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Stelter Book ‘Hoax’ Looks at Fox News’ Role in Shaping Trump Presidency

(Image credit: Simon and Schuster)

The Brian Stelter book Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth is out Aug. 25. Stelter is chief media correspondent at CNN and anchor on Reliable Sources. 

Hoax is a scorching book that looks at Fox News’ role in U.S. policy during Donald Trump’s presidency. CNN and Fox News of course are bitter rivals, which has to be kept in mind while reading Hoax. Stelter notes that he has written the book not as a media critic, but as a concerned citizen. 

“What you’ll get in these pages is not the Stelter in a navy blue blazer that you see on CNN,” he writes. “I’m writing this book as a citizen; as an advocate for factual journalism; and as a new dad who thinks about what kind of world my children are going to inherit. This story is about a rot at the core of our politics. It’s about an ongoing attack on the very idea of a free and fair press. It’s about the difference between news and propaganda. It’s about the difference between state media and the fourth estate. So excuse me if I swear a little--but I am alarmed, and you should be too.”

The book has had a quick turnaround, Stelter covering in depth Trump’s handling of Covid, and Fox News’ reporting on the topic. “No one will ever be able to say, with absolute certainty, how many Fox News devotees died from the virus,” writes Stelter. “And it is impossible to know how much an individual’s choices are influenced by the TV hosts they trust. But it is readily apparent that Fox failed its viewers at key moments during the pandemic.”

Stelter said he spoke with over 140 people within Fox for the book, and 180 more former staffers. The vast majority of sources are not identified by name. 

Roger Ailes, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, Tucker Carlson and Shepard Smith, who recently signed on at CNBC, are among the Fox Newsers past and present who get close-ups. While much of the Ailes material has been painstakingly depicted in earlier reports, including Gabriel Sherman’s sharp Ailes bio The Loudest Voice in the Room, Stelter does share some new stuff about the mentality at Fox News during Ailes’ reign. He mentions the network PR department, then under Brian Lewis, accumulating oppo research on him when he ran TVNewser, even dispatching an intern to strike up a relationship with Stelter. Stelter thought he was going on dates with the young woman, but she was sharing with her bosses what he spoke about and who called him. 

Stelter suggests that, following Ailes’ departure from Fox News, President Trump essentially took on the boss role to many at Fox News. He details Trump’s voracious consumption of the network’s programming, and notes how marketers buy spots in morning show Fox & Friends with the hopes of sending their message directly to the president. 

Fox News did not comment on the book. 

Hoax notes Trump’s obsession with “fake news,” saying he began using the term when he was president-elect in 2017. “It was probably the most important thing he did during the presidential transition period,” the book says. “Turning ‘fake news’ into a slur fit perfectly onto Trump’s permanent campaign of disbelief, as best conveyed by his statement that ‘what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.’”

Stelter previously authored Top of the Morning, about the morning TV news wars. The New York Times, which once employed Stelter, wrote of Hoax, “It provides a thorough and damning exploration of the incestuous relationship between Trump and his favorite channel — and of Fox’s democracy-decaying role as a White House propaganda organ masquerading as conservative journalism.”

The Times review was mixed, wishing Stelter spoke to viewers, the president excluded, about why they watch Fox News. 

Hoax is nonetheless thoroughly reported and well written. One expects loads of anonymous sources in a book that slams a giant news network, but seeing so many quotes from unnamed people that cut down various figures can get tiresome. Still, the pages turn easily. 

The book shines lots of light on a president who appears to pay more attention to Fox & Friends than he does the President’s Daily Briefing. A former producer on that show told Stelter, “People think he’s calling up Fox & Friends and telling us what to say. Hell no. It’s the opposite. We tell him what to say."