A Q&A With Brian Stelter About His Fox News Book

From The Poynter Report with Tom Jones:

On Tuesday, longtime media journalist and former CNN host Brian Stelter comes out with this second book about Fox News. This one is called “Network of Lies: The Epic Saga of Fox News, Donald Trump, and the Battle for American Democracy.”

This book looks back at the network’s relationship with former President Donald Trump, especially the conspiracies surrounding Trump’s “Big Lie” — that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

Stelter’s reporting looks at the role Fox News played in Trump’s desire to stay in power. Conspiracies spread on its network led to Fox News paying $787 million to Dominion Voting Systems to settle a lawsuit. Not long after, Fox News’ biggest star, Tucker Carlson, was fired. But Stelter’s book goes into detail about how Carlson’s dismissal might not have had anything to do with the Dominion lawsuit.

I had a chance to catch up with Stelter over the weekend and, through email, he answered a few questions about the book and what’s next for him.

Tom Jones: When we talk about Fox News and all the conspiracies that are often spread on the network, we often look at on-air hosts such as Tucker Carlson and Maria Bartiromo and Jesse Watters and so forth. But tell me a little about the Murdochs — Rupert and Lachlan. You even open your book with Rupert and some of the things he has said about how a network has a responsibility to tell the truth and how he believes Fox is a news network. What are your thoughts on Rupert and Lachlan and what Fox News has become? And will we see anything different with Lachlan having even more of a role with Rupert stepping back?

Brian Stelter: Rupert Murdoch abdicated his duty as the head of a major media company. That was one of my conclusions after reading the transcript of his deposition in the Dominion Voting Systems case. The deposition is really something to behold; since Rupert is never questioned in public, the transcript is akin to his most in-depth interview in a decade. If you believe his sworn testimony, he was AWOL while Fox pushed a “stolen election” story that helped Trump attempt a coup. He knew the lies were “damaging everybody” (his words) but he didn’t lay a finger on Fox’s liars.

My view is that media owners must not meddle in truthful news coverage, but they must intervene when real reporting is replaced by malicious lying. Rupert failed that test in 2020 and so did his son Lachlan. My sense is that Lachlan dislikes Trump, but cares a whole lot more about business metrics like political ad spending than Trump’s dangerous descent into fascist rhetoric.

Jones: With all of Fox News’ coverage of the theories about rigged elections and Jan. 6 and trying to keep Trump in power, what did your reporting tell you? Was this coverage driven simply by the desire to get good ratings? Were they simply giving the audience what the audience wanted? Or was Fox truly on board with keeping Trump in power? In other words, was it the audience or Fox driving these stories?

Stelter: The audience is in charge, more than ever before, and mainly in detrimental ways. When Biden won the election, Fox viewers wanted to be told that Trump was robbed. Sean Hannity saw a poll that showed “almost no Trump voters consider Biden the legitimate 2020 election winner.” He sent the poll to his producers and said, “Respecting this audience whether we agree or not is critical.” One of his staffers replied and said, “Our best minutes from last week” (meaning the minute-by-minute ratings) “were on the voting irregularities.” Hannity kept up the “rigged” act all the way until January even though he privately fretted about what might happen on Jan. 6.

In the book, I quote a Trump White House veteran saying, of Fox, “They are servants. They simply serve the audience.” This person reminded me that Fox was rather dismissive of Trump in the summer of 2015, but “the second they noticed that Republican voters liked him, they embraced him.” The pattern repeated itself after Jan. 6: Rupert deemed Trump a “non person” and Fox forgot he existed for a while, but once the GOP base gravitated to conspiracy theories that exonerated Trump for the riot, he regained control of the party and, eventually, of Fox.

Jones: This is your second book about Fox News — what makes this network a subject you feel important to write about?

Stelter: Fox has an inordinate amount of power to shape politics, culture and belief in the United States. Witness Sunday night, when Tim Scott went on his friend Trey Gowdy’s Fox show to suspend his candidacy for president. I wrote “Hoax” in 2020 because I observed that Trump was propped up by Fox but also poisoned by the network’s misinformation. For that book, I leaned heavily on anonymous sources to describe Fox’s internal workings and disregard for journalistic norms.

Then, all of a sudden, in February and March of this year, Dominion published emails and texts from Fox stars and executives that exposed the network in a harsh new light. The anonymous claims in “Hoax” were now affirmed, on the record, in gnarly detail. I surprised my book agent at her office one afternoon and said someone had to compile the Dominion revelations into a book, and it should be me. Lo and behold, a few weeks later Fox settled the suit and fired Tucker Carlson, and the story became even more intriguing.

Jones: And as a follow-up to that, in writing this latest book, was there anything that stood out to you, that surprised you?

Stelter: How brazen the internal communiques were. I reviewed thousands of pages of documents for this project. One evening in December 2020, Fox anchor Eric Shawn delivered a very basic fact check of some BS about voter fraud that had aired on Hannity’s show the night before. Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott snapped and said, “This has to stop now. … The audience is furious and we are just feeding them material. Bad for business.” Scott was really saying that rebutting Team Trump’s antidemocratic lies was “bad for business.” While she was morally wrong, she was technically right.

Jones: We were all stunned by Tucker Carlson’s firing, but now looking back based on your reporting, this was a long time in coming, right? What finally pushed the network to let him go?

Stelter: It wasn’t just one thing, it was everything — all of Carlson’s radical comments, controversies, insults, extreme claims, scandals. I kept adding more chapters to the book as I discovered more and more.

Jones: You talk to a lot of people inside the network — producers, behind-the-scenes folks. What’s the vibe you get from those who work there about working there?

Stelter: For most, it’s just a job, not a calling. Some producer and director types truly believe in the Trump agenda and will stop at nothing to see him reelected. But most are just trying to make good TV. They definitely aren’t losing sleep about Fox’s coarsening of the culture or Trump’s brainwashing of the base.

I write in the book that rank-and-file staffers like to gossip about hookups between hosts and ratings rivalries between shows. On the occasions when I steered my source chats in a more serious direction, toward the impact of Fox-fueled disinformation on society and democracy, staffers turned cagey or dismissive. I heard some predictable whataboutism and rants about the flaws of other networks.

Bottom line: I think introspection and accountability are in short supply at Fox, a tone that’s set at the top, by Rupert, who advised Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott years ago to “ignore the noise.”

Jones: Is there any way for you to quantify the damage that Fox News has done — to our country? To our democracy? To journalism?

Stelter: No. But I would point you toward the families that are going to have a sour Thanksgiving next week because relatives can’t speak a common language. A classic example: Fox News is headquartered in Manhattan but portrays the city as an absolute hellscape. It’s very hard for a resident of Chelsea or Yorkville to explain to a Fox addict that, no, the city is not burning down, and yes, it’s a pleasant place to live.

I emphasize the word network in “Network of Lies” because this hyperpartisan hate-news machine is much bigger than Fox. Trump fans embraced the Big Lie because it echoed throughout almost every corner of the right-wing media. The effect was to make the lie seem omnipresent and obvious and indisputable. Republican elected officials caught the drift. The result: Trump is now running for reelection to right a wrong that wasn’t wrong at all.

Jones: And, finally, what’s next for Brian Stelter? I know you’re doing a lot of writing and these days you’re appearing a lot on TV talking about the book. What are your future plans?

Stelter: In the immediate future, I need to plan the Thanksgiving party for my daughter’s first-grade class. Class Dad is, in all seriousness, my favorite job. I also love hosting Vanity Fair’s “Inside the Hive” podcast and writing for outlets like Vanity Fair and The Hollywood Reporter. I have learned a ton by being an ordinary reader and viewer of political news rather than a producer and participant. I might have a startup idea percolating.

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