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How Has Fox News Changed In The Trump Era?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): In the latest issue of the New Yorker, reporter Jane Mayer suggests that Fox News has become a propaganda organ of the Trump administration, but who do you think really sets the agenda? Is President Trump influencing Fox or vice versa? And what does that mean for the state of journalism in the U.S., particularly in an era as politically polarized as ours?

Also welcome Jay Rosen, who is joining us today from New York University!

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I suppose it’s a cop-out to say that it’s a symbiotic relationship? But I think Fox is following Trump’s lead — and the ratings he produces — more than the other way around.

One of the things I was wrongest about in the 2016 GOP primary was that once Fox went to war with Trump he’d have to back down (thinking of when Megyn Kelly asked him tough questions at that first debate, for example). But nope. He called their bluff.

That’s the short-term history, though. In the long term, Fox did an awful lot to lay the groundwork for Trump.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Mayer points out this dynamic in the piece, about former chairman and CEO of Fox News Roger Ailes working with Fox to create the audience that would eventually come to love Trump. And in some ways, I think we have to concede that Trump was a member of that audience himself, before he ever ran.

jay.rosen (Jay Rosen, journalism professor at New York University): I think we should see it as a merger, in which it no longer makes sense to ask: Who is influencing whom? The two have become one. You do not have the necessary separation between the two to even say that Fox “covers” the Trump presidency since the Trump presidency is so frequently driven by what’s on Fox.

clare.malone: Maybe it’s a symbiotic merger … I think we can agree that Trump/Fox share a certain tabloid sensibility. That’s what really makes it all zing so well on TV.

sarahf: What was hard for me to grapple with in Mayer’s piece was how things at Fox have changed. To Clare’s point, Fox’s audience predates Trump and Fox News has long been a conservative outlet criticized for its right-leaning coverage coverage. So what’s really changed?

clare.malone:That’s an interesting question, Sarah. Mayer’s story does suggest that Ailes at least urged a valence of journalistic norms … that seems to have disappeared under the new leadership.

jay.rosen: This is the central problem in discussing Fox as a propaganda network. One way to answer that is that Ailes understood that it was in the long term interests of Fox News to preserve some independence or some space between itself and the political actors it promoted. Now that discipline is gone.

natesilver: If you’re a Weekly Standard (RIP) conservative, maybe you think that Trump does too much long-term damage to the cause of movement conservatism. But I don’t think the people running Fox News have never been those types of conservatives. They’ve always been attracted to the sensational, the conspiratorial and sometimes the slightly or not-so-slightly racist or xenophobic angle. They probably also want lower taxes and conservative Supreme Court justices. But if Trumpism is a bridge to get there — that’s more a feature than a bug for Fox News, especially since Trump is so good for ratings.

clare.malone: It’s basically the rise of New York Post conservatism over Wall Street Journal conservatism, I guess!

natesilver: I mostly agree, although the New York Post has a pragmatic streak on issues like gun control by virtue of being in New York, which Trump sort of had during the course of the campaign but has mostly given up since then.

Like, although it’s a subtle difference, I think Trump would be slightly more popular as a New York Post conservative than as a Fox News conservative.

But part of this is also that there’s not much of a market for the Weekly Standard/Wall Street Journal brand of conservatism. That was reflected in the failure of Marco Rubio’s campaign, for instance.

jay.rosen: Something that makes it hard to interpret the behavior of Fox News: For the most part, the people at Fox sneer at the legitimacy rituals of mainstream journalism. The network was founded on the rejection of those norms. But every once in a while they find the pressure too great and the situation “flips” into a conventional one, where the criticism is too great and they fire or reprimand someone, or pull back from a story. But it can be hard to predict when these normal rules take over, and when they will be rejected.

natesilver: Isn’t that a little bit like Trump himself? He will back down from a crisis, e.g. the government shutdown, at least occasionally. Every now and then — say, the State of the Union — he tries to exhibit some auspices of normality.

jay.rosen: Yes.

sarahf: But Fox does have some good reporters. I’m thinking about Chris Wallace here. So I don’t think they’ve entirely abandoned all journalism post-Ailes, even if they’re giving Sean Hannity a longer leash than they did, say, Glenn Beck.

natesilver: They do, yeah. Wallace is a very good reporter. Also, there’s Martha MacCallum. But as the New Yorker piece illustrated, their Trump boosterism is starting to impinge upon the journalistic parts of their operation.

clare.malone: I think we have to talk about the way that the public has no real sense of the separation between hard news reporters and opinion journalists at networks (and newspapers).

Journalists complain about that, but it’s not an intuitive distinction for a lot of people, i.e., Rachel Maddow is not a journalist, even if you like what she’s saying and even if she’s reporting tax returns (in a long and drawn out manner).

She has a point of view and I use MSNBC as an example because while they’re obviously different from Fox, they do very much have point of view in their journalism that can be difficult for viewers to separate out from their hard reporting.

jay.rosen: Disagree that if you have a point of view, you’re not a journalist. I wrote about it in greater detail here.

clare.malone: That’s not quite what I’m saying, Jay.

I think that shows where the host is first and foremost a personality — a Maddow, a Hannity — can have outsized effects on the way that the audience views the network as a whole.

natesilver: I’m with Jay on this, although I do think it’s interesting that Hannity has, at times, explicitly said he’s not a journalist — something you could never imagine Maddow saying.

I guess I think the whole opinion vs. newsroom distinction is problematic on a LOT of levels. Like, it’s a big problem for the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, because the distinction as they advance it doesn’t make a ton of sense to consumers.

jay.rosen: To me the relevant distinction is not whether a POV is present in the presentation, but whether you maintain high standards of verification, or regularly relax them to accomplish some other agenda you have that comes from outside journalism.

But a personality-driven style is different, I agree with that, Clare. That said, I still don’t understand why Rachel Maddow is not a journalist.

clare.malone: It’s fair to say that networks or a reporter with a certain point of view can have high standards of factual verification and can report really important work. For example, you can point to a place like Mother Jones that has a distinctly liberal point of view and still does a lot of investigative work. But I guess I’d again point to the, shall we call them, atmospheric effects that politically slanted presentation can have? A liberal news network’s opinion/point of view hosts might cover the Mueller investigation with greater gusto for instance, because of editorial choices that inherently influence what an audience should think is the most important news of the day.

natesilver: I guess I’m arguing that news organizations should abolish their opinion sections. If it’s good enough to run in the New York Times, you don’t need to segregate it into an opinion page, even if has a point of view or makes a devil’s advocate case. If it’s not good enough to meet those standards, it shouldn’t run.

clare.malone: Ooh, there’s a take, Nate!

sarahf: But Nate, we would never have learned about the #resistance inside the administration!

natesilver: I’m not sure we learned much about it anyway! Probably would have learned a lot more with a Maggie Haberman story about it.

clare.malone: I don’t think we should abolish the opinion sections of newspapers, though … but maybe there’s a better way to telegraph the editorial red line that exists between opinion/hard news?

Should they be published only in the weekend editions of the paper? Is that the silliest idea ever in the internet age?

A separate site online?

natesilver: Maybe by the comics page?

jay.rosen: Both the New York Times and the Washington Post use the news/opinion distinction to start doing things they should be doing to innovate in news by labeling them “opinion” to avoid a holy war in the newsroom.

natesilver: But again, readers absolutely should hold the New York Times (substitute WaPo or WSJ or anyone else as you see fit) accountable for dumb shit that runs in the op-ed pages.

They certainly benefit from the traffic and buzz those hot takes create.

clare.malone: But when you say that, Nate, do you mean the publisher should be held accountable? Or the top management/editors? Because a lot of people take their frustration out on reporters and writers who don’t have as much power.

natesilver: The publishers (so e.g. the Sulzbergers in the case of the NYT) should primarily be held accountable. But I also think the NYT executive editor Dean Baquet and every reporter in the newsroom should be furious at the Sulzbergers every time there’s some Bret Stephens piece engaging in hokey climate change semi-denialism, for instance.

clare.malone: Yes. That’s fair.

But to take it back to Fox …

Who should be accountable there? Is anyone accountable? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

jay.rosen: My solution to this mess is: All journalists state where they are coming from, all practice high standards of verification, all are transparent — explaining how they work — and all engage in dialogue with their users.

clare.malone: In some ways, the Mayer story and the anonymous Fox contributors who gave quotes is some people raising a kind of alarm from the inside. But does Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch and his sons have much incentive to change the network?

Of course not.

sarahf: The accountability question is a good one. I find this idea that Ailes was a moderating force … hard to believe?

Especially considering his preoccupation with Fox covering Obama.

clare.malone: The news is a business on some level, and if the businesspeople are not “The Trust” (a la Sulzbergers) it gets really tough. Journalism is both integral to democracy and accountable to capitalism. Unless you get Laurene Powell Jobs’s money. And even then, who knows …

jay.rosen: I don’t know if “moderating” is the right word. He was more concerned with maintaining power by making them fear you. Even your “friends” should fear you, Sarah.

natesilver: It’s hard to know, but it does seem from Mayer’s reporting that Fox News is extremely personality-driven. So Ailes and Murdoch matter a lot, as individuals. In the news organizations that I’ve worked for, I think outside observers actually overrate the influence of the two or three leaders at the top as compared to the overall institutional culture. But it doesn’t seem to be overrated at Fox News.

There’s also something to be said about the culture of sexual harassment at Fox, which also seems to flow in part from highly hierarchical and closely-held decision making processes.

jay.rosen: Here’s a question I have for FiveThirtyEight people: Do you think Fox and MSNBC are fundamentally similar, or fundamentally unlike each other despite the right vs. left POV?

clare.malone: I mean, they have roots in similar approaches to TV news.

But they’ve obviously gone different directions.

natesilver: I think about halfway in between similar and dissimilar.

sarahf: I would argue similar, though I don’t know MSNBC’s origin story as well.

natesilver: The business model is pretty similar, but a higher percentage of MSNBC programming adheres to higher (or at least more traditional) journalistic standards.

sarahf: Yeah, that’s the distinction I was going to make.

natesilver: But I don’t think there was the same degree of symbiosis between MSNBC and, say, the Obama administration, so that’s also something that’s qualitatively different.

jay.rosen: For me the key variable is standards of verification and in this they are fundamentally dissimilar.

natesilver: In some ways, CNN has somewhat more of those problems (not the verification problems, but the symbiosis problems), since they’re sort of a revolving door between both Democratic and Republican White Houses and with positions for them as an on-air commentators.

jay.rosen: Also, a story like Mueller pushing back on Buzfeed’s report. It is not likely that MSNBC would simply pretend this did not happen. But that kind of thing happens on Fox all the time. Which is not to say MSNBC doesn’t ignore inconvenient stories sometimes.

natesilver: Yeah, that seems like an important point. Very often, Fox News simply won’t cover the major story of the day.

clare.malone: It’s also possible there are/were a lot more left-leaning mags/outlets that served as feeders to bigger orgs that adhered to rigorous journalism norms — The New Republic, The American Prospect, Mother Jones, Washington Monthly, The Nation. The conservative movement had fewer. Maybe The Weekly Standard, The Federalist, The American Conservative? (I’m sure I’m missing some.)

There were just a lot more jobs for young journalists at left-leaning places. And conservative outlets tended to get more think tank/former political operative writers. That probably fed the ecosystem divide writ large.

natesilver: Clare, I think there’s an imbalance in that the rightmost 30 percent (just a rough guesstimate) of the news-reading audience is catered to by a small number of outlets (e.g. Fox News), whereas remaining 70 percent is catered to by a large number of outlets.

So you have a large field of news organizations that’s center-left, on average. It’s definitely not right down the middle, in part because their readerships lean left because the most conservative 30 percent of the audience is missing.

sarahf: And for that 30 percent, Fox News is their main/only source of political news, at least according to a 2014 Pew Research study.

jay.rosen: This was another key moment in Mayer’s article because it makes an important distinction. The speaker is Nicole Hemmer, assistant professor of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and the author of “Messengers of the Right,” a history of the conservative media’s impact on American politics, “Fox is not just taking the temperature of the base—it’s raising the temperature,” she says. “It’s a radicalization model.”

That’s different from just “appealing” to the base.

sarahf: Unpack that a little more for us, Jay. How is it different?

natesilver: Some of the stuff that appears on the Lou Dobbs program is extremely — “radical” would be a polite word for it, frankly.

jay.rosen: It’s because it’s a leadership strategy. Not striking a responsive chord in the audience, but pulling it somewhere. If you have someone in your family who has been changed by Fox News (I do) you get this distinction right away.

sarahf: If Fox News really has become the propaganda organ of the Trump administration, what are the implications? Do we really have an example of “state TV” on our hands? And does this just mean the polarization in news will get worse?

clare.malone: I do think that we’ve got a problem for democracy with what’s going on at Fox News because it does spread misinformation and disinformation. And liberal democracies do best when they’ve got an educated citizenry. And he fact that journalistic lines have been blurred so completely there is a real harm. I’m not sure what happens with Fox.

jay.rosen: The implications are that 30 percent of the electorate is being isolated in an information loop of its own, and increasingly do not live in the same world as the rest of the voters.

natesilver: One thing that helps both Fox and Trump to succeed is the sort of autoimmune response that they generate. Journalists get outraged — occasionally they get trolled by something minor but usually, the outrage is fully justified! And so they drop their “view from nowhere” (to use Jay’s term) veneer.

But because the audience has been taught for years that the “view from nowhere” is how you know when a new organization is “objective” and trustworthy, it doesn’t say “gee, this outrage must mean the offense by Fox or Trump was really serious.” Instead, it thinks that Trump’s point is being proven!

Or at least, that’s one somewhat stylized view of what’s going on.

It’s worth remembering that Trump is a rather unpopular president and that the average voter trusts the New York Times a lot more than she trusts Trump.

Both Fox and Trump are quite smart at understanding where the weaknesses are in the journalistic immune system.

They might be smarter still if they dialed it back by 10 percent, but that’s a minor quibble.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Jay Rosen has been teaching journalism at New York University since 1986.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s politics editor.

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