolitano broke with Trump and called him out on live TV and pointed out the criminality that was going on, Trump turned on the judge big time, tweeting against him, talking badly about him to friends. You know, there were some really ugly insinuations that the president was making about his longtime friend. And it just goes to show, you know, Trump demands loyalty but never returns it to anybody else.
GROSS: Didn't Trump send Attorney General William Barr to Fox to try to silence Napolitano?
STELTER: This is some very specific reporting that I have in the book that is about a meeting between the - Attorney General Bill Barr and Rupert Murdoch. We know that this meeting, this dinner-type meeting, happened in October of last year. But we've never known what the meeting was about. What did they talk about? I have a source in the book who says that they talked about a lot of things, their family, criminal justice reform. But one of the things they talked about was Napolitano. This insider said to me that they talked about muzzling the judge.
Now, the DOJ has come out and denied this. But my source stands by the story. And I believe it to be true based on other people I've also spoken with. The point of this story is the president was so incensed by Napolitano's TV commentary that he's ranting about it to the attorney general. It's coming up in conversations between the attorney general and Rupert Murdoch. And here's the thing, Terry, it's not as if anybody goes back to Fox and says, get him off the air. Don't let Napolitano on TV. It's never that explicit. It's never that cut and dry. It's much more subtle.
One day, Napolitano just happens to lose his web show. One day, he gets canceled from a TV show that he was booked on. What happened was he kind of - his airtime shrank. And in broadcasting, your airtime is everything. So he started to feel the chill in the air at Fox because he was not - he didn't have the right opinions (laughter). He had the wrong opinions for Fox. He understood that the impeachment was a serious process while almost everybody else on Fox was saying it was a hoax. And it's that kind of truth-telling that's not rewarded at Fox News right now.
GROSS: So this looks like a judge on Fox speaks in favor of impeachment. And the president sends his attorney general, the head of the Justice Department, to Fox to talk, in part, about how Napolitano has to be silenced. That's not the way it supposed to work.
STELTER: Look; we've seen a lot of unprecedented behavior not just by the president but by the attorney general. I think, in this case, this meeting with Rupert Murdoch was about a lot of things. They've gone back decades. But there's certainly a sense inside Fox that Rupert Murdoch has a very heavy hand, that Rupert Murdoch very much controls Fox News. And he is very close to the president. I wish that Rupert Murdoch would talk more about that publicly. We need to know more about how this right-wing world works because they are in charge of the government.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brian Stelter, CNN's chief media correspondent and host of its Sunday morning show "Reliable Sources." His new book is called "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, And The Dangerous Distortions Of Truth." We'll be back after we take a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DENIS GABEL'S "LE MANS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Brian Stelter about his new book "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, And The Dangerous Distortion Of Truth." Stelter is CNN's chief media correspondent and host of its Sunday morning show "Reliable Sources," which is about how the media is covering the news.
Let's talk about the pandemic. In the first months of the pandemic, what you heard on Fox was discussions about how the pandemic was just, like, a liberal hoax, that the virus wasn't as bad as people were saying. Like, maybe - maybe it would be as bad as the flu. Maybe it would be like the flu. So they were very dismissive as things were getting worse and worse. At the same time, you write that the Fox News offices were taking precautions to make sure that the staff was safe. So this is very contradictory, right? The on-air sound is, like, it's no big deal. But inside, they're taking all precautions and taking it really seriously. What were some of the things they were doing?
STELTER: This is the hypocrisy of Fox in the Trump age. And this is why the hypocrisy matters - because it's a life-or-death issue. When the virus was silently spreading in the United States in February and early March, some of Fox's biggest stars downplayed the threat, almost edged into denialism. And the biggest problem about that is that Trump heard it. He echoed it. They echoed Trump back. So we're into this grotesque feedback loop where they're telling each other it's going to be OK, and they are lulling the president into a false sense of security about the virus.
Now, I'll be the first to say we don't know how many people died as a result of this. We'll never know. And it's not up to a television network to officially be responsible for that. I'll also say there were a lot of failures in February and March. A lot of mayors, a lot of governors, a lot of people made a lot of mistakes. But Trump and Fox had the most responsibility of all because they had the biggest platforms. Trump had the biggest megaphone in the world, and he used it to say things like hoax.
Now, to be clear, when he said hoax, he was talking about the Democrats. He was saying that the Democrats were trying to politicize the virus and that that was a hoax. But you know what? When you use a word like that, you're giving permission to your fans to look the other way, to ignore the threat. That's what the word does. When you say hoax, you're telling people to relax, to be calm, to not take precautions about the virus. And that was incredibly damaging last winter.
GROSS: So you write about how Tucker Carlson, one of the most popular Fox hosts, was sent to Mar-a-Lago to try to get Trump to take the virus more seriously. What was that meeting about?
STELTER: Yeah. And, you know, Tucker does deserve a little bit of credit because Carlson took this virus more seriously than a lot of his own air colleagues. He warned about it in January. He warned about it in February. Now, that's partly because of his animosity toward China. But he was warning about this virus early on. In early March, a White House aide - we don't know who. Carlson's never said who. But a White House aide asked him to drive across the state of Florida to go to Mar-a-Lago and try to talk some sense into President Trump, to try to convince Trump to take the virus seriously. That meeting happened about a week before Trump actually did start to change his tone. So it didn't work right away. But Carlson at least tried. And that's the world we're in now. That's the country we're in, where it's a television star who gets sent to try to convince the president to care more about the pandemic.
GROSS: I want you to tell a story that involves both Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, who are the two most popular hosts on Fox News. And it has to do with how Hannity wanted Trump to bring on a national security adviser who would be hard-line on Syria and Iran. And Trump did. He chose John Bolton, who I think had Hannity's approval. But then when Trump wanted to bomb Iran, Tucker Carlson interceded. Tell us that story.
STELTER: Yeah, this is in June of 2019, when Carlson had been on the air discouraging the president from taking Bolton's advice, from taking action against Iran. You know, there was a situation where Trump, by his own account, had weapons cocked and loaded to strike Iran in retaliation for the downing of a drone. Remember, this day, war planes were already in the air. But Trump was thinking about Tucker Carlson. He was thinking about Tucker's on-air commentary. And he phoned Carlson. He wanted to hear Carlson's voice. He wanted to talk through it with this Fox host. What do you think, the president says on the phone. And Carlson said the same thing he'd been saying on TV. Bombing Iran is not the right thing. It's not why the voters elected you.
So here is a television host providing really critical advice as the president is weighing whether to bomb another country. You know, the president ultimately called off that strike. And it's not only because of Tucker Carlson. But it's a reflection of the reality we're in now. I had a Fox commentator say to me, this is crazy, but I feel safer having Tucker in charge of the country than Sean Hannity.
STELTER: And there's a little bit of a joke there, but there's a lot of truth. There's a lot of truth.
GROSS: You write about Ukraine as being a story that actually starts with Hannity back in 2017. So tell us about that. How did Hannity initiate the Ukraine story in terms of the public conversation? And also, you make it seem like that planted the idea in Trump's mind that it was Ukraine that was the problem, not Russia, when it came to trying to intervene in the 2016 election.
STELTER: Yes. And you've hit on one of the biggest themes in "Hoax," which is that when the president's allies try to help him, they actually hurt him. They actually do him a disservice. So in the case of Sean Hannity in Ukraine, I think we can trace impeachment all the way back to Hannity's show in 2017 when Hannity went on the air and screamed about how it wasn't Russia. It was Ukraine that interfered in the election. Now, sometimes, Hannity would say, OK, yeah, Russia interfered. But they both interfered.
He was really focused on Ukraine being a threat. And it planted the idea in Trump's mind that Ukraine was a bad actor, that he shouldn't trust Ukraine. And then two years later, we get to the point where the president's on the phone with the newly elected Ukrainian president, asking him to do a favor. This narrative was set on Fox years earlier.
Hannity was also on television with guests who were bashing Marie Yovanovitch, a name we all now know because she was the ambassador in Ukraine. He had guests on the air saying Yovanovitch needs to be recalled, needs to be pulled from the country. This got so ugly that Mike Pompeo had to call Hannity and ask him to call off the dogs. Stop criticizing my ambassador. It was commentary on Fox that set the stage for impeachment by convincing the president that Ukraine was against him. And that narrative was repeated all the time on right-wing TV. So you know, for many Americans, impeachment was an obvious answer to criminality. But on Fox, it was yet another hoax.
GROSS: How does Chris Wallace fit into Fox News? Sometimes he seems, like, very independent. Like when he interviews Trump, he can ask some pretty critical questions. What did you learn about his relationship with Trump and his relationship with his colleagues and management at Fox?
STELTER: Yes. Wallace, along with Bret Baier and a few other news anchors - they are the exceptions to the rule. They are working with blinders on, focused only on their shows, trying to report as honestly and fairly as they can. I do think, however, even programs like Bret Baier's "Special Report" have been affected by the Trump years, where they've moved further to the right in order to placate an audience that has moved further and further to the right. Chris Wallace is probably the most of an exception because his program, "Fox News Sunday," also airs on Fox broadcast stations. So he doesn't feel as many of the same ratings pressures to please a right-wing audience versus all the rest of the programs.
It is a difficult situation for these news anchors who want to hold onto their audience but also live up to their integrity as a journalist. And I know a lot of people outside Fox think that these men are complicit, think that these men have sold out, think that these men are no longer truth-tellers. But the dynamic internally is, you know, they're trying to keep their blinders on, focus on their shows, tune out the propaganda from guys like Hannity and do the best they can at a very tumultuous time.
GROSS: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brian Stelter. His new book is called "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, And The Dangerous Distortion Of Truth." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU AND PAT METHENY'S "SEEDS OF DOUBT")
GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Brian Stelter about his new book, "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, And The Dangerous Distortion Of Truth." Stelter is CNN's chief media correspondent and the host of its Sunday morning show "Reliable Sources," which is about how the media is covering the news. We recorded this interview Monday morning.
So in terms of Fox's influence on Trump and Trump's influence on Fox, you kind of trace that back to when Roger Ailes was forced out, when the head of Fox News was forced out because of the sexual assault and sexual harassment charges against him. That - you know, people on Fox News were trying to please Roger Ailes all the time 'cause he was the king of Fox News. And without him, there was a vacuum. Do you - are you saying that you think Trump filled that vacuum?
STELTER: Yes. And this came through in my hundreds of interviews for this book. You know, Roger Ailes was many things. He was a predator, but he was also a powerful leader. And that's why many staffers at Fox told me that they kind of miss him. Some even wish he was still there running the network. You know, he died in 2017, but his ghost still looms very large because there is no leader that has the same kind of influence or begrudging respect.
You know, I think what happened is that there was a leadership vacuum at Fox when Ailes was forced out, and Trump filled that vacuum. I had an anchor at Fox say to me, it was like - you know, we always produced the network for an audience of one, and the audience of one was Ailes. Now the audience of one is Trump because the way to get ahead at Fox is to be Trumpier, is to be more promotional of the president, to be friendlier. That's what the viewers want. That's what management seems to want.
I had many journalists at Fox who are really concerned about the state of the network, who said management encouraged pro-Trump propaganda and discouraged real reporting. And that's ultimately why I had to write this book - because there are a lot of journalists of Fox who hate the direction the network is heading in. They want it to change. They don't want propaganda. They want real news. But they feel suffocated by Trump.
GROSS: You know, getting back to Ailes, you write that he didn't approve of Trump's emphasis or Fox's emphasis on birtherism regarding Obama - you know, questioning whether he was really born in America. Why did he draw the line there? And did Ailes draw the line on any other factually wrong stories that Fox was putting out?
STELTER: Now (ph), this is a great insight because this shows how Ailes ran the network with an iron fist. He believed in birtherism, but he didn't let stars like Sean Hannity talk about birtherism. He did not let Fox go down that rabbit hole because he believed it was better for Fox to be viewed as mainstream and reasonable. He wanted Fox to be compared to CBS and NBC, not compared to Infowars or crazy fringe websites. He knew that Fox's power as a business was to not go totally extremely to the right.
Now, I know listeners are going to say Fox was always conservative - and it was. But it wasn't nearly as conspiratorial and extreme as the content is now, and that is because Ailes managed it. He told stars when they stepped out of line. He made sure birtherism didn't leak out onto his airwaves - except when Donald Trump called in for interviews. This was in 2011, 2012. You know, Trump called in every week. And he did promote birtherism on Fox, but he also got to know the Fox audience.
Like, imagine what it's like when you call into a television show once a week for years. You start to learn how the Fox viewer thinks. You start to learn what they care about. And I believe that that is ultimately why he was able to win the GOP nomination and become president. It's because he was trained (laughter) - not literally - but trained by Fox through all of his interviews on the air to know exactly how to please his base.
GROSS: You said that it was Ailes who was behind Trump getting a weekly phone-in spot on "Fox & Friends" in 2011.
STELTER: That's right. This is Ailes the television producer knowing that Trump would be a ratings magnet. Ailes liked to try different people out on his air. He liked to try out potential presidential candidates. And these two men were friendly for decades. So it only made sense that Ailes gave Trump a huge boost on the way to the presidency.
GROSS: If other people at Fox News think that, you know, Trump has serious problems, if Sean Hannity has told people that Trump is crazy, why are they enabling him? And why are they, in some ways, bringing out his most extreme instincts and continuing to do that?
STELTER: That is what I asked almost every person I interviewed. Of course, I had to promise confidentiality to most of these sources. But they told me, essentially, it's about money. It's about power. And it's about a lack of other options. The money part's obvious. You know, Fox News is a profit machine. People there are paid really well. If - let's say you're a B-list or C-List anchor on Fox or a host on Fox. You're probably not going to get hired anywhere else because you've probably affected your reputation by being on the air at Fox. So you stay for that reason, perhaps. Or you stay because you like the perks. You know, you get Super Bowl tickets. You know, you get to fly on the private plane sometimes.
You also have to recognize that Fox is a family. And there's a real sense of solidarity there. You might say that's cultish. But there is a sense of family. People feel like they belong to something. And that is another reason why people stay and why people toe the line. But I mentioned power. I think power is a really important part of this, as well. When you can influence the president and half the country, when you get the president tweeting about your book or promoting you on Twitter, you know, that feels good. There is something real about that. So I think it is money. I think it's power. And I think it's a lack of other options because they might not get hired anywhere else.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brian Stelter, CNN's chief media correspondent and author of the new book "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, And The Dangerous Distortion Of Truth." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BISIO QUARTET AND RON SODERSTROM'S "A.M.")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Brian Stelter, who is the author of the new book Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, And The Dangerous Distortion Of Truth." He's CNN chief media correspondent and host of its Sunday morning show "Reliable Sources," which is about how the media covers the news.
There's a very interesting personal story you tell in your book about how back in 2005, you went on a couple of dates with a Fox intern. But as it turns out, the Fox intern wasn't really dating you as much as she was spying on you.
GROSS: What happened?
STELTER: Yeah. I know you can't see me right now, but I'm blushing as you say that. This is an example of Fox's manipulation. I had launched a television news blog called TVNewser. I was working on this blog. I was single at the time. I'm thankfully happily married now. But at the time, I was single. And this intern friended me on Facebook, struck up a relationship, went out with me in New York City. You know, I almost started to think she liked me. But what she was actually doing was taking notes and sending them back to Roger Ailes and his PR executives.
And the reason was Fox was incredibly paranoid. They wanted to know everything about the reporters who covered them. And I would tell you now 15 years later that's not quite as true as it was. There's nobody as paranoid as Roger Ailes was. But there is still a real sense of control there. When I was working on this book, I had a Fox producer suspect that I was secretly tape recording him. He saw my bag in the corner at a party, and he thought I must have been recording him. Of course, I wasn't. But he called his boss to report it just in case because he didn't want to get in trouble. You know, that's the kind of organization it is, where the paranoia runs really deep.
But thankfully, a lot of people still wanted to talk to me because they're concerned about what's happened to the network. I even had a researcher at Fox say to me that the network's allegiance with President Trump is putting our democracy at risk. That's not coming from a liberal critic of Fox. That's coming from an employee of Fox. So it's really a remarkable place. And as for me and the intern, she's actually a PR executive now. And now I work with her on stories once in a while (laughter).
GROSS: Well, that must be strange. Did you ever talk to her about this?
STELTER: We did. We - now that we're both happily married, we had a very funny conversation about it.
GROSS: So she confessed that that's what she was really doing - was spying on you.
STELTER: She did. And she felt bad about it. But I understand what happens when you work at Fox. You feel like you're part of something big and important. You feel like it's us against the world. You know, there's a real sense of us versus them at Fox. And I think when you're young and you're working there, you can get caught up in that. But look. Her bosses told her to do something profoundly unethical, and that is the point.
GROSS: What do you think Roger Ailes was hoping to get from you by having an intern spy on you? Did they want to get dirt on you so that if you said something bad about Fox, they could say something bad about you and discredit you?
STELTER: Yes. And they also wanted to know what my relationships were with other networks, with other PR people, with other sources. You know, they want to find your weak spots. And that's kind of a trick out of politics. It shows how the network has a political operation, as well as a business. And I've got to say that playbook is still very much in effect. They still run it like a political operation, as well as a business.
GROSS: Well, in terms of the future at Fox News, what if Trump loses this election and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are elected? What happens at Fox? They will no longer have the president's ear.
STELTER: Trump is Fox's Frankenstein. That's the way one commentator at the network put it to me. They created this - (laughter) well, I guess, in the metaphor, he's a monster. They created this man. And now he's out of control. There's certainly a fear at Fox that Trump will go off and launch his own network if he loses the election, that he will become a rival to Fox News. But there's also a certain confidence inside the company that Fox is bigger than Trump now, that Fox is more powerful, even, than the president and that Fox is always most successful not on defense for Trump, but on offense against the Democrats. This is, I think, the most important thing that I learned by watching hundreds of hours of Fox television. The channel is more anti-Democrat than it is pro-Trump. And by being anti-Democrat, of course, they are helping Trump.
But at its heart, the channel is oppositional. At its heart, the channel is about being against Democrats. That's why when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to Congress, a Fox producer texted me and said, thank you, Queens, thank you to the Bronx, you know, because they were so thrilled they had this new enemy, this new, young woman who they could Create hours and hours of programming about. I think Fox executives look at a potential Biden presidency and they say, we will become the voice of the opposition just as we were in the Obama years. And that could be a very winning business model even though Trump will be out of office.
GROSS: I watch your show every Sunday. And...
STELTER: Thank you.
GROSS: You're welcome. It's a good show.
GROSS: And I love hearing people talk about, you know, the media and how the media is covering the news, which is what you do on your show. But my impression is - and correct me if I'm wrong - that you've changed in the years that you've been hosting the show. You're much more outspoken about what you see. You're much more opinionated and comfortable giving your own opinions. Am I right about that? And if so - what changed in you and in what you were seeing that led you to be more outspoken and opinionated?
STELTER: In 10 or 20 years, I want to be able to look back and be proud of how I covered the Trump presidency. I think that's the ultimate test for any journalist right now. Will you be proud of what you said and what you did? I have definitely been outspoken on "Reliable Sources." I've been doing more monologues than I used to and so have a lot of other CNN anchors.
I think we have found that those personal essays where we are just speaking straight to the camera are sometimes the best way to cut through all the noise of the Trump years. Sometimes talking straight to the camera and explaining what the president did or didn't do, explaining how we know it's a lie, I think that's more effective than having a debate between two talking heads or falling for that both-sides trap because, Terry, there are certain things that we have to stand up for. Truth and decency and democracy, those are not partisan values. They should never be viewed as partisan values.
When we have a president who is indecent, when he is calling the press the enemy of the people, we should stand up against that. You're definitely right, though, that I have changed a bit. I remember the weekend that he first called the press the enemy. And I said on the air, the American press is stronger than a demagogue. This is going to be a hard period. But we are stronger than any demagogue. And I think that's been borne out in the past three years. This has been an incredible time for the news media to try to defend the very notion of truth.
GROSS: Brian Stelter, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
STELTER: Thank you.
GROSS: Brian Stelter is CNN's chief media correspondent, the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and author of the new book "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, And The Dangerous Distortion Of Truth." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, as the Republican convention continues, our guests will be historian Rick Perlstein. He spent his career studying the rise of the new right in American politics. He's just published his fourth book about American conservatism focusing on the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It's called "Reaganland." He's also the author of "Nixonland." I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF URI CAINE ENSEMBLE'S "CANON AT THE 4TH IN 4/4")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Seth Kelley directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF URI CAINE ENSEMBLE'S "CANON AT THE 4TH IN 4/4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.