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'Hoax' Traces The 'Grotesque Feedback Loop' Between President Trump And Fox News

President Trump greets talk show host Sean Hannity at a 2018 rally in Cape Girardeau, Mo.
Jim Watson
AFP via Getty Images
President Trump greets talk show host Sean Hannity at a 2018 rally in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

CNN correspondent Brian Stelter says President Trump's "cozy" relationship with Fox News is "like nothing we've seen in American history."

In his new book, Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth, Stelter describes the president as a "shadow producer" to Fox News host Sean Hannity — who, in turn, acts as a "shadow chief of staff" for Trump.

"This is a relationship that is extraordinary, because Trump shapes Hannity's show [and] Hannity advises the president on policy and personnel," Stelter says. "And then at 9 o'clock sharp, the president is watching Hannity deliver the talking points that they have already discussed."

But Stelter notes that Trump's close relationship with Fox News goes beyond Hannity.

"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," Stelter says. "There's just no example of this kind of alliance between a president and a media outlet ever before."

Stelter adds that Trump's reliance on Fox News has created a dangerous feedback loop — especially with regard to COVID-19.

"When the virus was silently spreading in the United States in February and early March, some of his biggest stars [on Fox News] downplayed the threat, almost edged into denialism," he says. "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."

/ Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster

Interview Highlights

On President Trump's close relationship with Fox News host Sean Hannity

I think that 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. 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 [protests in] 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.

On Stelter's reporting that Hannity has said he thinks Trump is "crazy"

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. ... But 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. ... 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.

On how Fox News host Tucker Carlson was sent to Mar-a-Lago to try to get Trump to takeCOVID-19more seriously

Carlson took this virus more seriously than a lot of his on-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.

Brian Stelter, shown here in 2018, is CNN's chief media correspondent and the host of CNN's <em>Reliable Sources,</em> which focuses on how the media cover the news
Michael Loccisano / Getty Images for CNN
Getty Images for CNN
Brian Stelter, shown here in 2018, is CNN's chief media correspondent and the host of CNN's Reliable Sources, which focuses on how the media cover the news

So in early March, a White House aide — we don't know who, Carlson's never said who — 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.

On Fox News employees who have been critical of Trump

[Chris] 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. 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 the right wing audience versus all the rest of the programs. It is a difficult situation for these news anchors who want to hold on to their audience, but also live up to their integrity as a journalist.

On Trump's television setup

He does have several television sets, and there's a really interesting device that connects them all together. It's a box called the Genie made by DirecTV that allows him to watch the same thing in every room. So if he's watching Fox and Friends on the TV in his bedroom, he can hit pause, he can head downstairs to the Oval Office. He has a dining room right near the Oval Office where he has a flat screen TV he's very proud of. He can hit play and keep watching right where he left off. The miracle of modern technology! He really does love this DVR. He sometimes calls it a TiVo, even though it's not technically a TiVo. ...

I really think that in some ways [Trump] wants to be a television producer more than a president sometimes.

And then, throughout the West Wing, there are these smaller monitors. They're known as "four boxes" because there's four different television screens simultaneously. You've got Fox News, you've got CNN, MSNBC, Fox Business. That's how he's able to watch multiple shows at once. I really think that in some ways he wants to be a television producer more than a president sometimes.

Heidi Saman and Joel Wolfram produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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