How the right-wing Fox News became Donald Trump’s state propaganda channel

The president begins every day by tuning into – and live-tweeting – the channel’s morning show, Fox & Friends.

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Every morning, Donald Trump sets aside several hours for what aides have dubbed “executive time”. But he isn’t reading policy papers or intelligence briefings. He’s glued to the TV: specifically, to Fox News. And the president of the United States begins his day not only by watching the channel’s morning show, Fox & Friends, but by live-tweeting the stories covered on it and lavishing praise on the presenters. Is it any wonder, then, that the US news website Mediaite dubbed the Fox & Friends hosts, Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt and Brian Kilmeade, “three of the most influential media people not just in the United States, but in the entire world”?

Trump is “the Fox News president”, as another Fox News host, Greg Gutfeld, once bragged live on air. “Everything that he says, we’ve said.” This isn’t an exaggeration: Matthew Gertz, a senior fellow at the progressive media watchdog Media Matters for America, has documented how often and how brazenly the president repeats almost word for word what he has just seen or heard on the channel.

Fox & Friends, for example, does an interview with a Republican congressman who claims the Trump tax cut has led to an increase in company bonuses. Thirteen minutes later Trump tweets that it is “really great” that companies “are giving bonuses to their workers”. Fox & Friends does a segment on the National Football League (NFL) refusing to force players to stand for the national anthem; 38 minutes later Trump slams the NFL, tweeting: “Total disrespect for our great country!” Fox & Friends does a story on the former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s alleged mishandling of sensitive government emails; an hour later Trump tweets that she should be imprisoned. Day after day, this Fox-addicted president turns the far-right Fox agenda into the national agenda.

Trump’s obsession with Fox, though, pre-dates his presidency. In 2011, he was doing so many interviews over the phone with Fox & Friends that he was given his own segment on the show called “Mondays with Trump”. In 2015 and 2016, during the Republican primaries, the property tycoon was securing twice as much airtime on Fox as his closest rival, Ted Cruz. And since assuming office, this most controversial and corrupt of presidents has continued to be the recipient of fawning coverage and softball interviews from the country’s highest-rated cable news channel.

“Fox and Trump are in a mutually beneficial feedback loop – he has the power, but they have a lot of influence over what he does with it,” Gertz tells me. Over the past year, Trump has done 11 interviews with Fox News but none at all on any of the other mainstream networks or cable news channels. Since his inauguration, he has tagged @foxnews or @foxandfriends in tweets more than a hundred times, according to Media Matters for America. Recent appointments to his administration have included acting under secretary of state Heather Nauert, a former Fox News anchor with zero experience of diplomacy, and his latest national security adviser, John Bolton, a former Fox News contributor said to have impressed Trump with his on-air bluster.

To be clear: since it began in 1996, Fox has been an ultra-conservative, ultra-partisan channel, pushing right-wing talking points and promoting Republican politicians. Yet since January 2017, Fox seems to have morphed into state TV and become an American Pravda – and it isn’t only liberals sounding the alarm bell. Former long-time Fox News contributor Ralph Peters, a retired army colonel, quit in March saying he was “ashamed” to be associated with the channel in the Trump era. Fox was now “a mere propaganda machine for a destructive and ethically ruinous administration”, he wrote in his resignation letter. “Fox News is now wittingly harming our system of government for profit.”

Take the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Gertz explains that “the conservative hosts on Fox News, the ones who are closest to the president, have spent the past month paving the way for Trump to fire Mueller, telling their audience day in day out that Mueller and the FBI cannot be trusted… and that [the investigation] is, as Trump says himself, a ‘witch hunt’.”

Gertz also reminds me that one of the reasons Fox News exists “is in part an effort to shield the Republican Party from having a repeat of Richard Nixon”. The late Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News, was a former adviser to Nixon, who tried to fire the Watergate special prosecutor – and was then forced to resign the presidency after senior congressional Republicans threatened to impeach him.

Today, the sheer power and influence that Fox News exerts makes a repeat of such behaviour by Republicans “very, very difficult”, argues Gertz. “Those Republican senators and members of Congress are much more afraid of Fox News than they are of anything else.”

For the profit-hungry Fox, Donald Trump is the president their paranoid and reactionary viewers crave, and as a result is a “ratings machine” (to borrow a line from the man himself). For the thin-skinned Trump, Fox provides him with a comfort zone and acts as a bulwark against liberal attempts to unseat him. Fox owes Trump and Trump owes Fox.

In a recent interview with – who else? – Fox & Friends, the former reality TV star reminded the trio of conservative hosts that he had been “a friend of your show for a long time”. “Remember those call-ins, right?” the president asked Doocy, Earhardt and Kilmeade. “Maybe without those call-ins, somebody else is sitting here.” 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war