Brian Stelter

Will Trump Hoax the Nation on Election Night?

Air Date: October 5, 2020

CNN’s Brian Stelter discusses the danger of disinformation on Election Night, Week, and Month.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m honored to welcome to our broadcast today Brian Stelter. He of course is chief media correspondent for CNN, host of Reliable Sources, one of the most pioneering media journalists of our time and author of the new book “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of the Truth.” Thanks so much for joining me today, Brian.


STELTER: Thank you. Honored to be here.


HEFFNER: Brian, how does Trump and Fox News, their relationship, diverge from the incest that we had seen with the Bush Administration and its war efforts? There’s a long history of Republicans and Fox News working in tandem. What was different about the Trump campaign in ‘16 and continues to be different from the Bush, Fox news Alliance?


STELTER: I think the relationship now is much cozier and I think the rhetoric on Fox is much more extreme in favor of Trump to the point where it is in prime time and other parts of the day, pro-Trump propaganda. The difference between the Bush years and the Trump years is Roger Ailes. This was Roger Ailes’ network. It was his creation from the very beginning. He certainly did work with the Bush White House in the run up to the Iraq war. For example, there were times where he engaged in those kinds of unethical practices that other news division leaders would not engage in. And of course we now know about his history of abusing women, abusing his power at the company. And that’s why the Murdochs threw them out in 2016. But what many staffers at Fox said to me during my research for “Hoax” was that Ailes was a strong leader and that’s what’s missing now at Fox that when Elle’s was forced out, he left a leadership vacuum and Trump basically filled it. And that’s the difference now in the Trump years, it’s like the network is programmed for the president and that’s new.


HEFFNER: And Murdoch and the shareholders of Fox have tolerated, not just the void of truthful information, but they’ve tolerated the amplification of disinformation. Can you tell our viewers, if at any point after Trump was inaugurated, there was internal debate about whether the way they covered him during the campaign would be the way that they covered him as president?


STELTER: I think actually the coverage became softer, became cozier and friendlier because at least during the campaign, when Ailes was still in charge, he would push back on Trump and challenge him. And when, for example, Trump would attack Megyn Kelly, Ailes did stand up to Trump several times. Rupert Murdoch did not show the same interest in doing so. So one of the frustrations inside Fox these days is whenever Trump complains about a news anchor, ‘cause he wants more opinion on the air and less news, whenever Trump attacks a news anchor at Fox, the network does not respond, does not hit back, does not release a statement defending journalism instead it just remains silent. Why? Because, well, Fox knows its viewers like Trump! Its viewers might not like Fox to push back on the President. So there’s, there’s those kinds of dynamics where the incentive structure is all wrong. Instead of standing up for journalism, they are cowering in fear of Trump and that’s not true for everybody. It’s not true for every journalist there, there are some great journalists at Fox, but they feel suffocated. They feel squeezed. This is not something that happened in one fell swoop. It didn’t happen overnight. There was no one big meeting where this new plan was decided. No, it was a hundred little steps along the way. And that’s why I had to write the book because I wanted to document how this evolution happened.


HEFFNER: As someone who has intensely scrutinized media and specifically Fox, what was the most revealing anecdote that you reveal, that you expose in the book that would, maybe even surprised you about either the depth of how they tolerate disinformation or, you know, the lack of backbone on the part of Murdoch and shareholders at Fox? What surprised you the most?


STELTER: Well, there’s a level of cynicism that I was not prepared for because as someone who works at CNN, of course, another cable news channel, I work with people that take their jobs really seriously and care deeply about what they do. Obviously we make mistakes and we are held accountable for those mistakes and that’s the way it should be. But at least there’s an effort to get to the truth and report as accurately as we can. Now compare that to Fox and Friends, which is a really, really important show because it informs and misinforms the President on a daily basis. And at Fox and Friends you have words in the banner, sometimes inaccurate words, going straight to the President’s head and then his Twitter feed and then all of our feeds and then all the way around the world. And there’s not a checks and balances. There’s not a sense of, we must uphold journalistic integrity. I had Fox and Friends producers admit all of this to me, kind of confessional style. And I quote them in the book at length, same things like this: They would say we’re not practicing what we preach. We’re telling other people to believe this stuff, but we don’t believe it ourselves. I had one of the Fox hosts say to me that we started to program for Trump. We started to make programming choices based on the fact that he was watching. That is something that is, that is new in American media. We didn’t have this between MSNBC and Barack Obama or between NBC and George Bush. Like this is new, this is different. And because so much of the information is low quality or completely untrue. It affects all of us, even if you were, I never watch Fox we are still affected because the President is misled. And, and this is true, whether it’s about North Korea or it’s about the pandemic or all these other stories in between.


HEFFNER: One of the Murdoch children resigned recently from the company. I go back to that question, Brian, what explains the absence of discretion, the lack of the backbone on the part of the shareholders, there have been a few successful boycotts of advertisers, but at the end of the day, is it just that the board of directors of Fox News are all Trump-loving, “Make America Great”-toting folks?


STELTER: No, because we know who’s on the board, Paul Ryan, for example, Paul Ryan who held his nose during the Trump years and tried to avoid all the nonsense and chaos and scandal. And eventually of course is now on the Fox board, making a good living. You know, Paul, Ryan’s not a MAGA guy, he’s on it. He’s not out, he’s not a Trumper, but he’s on the board. And he cares about the profits. He cares about the business. And ultimately this is the dichotomy. And I think there’s a real focus on the business and the profit and the, and the model of business and not a focus on the editorial and the content and the conspiracy theories. Where the two connect every once in a while is when there’s a controversy. That’s too big for the Murdochs to ignore. A very famous sad example of this is the Seth Rich debacle when Sean Hannity and Fox and friends promoted a murder mystery about the slain DNC staffer. It was not a mystery, but they tried to help Trump get off the hook for Russia by maybe blaming the WikiLeaks dump on Seth Rich. That was the narrative for a week. Eventually the Murdochs got involved because it was starting to hurt their business over in the United Kingdom because they were trying to get a deal done in the UK and they were afraid all the bad press from Hannity was going to hurt them. So that’s ultimately what this is about. It’s a very profitable business with hands-off owners who aren’t that concerned about Sean Hannity on the air spouting nonsense, unless it hurts the business. And I know that’s so cynical and I hate saying it, but it was the through line of this story. I spoke with more than 140 current Fox staffers and then even more who are outside, who are, who were in, you know, kind of around Fox, former staffers, agents, managers, and the narrative was pretty clear and pretty consistent.


HEFFNER: Brian, because there’s still Bret Baier and Chris Wallace and a few other straight shooters…




HEFFNER: There is still probably a hesitation to monopolize the disinformation in the way that a One America News Network does or the Q Anon message boards across social media. Is it true that Fox News has still not converted to the authoritarian, news or propaganda machine that you see from One America News or, you know, some of the Twitter and Facebook groups that have emerged, there’s still, there’s still Chris Wallace, right?


STELTER: One American News makes Fox look like the New York Times or the Associated Press. Yes, there are these more radical examples, much smaller channels, like One America News that don’t have the reach or the power of Fox, but which are spouting more, kind of a pure version of the drug, if you want to use that analogy. But I think Fox’s history is a history of right turns, whether that’s the Iraq War or Obama’s election and the Tea Party, and now Trump. More to the right, more to the right, and that’s not just, this is a chicken and egg thing, right? Because the GOP has also moved more to the right, what sells is Trumpism. So that’s what Fox is selling. So these changes, you know, we, we can have the chicken and egg conversation. I think I’m not exactly what surely the answer to that is.


HEFFNER: How is the content different on Fox versus the completely unchecked extremist conspiracy mongering on, you know, Q Anon message boards and One America News?


STELTER: Well, as you said, there are the Chris Wallaces. There are the Bret Baiers, you know, Brett Baier tries to do a straight down the middle of newscast at 6:00 PM. He does have standards, you know, his, the, the people’s scripts are reviewed ahead of time for his program. However, his critics, and there are many of them say his show has moved to the right as well, through its choice of stories and through its choice of commentators. He tells people that he tries to have left, right and Trump on his panel because sometimes right is not the same as Trump.




STELTER: And that’s a true assessment, but why is it that the left, that a person’s often a journalist, like there are a lot of things about Special Report that make it lean to the right. And the reason why I think is because he is chasing the audience, just like everybody else. And I respect that. It is a business. He wants to reach as many viewers as possible, but viewers of Fox they want opinion, not news. Ratings are huge for “The Five” which is a 5:00 PM talk show. Ratings are huge for Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. They are much lower for the newscasts. So there’s a real, I think in the ratings, we see evidence of the rightward shift of the GOP and this distrust, even a Fox’s own anchors. That’s what I think is so incredible is when you’re an anchor of Fox, a weekend anchor, or a daytime anchor, you get hate mail from your own viewers. Now, look, I get hate mail from Fox viewers, but I don’t get hate mail from my own viewers. Partly part of what’s broken in the American right is this distrust of information sources that’s so severe that Trump and his fans don’t even trust the news anchors on Fox. So Chris Wallace is there and Bret, and a bunch of other anchors who are trying, but I think they are, they are pushing up against let’s pick our metaphor or analogy, whatever, like they are pushing up against something really intense.


HEFFNER: The Kool-Aid that the One America News viewer is drinking, or the Q Anon scribe, you know, that Kool-Aid is so far from news. It can’t even be classified or categorized as news or information with any integrity that’s going to garner literacy for the public. Do you get a sense from the viewers of Fox where the ratings were very strong for the RNC acceptance speech, even though Biden of course had more viewers in totality, do you get the impression that the FA that some Fox viewer is still a swing voter that there’s still some, it might be a sliver of Fox viewer that would consider voting against Trump?


STELTER: Yes, I do. And this is also the argument that Fox executives make when they sell ads for the channel, they say, look how big our audience is. You know, we reach 60 or 70 million viewers on an average month. That, that means that’s the number of people that see Fox at some point during the month. Certainly not every one of those viewers is a diehard Trump fan. I do think when you look at the base audience for Hannity, the base audience for Tucker, there’s not a lot of Joe Biden supporters in that audience, not many at all, but, but yes, there are grazers of Fox who turn it on, who are watching, who are who are persuadable. And that’s why Democrats like Mo Elleithee and Jessica Tarlov say they go on the air. I interviewed Mo for the book; he’s a liberal commentator at Fox. He used to run coms for the Democratic Party, and he wouldn’t let people go on Fox. And then he said, well, I think I made a mistake. There are swing voters who were watching the channel and that’s true, but look; the content is getting increasingly more extreme. If people watching this program don’t ever watch Fox, just for fun, turn it on tonight at 9:00 PM Eastern time, the venom against Joe Biden has no equivalent on the left. There’s, there’s nothing on TV as, as venomous, as Tucker and Hannity and Laura Ingram. So it is an increasingly extreme channel – rhetoric, you know, in terms of its rhetoric and its style. But I do believe there are some viewers that are persuadable.


HEFFNER: I think after the Trump presidency we’ve determined that the distortion of the truth, which is part of the subtitle of your book and, and just outright lying, have to be delineated. Sometimes, right. You know, the, the, the kind of milquetoast way of reducing something to a mistruth or an untrue versus just saying straight out lying liars, which is what of course Franken did in his book years ago. You know, the manipulation of fact is now being called out by you on Reliable Sources on the New York Times front page. We’re using the L word and, you know, it’s been my argument and contention during the campaign too, that we ought to. Were you heartened to see the way that fact-checking coverage worked during the RNC in a way that was appropriate for the scale of lies being told?


STELTER: It’s, it’s come a long way from 2016 when you know, Donald Trump is up there saying at this convention, we will not lie. And then he went on to lie about crime and other statistics. And, you know, for example, at CNN, Daniel Dale, who’s now one of our fact checking stars, he was at the Toronto Star at the time. He was not on CNN that night. Backtracking, there have been real improvements in the news coverage of the Trump years, but here’s the big, big, giant asterisk for this entire conversation. There wasn’t a fact-checking unit on Fox that night. There wasn’t a recitation of all of the exaggerations by Trump on Fox that night there was exaltation for his speech. There’ll always be this pro-Trump universe of content that his voters can plug into. And there’s nothing of that equivalent on the left. And that’s probably why I wrote “Hoax” is because we have to understand this environment whether you want more of it or less, you got to understand it. You know, I think there are so many examples every day, a recent one being in about the convention ratings you mentioned. As you said, Biden had a higher tele rating on television. He had bigger television viewership for his speech. So the Republican convention folks put out a press release, say they actually had more online streams. Well, that’s apples and oranges. You can’t push them together. It’s not going to taste good, totally different metrics. But the RNC they worked, it worked, they got headlines on all these right wing blogs saying Trump wins. So there’s always going to be that information universe. I think the challenge for the CNNs and the PBSs of the world is how do we help folks seek out and find, and know that something’s high quality news versus really low quality propaganda. A headline that says Trump had more online views based on fake numbers and phony metrics, how do we help people know the difference between that lie filled blog and the CNN website that continues to be a struggle, I think, and that’s bigger than Fox. That’s bigger than CNN. That’s a real problem in our information space.


HEFFNER: Is that the politicization of news literacy, Brian?


STELTER: Hm. Well, tell me more what you mean by that term. That’s really interesting.


HEFFNER: Well, it used to be the Fairness Doctrine was the equivalent that you know, Republicans or conservative leaning listeners, voters of you that effort as a intellectual stifling of speech that if conservatives were going to buy more airtime than it was their right to do so, and if they were going to dominate the radio airwaves it was their right to do so. Now I think that’s, that’s deescalated to the point of just viewing fact as fact and viewing David Dale’s job, Daniel Dale’s job, you know, our jobs more so your job than mine, as guideposts and as fact finding and that we can’t be trusted because the whole objective of media literacy is indoctrination of the academy, right?


STETLER: You’re right that that is a narrative. You’re right that that’s a right wing narrative that says, you know, fact checking is just to help the Democrats. But what’s wrong with that belief is if Joe Biden wins the election and takes office and starts lying about the economy, journalists are going to be, you know, they’re, going to, they’re going to jump at the chance to fact check him. There is this instinct deep inside journalists’ hearts or stomachs to show fairness and to show objectivity. So by all means, if Biden’s out there as a serial liar, he’s going to get called out every way, seven days to Sunday. I mean that’s the reality about journalism, right? But we are not as loud as the propagandists. We are not as loud as the Hannitys of the world. Every night he’s spewing the venom against the media. And that’s partly why in “Hoax” I try to point out when you’re told every day that all the news could be fake; when you’re told every day that everything could be a hoax, that people are out to hurt you and fool you and trick you, that’s an incredibly powerful thing to hear every day. That’s very emotional. It has a real impact. And I think it’s done real, real damage. In February in March, when Trump was downplaying the pandemic; when he was downplaying the threat, when he was telling his fans not to worry that much about it, stay calm he said, some people believed him. And I know we can never measure the death toll as a result. I’m not here to say like, there’s blood on this person’s hands. And we don’t know, we will never know it’s, you know, it’s, it’s in measurable, it’s completely unmeasurable. But I think we all know it had an impact. There are even letters to the FCC from Americans across the country saying Sean Hannity misled my mom, Sean Hannity, misled my dad. We know it did damage. We know that three plus years of attacking the media and attacking scientists and attacking institutions clearly did damage. And it was, and it was, it was felt this year.


HEFFNER: Right. And during the ’16 campaign, there was that attempt to parse words, you know, like let’s interpret his intent, not what the words actually say. And I think the problem with that, Brian, was those who were so accustomed to talking points on TV forgot that that really rhetoric is the starting point of authoritarianism. And those talking points of the ’16 campaign, as they were further escalated through the ’18 election, the caravan illegal immigration scare tactics through now, the riot tactics. It seems as though there is more of a realization about the harm of covering ‘16 when there was the failure to say these, these aren’t your average talking points, you know, let’s not just give Donald Trump a megaphone for bigotry, there is more absorption of that reality now, Brian, that, that, that rhetoric is, is the origin of authoritarian conduct.


STELTER: Yeah. Look at the caravan in 2018, as you said, this narrative starts on Fox and right wing media jumps to Trump. He starts talking about an invasion and then it becomes the big talking point for the last three weeks of the campaign. And yet the GOP still suffered losses in the midterm elections. And some journalists have regrets for the way they covered the so-called caravan. I think there were lessons learned from moments like that. Whether those lessons will apply now in 2020 remains to be seen. Although I do think there’s been a real attempt to challenge the president’s extreme law and order rhetoric.

HEFFNER: Well, you you’ve, you’ve written and voiced some of the most persuasive and compelling commentaries on press freedom and honoring the dignity of the viewer, of the fact. And you know, there have been presidents who often would joke about their distain for the press or particular members of the press corps, but not a holistic campaign to denigrate individuals or the entire profession. And that was the origin of the fake news media and it, you know, escalated, but it, and I think someone must’ve gotten to Trump at least say that fake news is the enemy of the people because on Inauguration Day he was saying, you know, protests are the enemy of the people, he was saying, you know, the press and then it has become more consistently fake news is the enemy of the people. Having said that, let me ask you this, Brian, do you think Fox News is going to be intimidated this November on Election Day to prematurely call the results full stop.


STELTER: That is one of the most interesting questions that I’ve been asked all year. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I want to choose my words carefully here. But I think the Murdochs have a lot of power. And I think Suzanne Scott, the CEO of Fox News has a lot of power on Election Day, election night. We may well be in a situation where the results will take several days. And in that case, there will not be an announcement of a projected winner on November 3rd. But if we are in a scenario where, let’s just play this out, hypothetically, we don’t know what’s going to happen. If Joe Biden is leading by such an amount that the race is going to be called for him and all the major networks call it and even Fox calls it. But then again, hypothetically Trump contests the results claims it’s all rigged claims it’s been stolen, Fox has an immense responsibility in that moment to stand with reality and not his claims. And that’s going to be a huge test for the Murdochs and for Suzanne Scott. I have no idea what will happen. This is a hypothetical. There could be a hundred other scenarios that happen on election night, but Americans trust the outcome of elections because trusted figures on television announce the projections. Like, I think back to 2000, 2004, 2008, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings and Katie Couric and these anchors who announce the results, Wolf Blitzer in 2008 announcing Barack Obama, of course the Electoral College doesn’t meet for another month. It’s not signed and certified and official until December, but the country trust in the outcome based on what television networks say, and, you know CNN and other networks invest huge amounts of money to get it right.

And in 2000, when there were mistakes, there were very serious consequences. So my point is, the Murdoch’s have a huge amount of responsibility because we know what channel Trump’s going to watch. We know what channel his voters are going to watch. We know how his propagandists like Hannity feel. And it’s going to, there’s nothing more to say. We don’t know what we don’t know what they’ll do.


HEFFNER: I’ll make a prediction that if it is a nail biter, that Trump will declare victory prematurely. But I think to your point, because that someone like Chris Wallace is still at the company, I think that if it’s a nail biter, Trump will declare victory before Fox News declares victory for him.


STELTER: I see, I see what you’re saying, yeah.


HEFFNER: But that’s why it’s been impressed upon the public that in this particular case with a president who behaves in an authoritarian manner, that it’s vital for his opponent Joe Biden to win in a landslide in the Electoral College, not just the popular vote, but anyway, that’s, that’s my,


STELTER: Here’s something that makes it even more interesting. Fox has a really well respected decision desk. They have great journalists and researchers and scientists, statisticians who work on these projections. They have absolute integrity. I would not doubt the integrity of Fox’s decision desk in a heartbeat. So will we be in a situation where the Fox news division has announced the one outcome and the talk shows like Hannity and Laura Ingrahm are spinning an alternative reality where Trump might have won. That is going to be fascinating.


HEFFNER: And let’s remember Brian, that Karl Rove didn’t want to believe that Mitt Romney had lost in 2012. We’re out of time. I’m so honored by your presence here at Brian…


STELTER: Cliffhanger ending to this conversation.


HEFFNER: Chief media correspondent for CNN, author of “Hoax,” thanks so much for joining me today.


STELTER: Thank you.


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