This article is adapted from “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth,” published by Simon & Schuster’s One Signal Publishers.
“Everything I know about the Constitution, I learned from you on ‘Fox & Friends,’” President Donald Trump once told Judge Andrew Napolitano.
A former New Jersey Superior Court judge who became the top on-air legal expert at Fox News, Napolitano was at once flattered and horrified.
In West Wing meetings in 2017 and 2018, the Fox-addicted president brought up Napolitano’s TV analysis with his actual lawyers. Napolitano eventually landed on Trump’s enemies list for taking the Mueller probe seriously and, in 2019, saying on-air that Trump had committed crimes relating to the Ukraine scheme. Trump railed against the judge on Twitter and vented about him to other Fox commentators. But Napolitano knew, through mutual friends, that the president was still hanging on almost every word he said.
Almost every Fox News star has a story like this: A story about how Fox’s shows became influential — too influential — inside the Trump administration.
“We started to make decisions for Trump, meaning a lot of the decisions that were made on stories to cover were based on the fact that he was watching,” a former host told me. Like most of the hundreds of people I interviewed for my new book “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth,” this person only spoke on condition of anonymity, but their testimonies were backed up by on the record accounts by former Fox staffers and public comments by Trump and administration officials.
Inside Fox, hosts one-upped one another to get, and stay, on Trump’s good side. Programming choices were customized for one viewer at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
While hosting “Fox & Friends Weekend,” Pete Hegseth peered at his phone during commercial breaks, checking to see if the president had tweeted about the show that morning. He was thrilled when Trump picked up on something he said, and he made sure everyone around him knew it. In 2017 his co-hosts felt like he was putting on a show specifically for POTUS because Hegseth was angling to become Veterans Affairs secretary.
He didn’t get the job, but he got almost everything else he sought – face time with Trump, dinners at the White House, and presidential pardons for troops accused of war crimes who he said were being treated unfairly.
Three plus years into the Trump presidency, Hegseth’s co-hosts who were skeptical of the president are gone, but he’s still there, and his show is Trumpier than ever.
To paraphrase a famous uncle, with great influence comes great responsibility. But stars like Hegseth frequently failed that test, peddling misinformation about immigration, voter fraud and other Fox narratives. The commentators misled Trump; their choice of topics misled him; even the on-screen graphics did too.
It seemed like no one at the top ever stepped in to do something about it. Part of the problem was there was no one who could. Again and again sources told me the same thing: there was no one firmly in charge at Fox News, and there hadn’t been since the summer of 2016.
‘They’re making too much money to change’
Many people inside the network have the same question, it turns out. In interviews, dozens and dozens of Fox staffers said the network lacked clear editorial leadership. Some said they preferred it this way, but most of my sources said the opposite. “The place is on cruise control,” a producer complained.
Many of these insiders said the power vacuum has been exploited by Trump and his friends, like Sean Hannity, who act like they’re running the network.
Fox has been a conservative network since its founding in 1996. But the content has turned more extreme over time. “Right-leaning is fine,” a Fox anchor remarked. “But we’re not leaning, we’ve fallen over.”
The result? Propagandistic pro-Trump segments and embarrassing on-air mistakes. Some staffers blamed a lack of leadership at the top, starting with the Murdochs, who control Fox’s parent company. But Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan, the parent company’s CEO, appeared to be happy with the management team they installed at Fox News. The network was like their ATM. By 2020, I was told, it was on a path to $2 billion a year in profits.
“They’re making too much money to change,” said one veteran producer who resigned in disgust.
Lachlan lives in Los Angeles, where he recently spent $150 million to buy Chartwell, the massive Bel Air mansion seen in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” He has friendly relationships with Tucker Carlson and some of Fox’s other biggest stars, but sources said his presence is rarely felt at Fox News headquarters in New York. (Lachlan declined interview requests, and Fox also declined to grant interviews with personalities like Hannity and Hegseth. I found other ways to get in touch with everyone from anchors to production assistants.)
Fox’s biggest opinion shows, like “Fox & Friends,” are their own fiefdoms. “Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade said in a podcast interview, “I’ve had more interaction with him than I had with Roger Ailes in twenty years” — but, Kilmeade added, “I’ve never felt more autonomy than I do right now.”
That’s what TV hosts typically want, hands-off bosses, but Lachlan Murdoch went well beyond deference all the way to indifference, some sources said. He didn’t watch Fox News religiously. He didn’t worry much about Trump’s attacks against the media. All the political and media world debates about how to handle Trump’s threats to democracy? He wasn’t part of them.
A power vacuum
Fox used to have a very clear leader, for worse and for better. Roger Ailes was its founding CEO, and he ran the place for 20 years. His name came up hundreds of times in my interviews with sources.
Ailes was an iron-fisted ruler and an abuser of women. Gretchen Carlson’s July 2016 sexual harassment lawsuit exposed all of that. The Carlson case triggered an investigation; a mountain of evidence of systemic misconduct; and his stunning departure from the network he built.
Ailes needed to go. But despite all his sins, many Fox staffers missed him. Why? Because when he was around, everyone knew exactly who was in charge.
With Ailes gone, the Murdochs moved Fox News to a committee model of leadership. The network kept humming right along, making more and more money. Ailes’ former lieutenants asked themselves, sometimes out loud, “What would Roger do?” They were more like caretakers than leaders. In the fall of 2016, sources began whispering, “the inmates are running the asylum.” The inmates, in this analogy, were the highly-paid TV stars who weren’t being managed by anyone.
“In the weeks and months after Roger was fired, Fox was pretty rudderless – no one was in charge,” Conor Powell, who was a Fox correspondent at the time, told me. “Nothing was approved, nothing was rejected. In theory Rupert was in charge, but he wasn’t really around to make many decisions.”
When Powell flew from Jerusalem to New York for a visit to the mothership, news boss Jay Wallace told him the management team was “just trying to keep the place afloat.”
When Ailes was the ruler of Fox News, everyone knew who they were trying to impress. The channel was produced for an audience of one. Without him, “there was a power vacuum, and everyone was afraid to fill it,” a former host said. The channel was still produced for an audience of one — but now that audience was the newly-elected president.
Ailes died four months into the Trump presidency. His widow Liz declined to speak with me. She recently participated in the making of a documentary that casts Ailes in a favorable light and includes an interview with Trump, who says “I’m not sure that I ever would have been standing at this very powerful, important, even sacred spot — the Rose Garden in front of the Oval Office at the White House — if it wasn’t for Roger.”
One of the men named co-president of Fox News in the immediate aftermath of Ailes’ ouster, Bill Shine, was thrown overboard in May 2017. (Later, at Hannity’s recommendation, Trump hired him as deputy chief of staff for communications.) Suzanne Scott was named president of programming. My phone lit up with texts from staffers who were upset about her promotion.
The “wardrobe enforcer”
“Suzanne Scott? She’s the worst of all of them. Give me a break,” a female Fox talking head wrote. By “worst,” she meant Scott was an accomplice of Ailes’.
“She was the wardrobe enforcer,” a former Fox host explained.
Many women told me Scott had enforced the dress code at Fox. “Tits up, hair back” — that’s the description Ailes famously used of what he wanted on his air during the day.
In practice this usually meant more glamour, longer eyelash extensions, shorter skirts, bronzer legs. “She would call the control room and say, ‘Fix her necklace.’ Or change which way my hair was parted,” former Fox host Alisyn Camerota, now of CNN’s “New Day,” recalled.
The source who dubbed her the “wardrobe enforcer” said, “Suzanne would call and say, ‘I don’t like her shade of lipstick. It looks like shit.’ The poor makeup people would rush out on set and change my lipstick.” Personalities who objected to the cosmetic adjustments would sometimes be asked, “Don’t you want good ratings?”
Television is a visual medium, so there are certain expectations, but some staffers charged that Scott took it to the extreme. Scott’s allies said she wanted a professional look on the air.
In my research for “Hoax,” I noticed that Scott has never answered detailed questions about the Ailes years, specifically about his misconduct. The closest she came to commenting was in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, when she said, “I had no clue on what was going on in Roger Ailes’ office.” Some staffers had a hard time trusting that statement.
Almost no one I interviewed depicted Scott as a strong leader. Some people did praise her business acumen – Scott has expanded Fox News into new lines of business – but they also brought up her editorial weaknesses. “She has no vision,” said one host who worked closely with her. “She’s living off of Donald Trump and Roger Ailes.”
I thought that was a harsh assessment. In the aftermath of the Ailes scandal, Scott pushed for multiple women to be promoted, like Dana Perino and Harris Faulkner. She championed workplace equality initiatives and improved interoffice communication. “I wanted to do everything I could to heal this place,” she told the Los Angeles Times.
In May 2018 she was promoted to CEO. Jay Wallace, the news boss, was promoted to president, reporting to her. They were almost equals, but Scott was on top, and that meant the pro-Trump talk shows known as “programming” were too. “That’s what she prefers,” a news anchor currently at the network grumbled to me. “She believes ‘programming’ is what works.” She encouraged more segments with partisan guests. She liked it when daytime newscasts played clips from “Fox & Friends” or Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. This is one of the ways that, inch by inch, Fox became Trumpier and Trumpier as the years went by.
At most major news operations, there are standards and practices divisions and checks and balances systems that hold journalists accountable. Mistakes are still made, of course, but there are consequences.
At Fox, however, staffers said there was rarely any follow-up when big screwups happened on the air. That was true even when the President was fooled.
One morning early in the Trump years, “Fox & Friends” jumped on a story from The Hill about former FBI director James Comey, one of the show’s chosen villains. “RPT: COMEY LEAKED CLASSIFIED MATERIAL,” said the on-screen banner, even though The Hill didn’t actually report that. The show’s Twitter feed shared the erroneous news and then Trump did, too, without bothering to credit Fox.
“James Comey leaked CLASSIFIED INFORMATION to the media,” Trump tweeted. “That is so illegal!”
Trump was wrong, and it was Fox’s fault. The “Friends” should have run a correction immediately, but instead the network started covering Trump’s leak allegation like it was legit news rather than a regurgitation of their morning show’s screwup. It was lie-laundering. It took a full 24 hours for the “Friends” to sheepishly admit “We were mistaken.” There was never any acknowledgment that the network had deluded Trump, and he never walked back his Comey smear, even when the DOJ’s inspector general confirmed in 2019 that Comey never leaked anything.
A producer at the morning show said management tended to get involved only when mistakes generated national news coverage.
“When they say ‘we can’t keep messing things up,’ what they really mean is ‘we can’t keep getting caught,’” the person said.
Executives at Fox used Trump’s addiction as a retention tool. In at least one case, when a staffer made noise about wanting to leave the morning show, they were reminded that the president consistently tweeted their stories, sometimes word for word. “They thought it was a good thing,” a producer told me after leaving Fox. “I thought it was unhealthy.”
News anchors like Shep Smith grew increasingly disillusioned. Smith, who ultimately quit in October 2019, was furious with management for not corralling the dishonest commentary by Fox’s prime time hosts. (When I saw Smith one month after his departure, he said “I feel free,” but he declined to answer any questions about Fox.)
When outsiders pointed to Scott, the network’s CEO, as the source of the leadership problem, her allies pointed at Scott’s executive vice president Meade Cooper, who oversees the prime time programming. Some of Cooper’s colleagues said she was effective at mediating disputes between hosts, but was rolled over by Hannity and Laura Ingraham. The buck, however, stopped with Scott and the Murdochs.
I shared my key findings with a Fox spokesperson ahead of publication, but the network declined to make executives available for interviews.
Phoning it in
On the mid-December day when the House of Representatives held the final vote on two articles of impeachment, “Special Report” anchor Bret Baier said to Fox viewers, “After this day, we will never talk about the 45th president of the United States the same way again.” But Hannity had other ideas.
He had an obligation that night and didn’t want to host his 9 p.m. show live, even though the history-making vote was happening in the 8 p.m. hour. So Hannity’s hotly-anticipated response to Trump being officially impeached was pre-taped at his home on Long Island. He talked about it the same way he did the night before, and the night before that.
His producers did everything they could to mask the fact that the show was stale: They showed live pictures of Trump holding a rally in Michigan, squeezed in a live news update from a fill-in anchor; they had even pre-taped Hannity tossing to a clip reel of the “best moments” from the rally, though he didn’t know what the clips would be. The producers inserted a few random sound bites about tariffs and the military. Then Hannity came back on camera and ended the show.
Most viewers didn’t notice that Hannity phoned it in. Most probably wouldn’t have cared anyway. But “when people in the news division found out Sean taped his show, they flipped,” a DC source said.
Baier had good reason to be angry. He should have been anchoring the network’s live coverage on the biggest political night of the year just like his counterparts on other networks were. But management stuck with Hannity’s show instead. And he didn’t even bother doing it live. Because not a single person in charge at Fox could stand up to him.
The episode reminded me of something an executive told me more than a year earlier, when Hannity was engaged in some childish behavior on social media. “There’s no one in the building,” the person said, “except maybe Rupert, who can tell Sean to knock it off.”