Analysis: Fox and the Television Presidency


Brendan Dickson, Sports Editor

“It’s awful! Why would anyone watch?”
“The last stand against the liberals.”
“Eww! Fox News?”

How does your reaction to Fox News compare to other Wilcox students? Depending on who you ask, Fox is either a favorite source for alternative news or Trump TV. What’s inarguable is that the Fox News Channel, founded by billionaire Rupert Murdoch in 1996, is killing it on primetime. According to Forbes, 2.5 million people tuned in to watch Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, or “Judge Jeanine” Pirro on an average night in 2018. In the minds of the four opinion hosts, however, there is one viewer who matters. One very important viewer.
Since taking office, President Trump has given at least 44 interviews to Fox, as computed by CBS correspondent Mark Knoller. Five interviews went to NBC and CBS, and none to CNN. Fox’s most-watched host, Sean Hannity, tells associates that he speaks to President Trump on the phone most nights after his show “Hannity” goes off the air. During last year’s midterms, 14 Republicans including Ted Cruz and Trump incorporated clips of Hannity’s sycophantic commentary in campaign ads. Hannity stunned journalists around the world when he appeared on stage at a Trump rally in November to campaign for the President. As he took the podium, he pronounced, “All those people in the back are fake news,” gesturing to a group of press that included several Fox News reporters. It was unprecedented for a network host to personally campaign for a sitting president that he was covering. Senior Fox employees told CNN they were “outraged,” saying “a new line was crossed.” The day before, Trump’s website posted and then took down a press release announcing Hannity’s appearance. Hannity said on Twitter the morning before the rally, “To be clear, I will not be on stage campaigning for the President.” Pirro also took the stage after Hannity, urging the audience to vote Republican. Hannity, Pirro, and Ingraham have become “regular fixtures at GOP campaign stops and fundraisers across the country,” writes Vox journalist Carlos Maza. Trump has even raised the prospect of nominating Judge Jeanine to the federal bench.

It is not uncommon for members of the White House press corps, while following the President on his trips, to see Hannity conversing with and hugging cabinet members. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer writes that Hannity’s absolute access to the President has led White House staffers to nickname him the Shadow Chief of Staff. In addition to Hannity, Mayer reports that at least two other Fox hosts, Pete Hegseth and Lou Dobbs, have been “patched into Oval Office meetings by speakerphone, to offer policy advice.” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders has all but abandoned scheduled press conferences in favor of appearances on “Fox and Friends.”

In recent months it has become difficult to distinguish between Fox News and White House employees. Former Fox commentator John Bolton was appointed national security advisor. Another Fox executive who was forced to resign over his mishandling of sexual abuse allegations, Bill Shine, was hired as White House communications director and deputy chief of staff, while continuing to receive multi-million dollar bonuses from Fox. Shine now works as a personal adviser to Trump’s re-election campaign with another former Fox personality, Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is dating Donald Trump, Jr.

As a result of what some journalists have called the “revolving door” between Fox and the White House, conservative commentators have caught on that the best way to communicate directly to Trump is to address him by name on a Fox show. Their talking points are likely to be retweeted, and those who proffer the most glowing praise may receive job offers in the administration. In fact, Trump takes his cues from Fox so willingly that they actually appear capable of changing his mind. In one instance last year, he expressed support for a stopgap funding bill to avoid the government shutdown, but reversed himself after being lambasted by Fox evening commentators over the absence of funding for a border wall.
According to the same article by Jane Mayer, Fox had knowledge of Michael Cohen’s $130,000 bribe to Stormy Daniels over her affair with Trump, but the network sat on the story to protect Trump. Fox reporter Diana Falzone procured proof of the affair and confirmed it with two separate sources, but her editors refused to run the story. One Fox executive reportedly told her, “Good reporting, kiddo. But Rupert wants Donald Trump to win. So just let it go.” Soon afterwards she was demoted at the network. She sued and won a settlement, but the terms of the settlement included a non-disclosure agreement that blocked her from taking the story elsewhere. It is a practice called “catch-and-kill” used by activist organizations who buy exclusive rights to a story and bury it to keep it from getting out.

A study in the American Economic Review on the three 24-hour news networks found that even before the 2016 election, Fox News knowingly sacrificed ratings to promote a conservative agenda. In other words, they aired programming that was much more conservative than the optimal slant that would maximize their audience, even when they knew they would lose viewers. CNN, by contrast, behaved like a competitive business, punctuating news briefings with contentious panel discussions designed to hook a broad audience on the spectacle of conflict. The bias of mainstream outlets was towards sensation and conflict; Fox alone proved a relentlessly activist organization.
This approach is known to work in the long run. MSNBC posted a 2018 growth rate of 12% (compared to Fox’s 3%) by attempting to become the counterweight to Fox on the left, under the leadership of Rachel Maddow. The two networks now oppose each other across the ideological divide, all while siphoning viewers from centrist CNN, which saw its ratings drop 6% in the same period.

All this from Fox raises a difficult question: What is the new role for media who have never needed to report so extensively on the actions of one of their own? After the DNC barred Fox from the Democratic primary debates in 2020, there were complaints of collateral damage to the legitimate coverage of Fox’s news division, whose anchors Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, and Shep Smith have been known to push back against dishonest Trump spokespeople and the opinion hosts on their own network. There truly is more diversity of opinion at Fox than some realize; it’s just that their actual news shows garner far fewer viewers than the editorial engine headlined by Hannity, Ingraham, Carlson, and Pirro. As for the judgment of their most important viewer? According to Mayer, Trump privately ranks the loyalty of Fox personalities. Baier’s political coverage, in which critical thought figures prominently, has earned him a 6. Hannity is a solid 10.
Fox’s trading of worshipful coverage for special access to the president has given rise to assessments that Fox is the propaganda arm of the current administration—so-called Trump TV. It is perhaps more accurate to say that Trump’s White House is the Fox presidency.