Trump and Fox get the Jane Mayer treatment

March 5, 2019

“Trump TV.” That’s the print headline of an exhaustive article by Jane Mayer, published yesterday in The New Yorker, outlining the growing symbiosis between Fox and the president. The image accompanying the piece shows an antenna reaching up from the roof of the White House, flanked by fluorescent “Fox News” signs against a stormy sky. As magazine illustrations go, it’s not the farthest-fetched. Since before Trump took office, Mayer writes, Fox has boosted his signal, he has boosted theirs, and the American public has had to live with the output.

Mayer mixes revelation, reminder, and fresh color to paint a unified, long-term portrait of the Fox–Trump relationship. Her piece is stacked with familiar characters, such as Bill Shine and Sean Hannity, and newsy nuggets. In 2015, shortly after Trump launched his presidential campaign, Fox may have given him advance warning of damaging questions slated for the first GOP debate. In 2016, with the election looming, the network reportedly killed reporter Diana Falzone’s investigation into Trump’s affair with, and payments to, Stormy Daniels—an editor told Falzone to “let it go” because “Rupert [Murdoch] wants Trump to win.” Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox host who now works for Trump’s reelection campaign (and dates his son, Donald Trump, Jr.), repeatedly took tips from a viewer who is active on Gab, a fringe online platform associated with the far-right. And Trump, since taking office, has been known to rate Fox journalists based on their loyalty. Hannity scored 10 out of 10. Steve Doocy, a co-host of Fox & Friends, scored 12.

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Perhaps most damning, Mayer reports that Trump, as president, has sought to skew antitrust enforcement in ways that would boost Fox’s business and hurt its opponents. In 2017, Trump reportedly railed about AT&T’s planned takeover of Time Warner, ordering Gary Cohn, then-head of the National Economic Council, and John Kelly, then-chief of staff, to pressure the Justice Department to block the deal—a possible rebuke to CNN, which is owned by Time Warner and hated by Trump. Mayer says Cohn balked at the instruction, but the Justice Department did act against the takeover. (Its final appeal was defeated last week.) AT&T aside, Trump’s regulators blocked Sinclair, a conservative rival to Fox News, from acquiring Tribune, but approved Fox’s sale of entertainment assets to Disney. As Reed Hundt, who chaired the Federal Communications Commission under Bill Clinton, tells Mayer, “the only way to explain” the three decisions “is that they’re pro-Fox, pro-Fox, and pro-Fox.”

Mayer’s piece repeatedly returns to the network’s bottom line. Rupert Murdoch, its billionaire owner, emerges as a central character. (Jared Kushner, according to one Mayer source, calls him “like, every day.”) Murdoch, of course, is a known quantity. His enormous influence, however, is quiet and can thus be understated—particularly as noisy, on-air boosters like Hannity have come to dominate mainstream coverage of Fox and its relationship with Trump. “Murdoch has cultivated heads of state in Australia and Great Britain, and someone close to him says that ‘he’s always wanted to have a relationship with a President—he’s a businessman and he sees benefits of having a chief of state doing your bidding,’” Mayer reports. As Hundt tells Mayer, Murdoch “invented the audience” for rage-filled politics, then made Trump its ringmaster. Fox thrives when that audience is sated.

Mayer’s article contains much we know already. But its principal value lies in its synthesis and ordering of alarming smaller details that we, as news consumers, can easily become inured to. After Mayer’s piece published yesterday, it sparked renewed debate of Fox’s ties to Trump, including on Fox’s cable rivals, CNN and MSNBC. The president may have missed those discussions. He was watching Fox.

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Below, more on the Trump–Fox relationship:

  • Proving a point: Trump tweeted about Fox programming no fewer than five times yesterday, engaging with quotes from hosts Hannity, Lou Dobbs, and Tucker Carlson, and guests Devin Nunes and Ari Fleischer. Across a pair of tweets, Trump echoed a Carlson hit on outlets including The New Yorker, adding: “The Fake News Media is the true Enemy of the People!”
  • Gorka out: Sebastian Gorka, a controversial former Trump administration staffer, will no longer appear as a contributor on Fox News. On Sunday, Gorka told The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr that he decided not to renew his contract to focus on other media work for Salem Radio Network and Sinclair.
  • Abuse of power: Mayer’s reporting that Trump may have tried to block the AT&T deal to punish CNN sparked a fresh round of punditry asking if the president is abusing his power. Yesterday, Jerry Nadler, the Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee, fired off demands for a slew of documents related to a range of potential abuses—casting a broad net in a wide-ranging new investigation into the president. Nadler wrote to 81 separate people and entities, including WikiLeaks, Cambridge Analytica, and American Media Inc., the owner of The National Enquirer, along with two of its key executives.

Other notable stories:

  • Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, conceded last night that the chamber will pass a resolution blocking Trump’s declaration of a national emergency after Rand Paul joined GOP colleagues Thom Tillis, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski in backing the measure. The resolution, which cleared the House last week, will likely trigger Trump’s first presidential veto. Despite its significance, the state of emergency has not held media attention since Trump declared it. Last week, I explored why that’s been the case.
  • In an extended interview, NY1’s Errol Louis asked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez why she bothers responding to vitriol on social media. “I grew up seeing these attacks on Nancy Pelosi… on Barack Obama… on Hillary Clinton,” she said. “We saw how completely unfounded attacks, like the birther movement, were ignored… but then they started to grow, and, as we say, they grow legs and start walking around. And I think that sometimes we have to take a little bit of a different tack, and just squash it early.”
  • For CJR’s new print issue, Melvin Backman explores the under-representation of people of color in stock photos. “They are not images that say Here is the thing we are talking about, but rather When we talk about this thing, we conjure this image and we think you do, too,” Backman writes. “Too often, however, Black and brown people are left out of the picture.”
  • On Sunday, Roger Stone posted on Instagram asking, “who framed Roger Stone?” Meanwhile, a book he wrote in 2017 on “the myth of Russian collusion” is set to be re-released. The problem? Stone is banned from talking substantively about his upcoming criminal trial, Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn reports. Yesterday, Mueller’s team alerted Amy Berman Jackson, the judge in Stone’s case, to the Instagram post. (Last month, Jackson tightened Stone’s gag order after he posted a picture of her overlaid with crosshairs; Stone said he thought the crosshairs represented a Celtic cross.)
  • In January, two journalists affiliated with UC Berkeley’s journalism school received a list of 12,000 California law enforcement officers and job applicants with criminal convictions, a response to a public records request. Three weeks later, the office of Xavier Becerra, the state’s Democratic attorney general, told the reporters, in a letter, that their possession of the list is illegal and that they should destroy it, Tony Biasotti writes for CJR. The reporters are not complying with the threat.
  • Mahmoud Abu Zeid, an Egyptian photographer also known as Shawkan, was freed from jail in the country yesterday. He was arrested in August 2013 while covering clashes between state security forces and supporters of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s ousted former president, in Cairo. Shawkan’s newfound freedom will be partial: he’ll spend every night for the next five years at a police station, the Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan and Heba Farouk Mahfouz report.
  • The Atlantic’s Scott Nover profiles Thud, a satirical media company founded by two former editors of The Onion as well as Elon Musk. “A billionaire with some sense of humor—whether it’s your cup of tea or not—Musk is clearly drawn to satire,” Nover writes. “He has called The Onion, ‘the greatest publication in the history of all conscious beings, living or dead.’”
  • Also in our print issue, Ross Barkan, a longtime journalist who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the New York State Senate last year, reflects on “switching sides.” Barkan writes: “In a sense, a candidate performs the partial work of a journalist. True, you aren’t outside, gathering quotes for a story, and you aren’t holding power to account in the same way. You are, ultimately, selling yourself. But you are also talking to people.”
  • Finally, *that* explosive Times op-ed by an anonymous Trump administration official published six months ago today (h/t: the Post’s Carlos Lozada). “The president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic,” it read. Despite rampant speculation at the time, the author of the piece was never identified. It quickly faded from view.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.