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Brian Stelter's new book is no hoax

By Bob D'Angelo


Books about Donald Trump and his presidency have been pouring out at a breakneck pace. The latest, and most controversial, is Rage, by Bob Woodward. That is a follow-up to the former Washington Post reporter’s last book about the president, Fear. I wonder what Woodward’s next book might be called. I suggest Bluster.

But I’ll review Rage down the road. It’s on order. For now, a deep-dive examination of one of the media’s most influential organizations is on the agenda.

I’ve been hooked on journalism and the media since I was a high school junior in 1973. I got into the business full-time in 1980 and have been a reporter, designer, columnist, copy editor and digital content writer. So, it’s safe to say I am a news junkie. My background is in sports, but I enjoy history and politics and have written about both.

That’s why I was interested in Brian Stelter’s new book, Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth (2020; One Signal Publishers; hardback; $28; 351 pages). I was hoping for behind-the-scenes look at the media organization critics call Trump’s propaganda mouthpiece, and to read Stelter’s take on the personalities who dominate the cable airwaves.

I was not disappointed. Stelter, 35, who hosts “Reliable Sources” on CNN, has evolved from a media blogger while attending Towson University — writing “CableNewser” — to a media reporter at The New York Times. Now, he is a staple on CNN with his Sunday morning show about journalists and the media and is called upon to give his perspective around the clock, it seems, whenever a story breaks about the press. And during the Donald Trump era, that is often.

For Hoax, Stelter talked to hundreds of current and former employees at Fox News. While most of them spoke on the condition of anonymity — we are asked to take Stelter’s reliable sources at their word — what emerges are fascinating, believable and at times, simply frightening and discouraging details.

This book will thrill those people who condemn Fox News and its partisanship (Never Trumpers, for example), while some people will condemn this book and claim it is too one-sided against conservative news (MAGA supporters, for example). I disagree. Stelter takes Fox News to task on many issues, but he also gives credit where it is due.

For example, he credits Sean Hannity, whom he became friendly with, for teaching him “some important lessons about broadcasting.” Fox News founder Roger Ailes once told Stelter to stop squinting into the teleprompter, noting that “you don’t work for the equipment. The equipment works for you. You’re talent now.”

Cable news has blurred the lines between objective reporting and commentary. Fox’s pundits, like Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, spin conspiracy theories on the conservative end of the spectrum, while Don Lemon (CNN) and Rachel Maddow (MSNBC), to name a few, lecture from the liberal side. There are others, too, but you get the idea.

The days of “Headline News” in 30-minute cycles seem so far away now. Now we get the urgent music from CNN and the bell-ringing at Fox News to tout “breaking news,” which sometimes happened hours before.

As Stelter points out, what matters most to cable network executives, and Fox News in particular, are ratings. Not surprisingly, Trump feels the same way.

“How’d we do?” the president asks Hannity the night after a March 26, 2020, day. He was not talking about substance. Trump was speaking about ratings, Stelter writes.

The president has made no secret about his network of choice — Fox News — although he has even lashed out at the network when there is a hint of criticism.

“I watch some of the shows,” Trump said during a Sept. 10 news conference. “I watched Liz McDonald — she is fantastic. I watched Fox Business. I watched Lou Dobbs last night, Sean Hannity last night, Tucker (Carlson) last night, Laura (Ingraham). I watched ‘Fox and Friends’ in the morning.”

Not everyone at Fox News was thrilled with this kind of presidential praise, Stelter writes. “We surrendered to Trump,” one source told Stelter. “What does Trump have on Fox?” another wondered.

“Dirty pictures of Rupert Murdoch?” Stelter proposes, jokingly.

“I didn’t find any dirty pictures,” Stelter writes. “But I did find a lot of people who felt dirty.”

There are plenty of juicy details in Hoax, which is a marvelous book title because it echoes Trump’s disclaimer about any news that paints him in a negative light. Stelter told the Times that the original book title was going to be Wingmen because commentators like Hannity are well, Trump’s wingmen. As many times as Hannity is referenced in Hoax, I am surprised he was not included on the cover.

But the actual title of the book is an excellent call.

“‘Hoax’ is a potent, malicious, ugly little word and Trump has been using it more every year,” Stelter told the Times. “So has Fox.”

Stelter is faced with a difficult task: How can CNN’s media correspondent write about a competing network without making it sound like a rip job? I mean, imagine tapping former University of Florida football coach Steve Spurrier and asking him to write an evenhanded history of Florida State University football, for example.

To be sure, Stelter is tough on Fox, particularly on the commentators who dominate the network’s prime-time schedule — Hannity and Carlson, in particular.

Hannity’s nickname for Stelter is “Humpty,” Stelter writes, and Carlson, while not calling out the broadcaster by name, recently made reference to “that kid at CNN.” Carlson is 51, in case you were wondering.

Stelter’s sketches about the personalities at Fox News are instructive, starting with Roger Ailes. The Fox News founder craved a relationship with a president of the United States, but he also knew when to push back, noting that Trump “doesn’t seem to grasp that candidates telling journalists what to ask is not how the media works in this country.”

“I miss that version of Fox,” Stelter writes. “The version that stood up to Trump and schooled him about the media.”

Ailes’ ouster during the summer of 2016 left Fox News adrift before it adopted its current voice — more in tune with the president.

“The inmates were running the asylum,” one source told Stelter.

Fox News executives were “simply afraid to deal with the hot-air balloon egos in prime time,” Stelter writes.

Stelter gives the reader perspective about Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, Shepard Smith, Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, Jeanine Pirro, Murdoch and his sons, Andrew Napolitano and others.

And of course, Hannity and Carlson. Lots of Hannity. I suppose that’s what happens when you are perceived to be the president’s wingman, but even Hannity is exposed as someone who has been worn down with his role, even commenting that the president “was crazy.”

Hoax is a book that will educate the reader; whether you agree with Stelter’s premise is up to you. His portrayal of Fox News and Trump mirrors the thoughts of one network personality, who told Stelter that “Trump is like Fox’s Frankenstein. They helped make him and he’s out of control.”

Stelter writes passionately and effectively. He is alternately indignant, sorrowful and incredulous. Given the state of media today, that’s not a surprise. But most importantly, this book is not a hoax. It’s a unique look inside a cable news giant that continues to succeed — sometimes, in spite of itself.


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