I turned on the television the other day and there was Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary. She looked angry.
“The president does read,” McEnany said sharply. “This president, I’ll tell you, is the most informed person on planet earth when it comes to the threats that we face.”
Hmm. Is that true? By his own admission, the president isn’t much of a reader. In fact, he’d prefer not to. Before taking office, Trump told Axios: “I like as little as possible. I don’t need, you know, 200-page reports on something that can be handled on a page. That I can tell you.”
And that we know. We also know that the president gets most of his information from watching television — specifically, Fox News — which makes me question how clued-in he really is. I mean, if you only know what “Fox & Friends” or, heaven forbid, Tucker Carlson, is telling you, is it possible to be the most informed person on planet earth? I was dubious.
So I stretched out on my couch to watch as many uninterrupted hours of Fox News as I could bear. It wasn’t easy, believe me. But I was interested to hear what the president hears, and I was curious to see how, or if, the conservative network would report news unfavorable to its biggest fan, because, let’s face it, there’s been plenty of that lately.
To be honest, I lasted for only 24 hours, in part because many of the advertisers on Fox News — companies hawking “retirement gold,” a leathery-looking Tom Selleck pitching reverse mortgages, and, of course, the My Pillow guy — depressed me after a while.
But, really, 24 hours is plenty. The Fox News formula involves running the same few stories over and over. And it works. While all three major cable news networks set ratings records in the second quarter of 2020, Fox News remains No. 1, with 3.57 million primetime viewers.
One story that was largely ignored while I watched was the bombshell report by The New York Times that President Trump was informed — in February — about Russia paying cash bounties to Afghan militants to kill US soldiers. It had been written in the president’s daily brief, which he rarely reads because, well, he doesn’t like to read.
Fox News hosts did not want to dwell too long — or, in some cases, at all — on this story, newsworthy or not. And to the extent that they did talk about it, they were more interested in raising doubts about the intelligence than in asking what the president knew and when did he know it.
On “The Five,” for example, cohost Dana Perino, who was press secretary for George W. Bush, said such briefings are “nuanced” and “difficult” and “not perfect.” On “Fox & Friends,” which the president watches faithfully every morning, hosts Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade were upset about a “rogue” intelligence official leaking information, but not about the president’s inaction. Likewise, on Bret Baier’s afternoon show, commentator Mollie Hemingway — she works for the right-wing web magazine The Federalist — blamed whoever shared the intel with their “co-conspirators” in the media.
At least they acknowledged the story. Incredibly, the night after it was reported, neither Sean Hannity, who is a personal friend of the president’s, nor Laura Ingraham ever mentioned that Russian President Valdimir Putin may have paid Taliban-linked militants to kill Americans. Not a word.
That surely delighted their audience of one because, bright and early Wednesday, he took to Twitter to call the Russian bounty story “just another made up by Fake News tale. ... Just another HOAX!” If you’re wondering if Fox News amplified the president’s tweet, even if it didn’t cover the story, the answer is yes, of course.
The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party. The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself. If the discredited @nytimes has a source, reveal it. Just another HOAX!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 1, 2020
So what were the folks at Fox News focused on instead? You might be surprised. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, told Congress earlier in the day that he’s alarmed by the recent spike in coronavirus cases, and that didn’t sit well with Hannity and his colleagues.
If there’s one thing I learned about Fox News hosts, and many of their guests: They view people who know what they’re talking about with enormous suspicion, so much so that they actually use the word “expert” as a pejorative.
“We shouldn’t presume that a group of experts somehow knows what’s best for everyone,” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul told Bret Baier. “We should remember we’re a free country.”
On Ingraham’s show, Philip Kerpen, who runs a group called the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, dismissed Dr. Fauci as a member of the “expert class,” accusing him of using “weasel words.”
And Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who, you may recall, made headlines in March when he said he’d rather die from the coronavirus than harm the US economy, told Ingraham he’s done listening to Dr. Fauci.
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Patrick said on the same day Texas reported nearly 7,000 new coronavirus cases.
The other drum that Fox News beat all day was New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to cut $1 billion from the budget of the New York Police Department. Again and again, as images of rioting played on a split-screen, Fox News hosts warned of anarchy in New York and across the country. They described a hellscape a la “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
“He’s a Commie,” growled Lisa Kennedy, a former MTV VJ who’s recast herself as a conservative commentator, on “The Five.” “[De Blasio] is a shameful pinko.”
Tucker Carlson likened the Black Lives Matter movement to “a shakedown” and said the Republican Party is the sole “protector” of Americans who are being “harassed and harangued by self-righteous lunatics who mean them harm.”
And then there was Newt Gingrich. Appearing on “Fox & Friends,” the former Republican House speaker characterized racial justice protesters as “genuine, serious, dedicated revolutionaries.”
“Systemic anti-Americanism is a greater threat than systemic racism,” Gingrich said. “Their goal is to eliminate the United States, as we have known it, and replace it with a remarkably different system closer to fascism or Mao’s cultural revolution.”
Wait, this is what President Trump is watching all day!? I started to think that Fox News only exists to spark rage and resentment and to undermine expertise. But then Eric Trump, the president’s son, appeared on the screen with Hannity.
“Look at the Nasdaq today, Sean,” he said, excitedly. “Look at what’s happening to the markets. They’re coming roaring back.”
Phew, the Nasdaq is up. I suddenly felt all better.