Four years ago , my brother, a philosopher, advised me to gamble, exorbitantly, on Donald Trump becoming president. If Hillary Clinton won, he reasoned, so much the better. If she didn’t, the ACLU and Planned Parenthood were going to need the money. But I wasn’t interested in hedging my bets: I knew what was going to happen. At a ‘viewing party’ to celebrate the election of America’s first woman president, I told everyone not to worry: the red states get called before the blue ones. Cities come in late. The pundits always make the race seem tighter than it is just to keep us watching. It was as though I’d bought tickets to a play I’d already seen and I remembered it ending with a wedding. All through the curtain calls I was telling the people around me to sit down: ‘It’s not over! The lovers aren’t dead, just pretending!’ And it wasn’t until the lights were on and I was putting my coat on that I realised my mistake. ‘At least he’s a New Yorker,’ I assured my most miserable friends. He’d once been a registered Democrat. Maybe some of what he’d said on the campaign trail had been a feint?
In his new introduction to The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – and Divided a Country, Gabriel Sherman suggests that I wouldn’t have been quite so stupid if I’d been watching Fox News (or if I’d read his book when it first came out in 2014). Before Trump announced that he was running for president, he had his own segment – ‘Monday Mornings with Trump’ – on the show Fox and Friends. He liked to call in rather than appear in person, as though he were too busy dealmaking to travel the half mile between Trump Tower and the Fox studios.
Brian Stelter’s new book, Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth (One Signal, $28), argues that ‘through the topics chosen by producers, through the coaching of the hosts, and through the feedback on Twitter, Trump learned how to be the Fox News president.’ ‘People think he’s calling up Fox and Friends and telling us what to say,’ a former producer told Stelter. ‘Hell no. It’s the opposite. We tell him what to say.’ Trump has never disappointed them – on race, immigration, healthcare, climate change, China and Israel – though the newsroom was divided on whether he should bomb Iran, so he had to choose between the talk show hosts Tucker Carlson (against bombing) and Sean Hannity (all for it). Trump is known to watch so much Fox News (up to seven hours a day, coded on his schedule as ‘executive time’) that some advertisers – farmers seeking subsidies, airlines opposed to foreign subsidies, the National Biodiesel Board – have produced commercials just for him. White House aides, who refer to Hannity as the ‘shadow chief of staff’, watch Fox News in order to know Trump’s mind. To nudge him on policy, they try to book particular officials to speak directly to him on his favourite shows. The guests Trump especially likes – they praise him, they ‘look the part’ – are made ambassadors, or put on the Coronavirus Task Force.
When Rupert Murdoch started the network in 1996, he tapped the media strategist Roger Ailes and gave him editorial control. Ailes had spent years teaching Republicans how to look better on TV before deciding it would be more efficient just to become a news producer himself: there were a ‘hundred ways to spin the news’, he said, and liberal journalists – a tautology, since all journalists were liberal – didn’t even realise they were doing it. For twenty years, before he was ousted for sexual harassment, Ailes turned conservative talk radio hosts into Fox News presenters, and hired reporters who were usually either ‘newbies’ (malleable) or ‘has-beens’ (loyal). He saved money by not having expensive foreign bureaus – his viewers didn’t care about the Balkans – but didn’t stint on the make-up department: female presenters were to be blonde and leggy, ideally former beauty queens like Gretchen Carlson (Miss America 1989), who filed the first harassment lawsuit against Ailes in 2016. Nicole Kidman played her in the movie Bombshell.
After 9/11, when Fox News became a 24-hour sales pitch for the war in Iraq, there was little check on it: the Federal Communications Commission had abolished the ‘fairness doctrine’ decades before, when conservatives ruled that government regulations requiring ‘balance’ were an attack on both freedom of speech and property rights (my TV station, my way), and the doctrine had never fully applied to cable (as opposed to broadcast) news anyway. Fox News is also insensitive to advertiser boycotts: they make money so long as people keep watching it, or – even if they never watch it – keep buying cable packages that include the channel. Murdoch has signalled that he doesn’t care for Trump personally, but as long as Fox News is on track to make $2 billion a year he won’t interfere. It’s now the most watched cable news network in America and the highest rated TV channel, cable or otherwise, during the prime-time hours of 8 to 11 p.m.
For Ailes, the election of Barack Obama was the ‘Alamo’, ‘the worst thing’ that could happen to America. If you watched Fox News, Barack Hussein Obama (they liked using his full name) was a racist with a ‘deep-seated hatred for white people’, who as a child in Indonesia had been indoctrinated at a madrassa funded by ‘Saudis’. While he was president, a Marxist-Islamist takeover of America was always imminent. On Fox and Friends, Trump would ask questions about Obama’s birth certificate – did it exist? In the afternoon Glenn Beck would suggest that the Federal Emergency Management Agency might be building concentration camps to house Obama’s opponents. Beck eventually walked that back and was rewarded with a series of death threats.
In the run-up to the last presidential election, Fox News told its millions of viewers that Clinton was headed to prison for mishandling her emails, if she didn’t die first, because she was lying about her health. (‘If the liberals are evil and they’re ruining America and they’re turning your children gay and they’re persecuting Christians,’ a former Fox News commentator told Stelter, ‘then aren’t you justified in the way you’re behaving?’) In the years that followed, there was no Trumpian scandal that Fox News presenters couldn’t explain away. Impeachment was said to be a deep state coup to undo the presidential election. Children separated from their parents at the southern border were being held in ‘summer camps’ – that’s if they weren’t, as Ann Coulter alleged, ‘child actors’. Last March, Fox News hosts reported that Covid-19 wasn’t anything like as dangerous as people were saying and that Democrats were trying to ‘bludgeon Trump with this new hoax’, even as the network was deep-cleaning its New York offices and building home studios for its stars. After Trump declared a state of emergency, Hannity said the president’s foresight in instituting a travel ban had saved tens of thousands of American lives (later upgraded to millions). ‘I used to kid around and say, if Trump cured cancer, they would impeach him for that. Well, I don’t think I was too far off.’
Two weeks before the election, the top story on Fox and Friends is that Joe Biden’s son Hunter – or so says Rudy Giuliani – has taken bribes from China and Ukraine, and there’s now supposedly evidence unearthed on an old laptop that he’s given kickbacks to his father. But then they say Biden is only a puppet who’s already showing signs of dementia. If he becomes president, the country will actually be run by the ‘radical socialists’ Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who intend, Laura Ingraham says, ‘to punish anyone who gets in the way of their cultural revolution’.
If the Democrats prevail, Fox News warns, Americans will be ruled by an ‘unholy alliance’ between ‘the billionaires and the Bolsheviks’: billionaires want to depress wages, so they’re in favour of opening the country’s borders to immigrants who’ll take American jobs and remake the culture. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks will use ‘every tool in the government’s power to harass Americans who defy the socialist edicts. It’s going to be a long, dark period of recriminations and retribution.’ You won’t learn these truths in the New York Times or on CNN. Only Fox News can be trusted. More than half its viewers say there is nothing Trump could do that would ever cause them not to vote for him.