What's next for Fox News now that Rupert Murdoch has stepped down?
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. What's changing at Fox News? It paid a settlement of more than $787 million to Dominion Voting Systems. Fox fired its popular host Tucker Carlson. This week Rupert Murdoch officially hands over the titles chair of Fox Corp., Fox's broadcast arm, and News Corp., which publishes newspapers and books.
My guest, Brian Stelter, is the author of the new book "Network Of Lies: The Epic Saga Of Fox News, Donald Trump And The Battle For American Democracy." It's a follow-up to Stelter's bestselling 2020 book about Fox called "Hoax." The new book is about how Fox helped spread the lie that Trump won the election. It also examines the secrets that were exposed about what Fox hosts and executives really thought about the conspiracy theories spread on Fox. Part of the book's focus is on Tucker Carlson, who was fired just after Fox settled with Dominion. Dominion Voting Systems was suing Fox for spreading baseless conspiracy theories alleging that Dominion rigged its voting machines so that Biden would win. Just before the trial was about to start, Fox decided to settle, presumably to prevent Dominion lawyers from exposing private communications from Fox News hosts and executives, revealing their hypocrisies.
Stelter is the former chief media correspondent for CNN and hosted CNN's former Sunday program about the media called "Reliable Sources." Before that, he was a media reporter for The New York Times. He's now a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and host of the podcast "Inside The Hive." He's a producer on the Apple TV+ series "The Morning Show," which is inspired by his first book, "Top Of The Morning." Brian Stelter, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Your book is really interesting, so thank you for coming back to our show.
BRIAN STELTER: It's a great privilege. Thank you.
GROSS: So this week is a big transition week from Rupert Murdoch to his son Lachlan taking over the reins. How do they compare in terms of their politics and management style and goals for Fox?
STELTER: Well, Rupert Murdoch is, in his heart, a newspaper man. He believes he is a journalist. Yes, he comes at it from the right. He has certain very strongly held opinions. But he deeply cares about his newspapers and, to some degree, Fox News. His son Lachlan is, No. 1, in some ways, more conservative and, No. 2, much more business-minded. He's not nearly as interested in politics. He's not nearly as interested in the polling. He's a lot more interested in how much money he can rake in from campaign ad spending at his stations and on Fox News. So he comes to this as a businessman, and I suspect that means Fox is going to continue to be this beating heart of the GOP, supporting whoever becomes the nominee, most likely Trump this year.
GROSS: Well, if Lachlan is focused on advertising, I mean, Tucker Carlson's extremism cost the network a lot of money. A lot of the sponsors pulled out. They had to rely on MyPillow (laughter) for - as a primary sponsor.
STELTER: And that's one of the reasons why Lachlan eventually decided to cut ties with Tucker and fired him last August by canceling his show. It was a cold-hearted business calculation. And we can talk about all the reasons why it eventually happened. But I think it goes to show that Lachlan Murdoch, in the words of one source, is minimizing headaches and maximizing profits. He's going to do whatever the audience really wants, as long as it's not going to cause lots of headaches. And the thing about Tucker Carlson is he was causing a lot of headaches.
GROSS: What about Lachlan's brother James? What's his relation to Fox News now and to his family?
STELTER: Anyone who's watched "Succession" has a little bit of a sense of this because this is a very real drama. James is the more liberal son. He is the outcast at the moment. He is not involved at all in the family businesses. He's chosen to break ties from Fox and News Corp., in part because he's horrified by the content on Fox News. He says to his friends that it's poisoning America. He has a vision for what he would want Fox News to be. He would want to drag it back toward reality, back toward at least an imagined middle ground where facts and journalism were prioritized over the propaganda that currently airs. But right now, James has no ability to do that. He is - as I said, he's on the outside. He has a vote in the Murdoch family trust. So in the event of Rupert's death, James will have an opportunity to try to take over, try to team up with his sisters and take control of Fox Corporation. But for now, that's just in the distant horizon. For now, this is Lachlan's company.
GROSS: I think James quit the board in 2020.
STELTER: Right. He said goodbye - no more board meetings, no more grip-and-grins. But, you know, as his wife, Kathryn, once said to The New York Times, when you're a part of the family, it's never really over.
GROSS: So there's - what? - eight votes in the trust - in the Murdoch trust?
STELTER: That's right. There's eight votes. And right now, Rupert Murdoch has four of those eight, which is how he maintains control. So even though we're going to hear this week about his stepping aside, becoming chairman emeritus, what some of his aides call semi-retirement, I would really emphasize the word semi because Rupert is going to remain involved in various ways.
GROSS: So it's a complex family with siblings from multiple marriages. But the siblings with votes are Lachlan, James and their two adult sisters. So where do those two sisters stand?
STELTER: That's right, Elisabeth and half-sister Prudence. These are described as the adult children, the four adult children. There are two younger daughters who are now in college or beyond college. They are growing up, but they don't have voting rights. They only have financial stakes in the trust. So, you know, financially, they all benefit. But in the event of Rupert's death, it's going to be those four adult children who decide what happens to Fox Corp., what happens to News Corp., what happens to The Wall Street Journal and Fox News and all of these assets. It's possible they're going to be broken apart, sold off in pieces. It's possible the companies will be recombined, will come back together again the way they were a decade ago. There are all sorts of possibilities.
GROSS: Yeah, what is Fox now? - 'cause Murdoch sold most of 20th Century Fox to Disney at the end of 2017 for $71 billion, and the children got, like, how many billions a piece?
STELTER: Close to $2 billion each, which is why someone like James Murdoch is now off making his own investments, creating his own media company. Now, that 2 billion - that was important, you know, for Rupert to try to give stability to his children. But I also think that Disney deal is really important in retrospect, to realize Rupert sold at basically the top of the market. Listen to the conversation now, five years later, about cable assets, about broadcast, about the dying broadcast business, about streaming, the struggles to make streaming profitable. Rupert - for all of his faults, he seemed to see this coming, and he was able to sell his assets to Disney and get out of those businesses at a really prime time. Now, of course, they still have Fox News and they have Fox Sports and some other assets. But Fox News is the largest profit-driver by far. Fox News is what keeps them in their mansions and on their helicopters.
GROSS: What lawsuits is Fox facing now?
STELTER: Possibly the largest lawsuit is by Smartmatic. That's one of those voting technology companies that I had never heard of until the 2020 election; maybe you hadn't either. You know, these relatively obscure companies like Dominion and Smartmatic, these are the companies that help make our elections run, that provide the machines and the software to tally the votes. There were all sorts of conspiracy theories about both companies at the end of 2020. One of the claims was that they were actually the same company, when, in fact, they are not. So Dominion was able to very easily prove that the smears that aired on Fox were, in fact, lies. And a court in Delaware affirmed that earlier this year. All that stuff - it was just made up. Dominion, thus, had a lot of leverage to win a settlement and get almost $800 million out of Fox. But Smartmatic is asking for even more. Smartmatic is demanding $2.6 billion, and that case is still winding its way through the courts.
GROSS: There's individuals suing Fox too.
STELTER: That's right individuals like Ray Epps. He was at the Capitol during the riot on January 6. He has pled guilty to an offense there. But for many months, Tucker Carlson - and, to some extent, others on Fox, but mostly Carlson - spread a conspiracy theory that actually Ray Epps was a government agent or a plant or a secret federal agent. So that conspiracy theory was the reason why Ray Epps sued earlier this year for defamation. And that's not the only defamation case by an individual. There are multiple cases by individuals, and there are shareholder lawsuits against the Fox board of directors for failing to manage and avoid these embarrassing payouts and scandals. It is a legal thicket for Fox.
GROSS: You describe in your book how Fox started to pull away from Trump after January 6. Where are they now in terms of their coverage of Trump and Fox's relationship to Trump?
STELTER: The short answer is that nobody's happy. No side is satisfied. Donald Trump does not think Fox is fair. Of course, he'll never think Fox is fair to him. He'll never think any media coverage is sycophantic enough, so he frequently uses Truth Social to complain about Fox and try to work the refs. But at the same time, he has many allies on the network and at the network. Many of Fox's biggest stars are firmly on his side and in his camp, even figures like Sean Hannity who were disgusted by what happened on January 6.
His text messages show that he was trying to intervene. And according to one of the Dominion documents, Suzanne Scott, the head of Fox News media, said to Rupert Murdoch, Hannity is working hard. He's ready to move the 75 million Trump voters away from Trump. Well, many of Fox's biggest stars are firmly on Trump's side. It reminds me of what Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump talked about during their last phone call. This was in September of 2020, the last time the two men spoke. Rupert now detests Trump. He hates Trump. He doesn't want to have anything to do with Trump.
But in that final phone call in 2020, Rupert says that Trump said, you're 90% good, that's not good enough. I need you 100%. And Rupert's response was, well, you can't have it. And to me, I think that's a very self-aggrandizing thing for Rupert Murdoch to say. That's a great anecdote that he recounts, that he's telling the American president you can't have us at 100%. But the reality is Fox is basically at 100% on Trump's side. You can see that with the way they've treated some of the other primary candidates that are challenging Trump. At the end of the day, this is a MAGA network, and it will be for as long as MAGA exists.
GROSS: Does Trump still make a lot of appearances on Fox?
STELTER: Trump does appear from time to time, but he's less of a visible presence than he was in, let's say, 2016, during the campaign then. One of the differences now is that Fox refuses to air Trump live. They will not interview Trump live, and they won't let him call in either. This is literally for legal reasons. They don't want him to come on and start defaming Dominion again or Smartmatic again or who knows who else. They insist on taping interviews with Trump so that they have some ability to have editorial control.
But the reality is they air those interviews that are still full of misinformation and disinformation, so Fox deserves very little credit for making that change in approach by having him taped versus live. So, you know, you'll read about tension between Trump and Fox, you'll read about his rants against the network, but let's not be fooled. In a general election, if Trump is the nominee, Fox will be all in for him. Even though Rupert hates the man, even though Lachlan is not personally fond of him, the Murdochs will hold their noses and do whatever they can to see Trump reelected.
GROSS: Is that to keep their base?
STELTER: Yes, absolutely, because Fox and Trump share a base. Fox in many ways created Donald Trump, Trump in many ways lifted Fox up as well, boosted Fox. I would also argue the opposite is true. Fox misinformed Trump, hurt his presidency, made it harder for him to win reelection. Fox speaks so directly to a minority of the country and isn't really trying to expand that audience, trying to expand that base. So when you see midterm elections or off-year elections where Republicans lose, I think Fox deserves some of the blame for those losses. But it is very much a shared base, an awkwardly shared base, between Trump and Fox.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, so let me reintroduce you. My guest is Brian Stelter. His new book is called "Network Of Lies: The Epic Saga Of Fox News, Donald Trump, And The Battle For American Democracy." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Brian Stelter, author of the new book "Network Of Lies: The Epic Saga Of Fox News, Donald Trump, And The Battle For American Democracy." Brian Stelter is a former CNN media correspondent and former host of the CNN Sunday show "Reliable Sources," which actually got canceled how long ago (laughter)?
STELTER: August of 2022.
GROSS: Yeah, OK. So you're leading a new life. OK. Trump is now indicted on several charges. There's different cases against him. There are also indicted and unindicted co-conspirators who are cited. Among them, who are some of the ones who have been Fox News regulars?
STELTER: Right. Well, two of the names that come to mind right away are Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell. When I read through the various indictments over the summer, I realized these are - you know, these are Fox stars. These are Fox personalities who fed Trump the lie that then led to all of these alleged crimes. You know, the Big Lie didn't come out of nowhere. It didn't come out of thin air. It was made to exist. It happened on the very same weekend that NPR and all the major networks projected that Biden had won the presidency and that Trump had lost the presidency. The very next day Maria Bartiromo and Sidney Powell on Fox News seeded the story about Dominion that Trump later picked up and ran with.
And so when you look at the Georgia indictment and you have this breach of voting systems in Coffee County, Ga., actual physical action taken trying to interfere with the election, they were going after Dominion machines. So I argue in "Network Of Lies," all of these indictments lead back, in one way or another, to the Fox machine and what was being said on the air. So Rudy, Sidney Powell - these are the kinds of guests that were telling the lie-filled story on the air back at the time.
GROSS: OK. You mentioned that the Dominion conspiracy theory basically started on Fox. The conspiracy theory is that Dominion machines were really controlled and manipulated by outside sources, and the goal was to deliver the election to Biden by tampering with the machines. So - and you say this conspiracy theory started on Maria Bartiromo's show. How exactly did it start?
STELTER: Once Biden was projected to be president-elect, Trump and his allies needed to tell a news story. They needed to say that it was stolen. But how? Who stole what? How? Well, they needed to come up with a villain. And Dominion and, to some degree, Smartmatic were the villains. Sidney Powell, who was working with Trump at the time as a Trump-aligned lawyer - you know, they later claimed that she was never officially on the legal team, but she clearly said she was, acted like she was. Trump was in touch with her. On the day that Biden was named president-elect, Sidney Powell received an email from a random woman in Minnesota. This woman admitted that some of her own ideas were whack-a-doodle. She claimed, the wind tells me I'm a ghost. There were all sorts of red flags in this long email that Sidney Powell received.
But Sidney Powell took this email because it alleged election fraud info. It alleged wrongdoing by Dominion and had all sorts of allegations against Nancy Pelosi and others. She forwarded this email to Maria Bartiromo because she was going to be on with Maria the next morning. And then Maria Bartiromo sent it over to Eric Trump. So you have - all of a sudden, this kooky theory about Dominion has now reached the Trump family orbit. So it's Sunday morning, November 8. Maria Bartiromo is starting her show. She's in denial about Trump's loss. She desperately wants Trump to be reelected. She's hearing from her fellow conspiracy theorist friends about all sorts of ways to overturn the results and give, you know, false hope to millions of people.
So she's interviewing Sidney Powell on the air, and Bartiromo basically looks down and reads, almost word for word, from this, again, completely random, totally unsubstantiated, pretty kooky email from a viewer in Minnesota. And - full of falsehoods, easily disproven charges. But she's reading it out loud on air, asking Sidney Powell to react, queuing up Sidney Powell to tell a story about the villain, about the wrongdoers, about the company that stole the election. And, Terry, it was just amazing for me to reconstruct this three years later and realize it happened right out in public view. This defamation, this creation of a big lie that still infects our politics to this day, the entire predicate for Trump's reelection campaign is that it was stolen from him in 2020 - and it all starts from a random chain email that wasn't fact-checked, that wasn't investigated by Fox, that was just slopped onto the air.
GROSS: How much do you know about who that woman was who sent the email?
STELTER: Her name is Marlene Bourne. And The Daily Beast was able to follow up with her after this all became public. She said she, quote, "based her now nationally prominent ideas about election fraud on a wide variety of sources, including hidden messages she detects in films, song lyrics she hears on the radio"...
GROSS: Oh, no.
STELTER: ..."And overheard conversations she hears while in line at the supermarket checkout." Now, this was an incredible discovery on the part of the Dominion lawyers because, you know, after they sued Fox and they went through the discovery process and they were reviewing all these emails and text messages, they searched for the word Dominion inside Fox's corporate email. They wanted to know, who was emailing - who was talking about Dominion before the company was smeared for the first time? And they only found this one email. That's the only thing they found - one email from a woman in Minnesota with a conspiracy theory about Dominion and Nancy Pelosi. That's all they found. It wasn't as if there was any legitimate evidence, any real investigation, any due diligence. It was just this one email. And I'll tell you, when the lawyers found this, they realized they had an even stronger case than they originally thought.
GROSS: Was the premise that it all started, like you just described, on Maria Bartiromo's show because of this wacky email by one woman that Sidney Powell received? Did they - did Fox executives or hosts or Maria herself contest that?
STELTER: No. Bartiromo was asked about this under oath during her Dominion deposition. She said she didn't know who this person was. She acted like it didn't really matter, but it mattered a lot because this was, like, the patient zero in this coming contagion that was going to infect the entire network. There was no legitimate evidence of wrongdoing. There wasn't any follow-up before the segment. You know, this is the worst of television news. It's putting on a guest, letting them say whatever BS they want, no vetting, no verification ahead of time. And it matters a great deal when the president of the United States is watching because then, within days, he starts smearing Dominion too. Within days - actually, within four days, he starts spreading the lies about Dominion also. And these lies, of course, they are a part of a larger story that gets us to January 6 and gets us into the election denialism that exists today.
Trump, last weekend, said, I'm a very proud election denier. He said it during the same speech when he talked about trying to get rid of the vermin that has infected the United States - really fascist rhetoric. But he talks about being a proud election denier. And, of course, that is what led to the bloodstained riot on Capitol Hill on January 6. All of these ideas about someone doing the stealing - right? - Dominion in this case, had very dire consequences.
GROSS: Well, we have to take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brian Stelter, and he's the author of the new book "Network Of Lies: The Epic Saga Of Fox News, Donald Trump, And The Battle For American Democracy." He is a former media correspondent for CNN and was the host of CNN's Sunday show "Reliable Sources," which was a show about the media. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Brian Stelter. His new book is called "Network Of Lies: The Epic Saga Of Fox News, Donald Trump, And The Battle For American Democracy." It's a follow-up to his 2020 book about Fox, which was called "Hoax." Stelter is the former host of CNN's media show, a show about the media, which was called "Reliable Sources." He's a former CNN media correspondent and a former New York Times media correspondent who now writes for Vanity Fair.
So part of your book is about all the things you learned through emails that were made public as part of the discovery process - the pretrial discovery process in the Dominion lawsuit against Fox. And you say that, you know, some of the emails that you found that were really interesting weren't ever - didn't ever make it into the media because the media wasn't - there's, like, so many emails. The media - you know, the media combined couldn't really cover all of them. So give us an example of one or two of the nuggets that you found that really helped tell the story of what happened in the aftermath of Trump saying that he won the election.
STELTER: Yeah. The first one that comes to mind is from Tucker Carlson texting Laura Ingraham when they were both prime time hosts on Fox in November of 2020. Tucker said, it's getting too crazy. We're becoming the left. And they clearly both knew Trump had lost. Tucker said, if Trump had run on law and order and reopening the schools, he would have won in a landslide. And then Ingraham complains about Trump, saying, he's always on a grievance loop that is focused on him. And I thought it was so striking that, you know, these hosts privately - they sound like they could be on MSNBC or CNN. They knew the truth about Trump. They knew what was going on. They knew that his own narcissism and resentments were eating him alive and destroying his presidency. They knew that he had lost his reelection bid. And yet on the air, they had to be - if not all in on the big lie, they had to be lie-curious. They felt they had to be open to the possibility because that's what the audience demanded.
These messages are all in a giant database at the Wilmington, Del., court where the trial between Fox and Dominion would have taken place. Dominion was able to publish many of these emails and texts during the pretrial process. And you're right. There were certain messages that were immediately seized upon by the media, like Tucker Carlson saying he hated Donald Trump. Those were catnip to the media. They received widespread coverage. But I felt like I had to write this book because there were so many other messages, so many other insights you could gain by reading the depositions, by reading the transcripts. So that's ultimately why I did it.
GROSS: So give us another example of a nugget that you found that wasn't really made public by other media sources.
STELTER: Yeah. There's a lot in Rupert Murdoch's deposition that deserves attention. Rupert Murdoch was deposed for two days by Dominion's lawyers. It is basically the only in-depth interview that he has given in a decade. And, of course, he only gave it because he was required through the legal process. You know, Rupert Murdoch never sits down for interviews. He never submits to questioning. So to have a lawyer sit with him for seven hours over the course of two days, questioning him about the basics of how he lives his life but also how he operates his companies and how he feels about Donald Trump - I just thought it was so revealing.
Rupert, for example, says that people who still believe Trump won the election in 2020 are - this is his word - crazy. And yet millions of Fox viewers fit that description. Millions of Fox viewers are full-blown election denialists. So it is so interesting that Rupert Murdoch knows better. He clearly knows better, and yet he has allowed so much of this wrongdoing to go on. Rupert, in his deposition, was asked, does Fox have a responsibility to tell the truth, even when its viewers don't want to hear it? And he said, yes. He was asked, do you think it's acceptable to bury the truth? And he said, no, of course not. And then he said, it's not good for any country if masses of people believe in falsehoods. And yet his network, more than any other in the United States, has allowed for an environment where masses of people believe in falsehoods, where masses of people only hear what they already want to believe. This is on him. And yet when you read his deposition, you get the sense that he's just a passenger, not a driver. He's not a leader. He's just a follower. And I found that both deeply dispiriting but important to realize.
GROSS: Do you have any insights into why there was that dissonance between what he saw as his responsibility as the head of Fox News - Fox News should not spread falsehoods. But at the same time, Fox News was spreading all kinds of conspiracy theories and, of course, the lie that Trump actually won the election.
GROSS: We know he knew what was on Fox News. So why would he so firmly state that Fox, you know, stood for accuracy while, in reality, it was the opposite?
STELTER: I think there are a couple of possible explanations, and none of them make Rupert look good. One is that he's just not the man he used to be, that he has lost a step. But the Dominion lawyers who were in the room with them - they came away believing he was fully there, fully with it. So another explanation, then, is that he just doesn't care, that he just didn't watch enough Fox News, that he didn't pay close enough attention to what was happening on his own airwaves, that he was too far removed. And he liked it that way.
You know, in the aftermath of the election, he was living in the United Kingdom, so he was several time zones away from what was happening in the U.S. And, you know, the implication in his deposition is that he just wasn't watching much Fox News. He just didn't know that much about what was going on. But I don't like to lean too far into that explanation because he was also emailing, complaining about Rudy Giuliani, saying this is damaging everybody. He was at least somewhat aware of what was happening at the time. So that leads to the conclusion that he just wanted to make sure the viewers kept watching and the profits kept rolling in.
GROSS: Tucker Carlson was actually fired from Fox the week after Fox settled with Dominion by paying...
GROSS: ...Seven hundred eighty-seven million dollars to Dominion in the settlement. You say there's more than one reason that Tucker Carlson was fired. So tell us some of the reasons.
STELTER: It's frustrating that Fox never actually shared any rationale or any reason because in that information vacuum, conspiracy theories immediately started to form. And some of those theories were leaked by Tucker and his producers. They wanted various ideas out there about why Fox had stabbed him in the back. One theory was about Rupert Murdoch's brief engagement to a Tucker Carlson fan, who he then broke it off with. Another theory was that the Murdochs didn't like Tucker Carlson's pro-Russia, pro-Putin rhetoric on the air. There were all these theories, but the wildest one was that Tucker Carlson was somehow fired because of Dominion. Carlson even said this on the record. He said, my firing was a condition of the settlement. And there is not only no evidence for that. There's ample evidence to the contrary.
I've walked all the way around this story, Terry, interviewed almost everybody that was actually in the room for the negotiations, Carlson's name never came up. If anything, Dominion liked Tucker Carlson. He was going to be a star witness for Dominion because of the way that he trashed Sidney Powell on his show. So Carlson has been out there trying to blame Dominion, so that's why I ended up doing so much reporting about Tucker for this new book. I wanted to hear the real reasons why he was canceled, and I ended up hearing dozens of them. There was so much bad behavior internally. Carlson really became unglued during his six years as a prime-time host. You know, it's very much an Icarus story, flying too close to the sun. And now, ultimately, he's off on Twitter or - what is it called now? - X. He's now making videos, but he's very much a diminished figure ever since he was canceled.
GROSS: Does he have much of an audience now?
STELTER: It's very hard to measure because the metrics you see on X are basically unbelievable. The view counts cannot be taken seriously. He does clearly, though, have a fan base and a fan base that will follow him almost anywhere. And very importantly, he has the ear of the likely GOP nominee, Donald Trump. So I'm certainly not writing him off. I think he's a very influential figure and, I think, a very dangerous one because in some ways, he's more effective than Trump. You know, there's a newer generation of these conservative commentators and activists who feel like they can out-Trump Trump, who feel they can actually put into place what Trump just talks about.
We're seeing a lot of reporting about that by The New York Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere about the plans that are already in motion in the case Trump becomes the president again, plans to dismantle parts of the federal government, plans to reform this and that, to have mass deportations. Figures like Tucker Carlson want to see the government used in that way. They don't want more words and rhetoric from Trump. They want action. So I think we have to study and understand what Tucker is doing, even though he's not reaching millions of people every night on Fox anymore.
GROSS: Well, let's take one more break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brian Stelter, author of the new book "Network Of Lies: The Epic Saga Of Fox News, Donald Trump, And The Battle For American Democracy." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Brian Stelter, author of the new book "Network Of Lies: The Epic Saga Of Fox News, Donald Trump, And The Battle For American Democracy." He's a former CNN media correspondent, and he formerly hosted CNN's show about the media called "Reliable Sources."
Tucker Carlson created the image of himself as, like, man of the people fighting the elites. And as you point out in your book, he's one of the elites. He grew up in a wealthy family. His mother's family had money. His stepmother was part of the Swanson foods family, so she had a lot of money. So do you want to compare his past with the image he presented of himself on Fox?
STELTER: Yeah, definitely. And I think some of his fans might be in on this joke, but not all of them. You know, this is a guy who grew up as a heir to the Swanson TV dinner empire, you know, who has a island in the middle of a lake in Maine where he lives half the year, where he has a compound in Florida the other half of the year. He lived in Washington for decades, and he's an elite by any definition of the word. But the story he tells is a story similar to Trump's in that he can tell the truth about the way the world works because he comes from that world. Because he comes from an elite family, he has an elite background, he can then expose them. Again, I think it ultimately ends up being quite hollow, but he claims he has access to secret knowledge that others are afraid to share. And that narrative, that tale he tells, it is very alluring and arousing to certain right-wing ears.
GROSS: His audience may not have known this, but he did - he often did his Fox News show from personal studios that he had in his summer home in Maine and his winter retreat in Florida. So Fox paid for those studios, right? They were in his...
STELTER: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: They were in his, like, homes or compounds, but Fox outfitted them. Why do you think that's significant?
STELTER: It mattered because it changed him. Carlson's remoteness separated him from people and events. It separated him from the diversity of the real world. You know, when he started his prime-time show on Fox, he was based in Washington. He was at the Fox bureau in D.C., he would see his producers in person all the time. But over time, he decided to move out of Washington, in part because of protesters who showed up at his house one night. He retreated to Maine and Florida. He hosted his show basically from home all the time. He rarely had guests on set for long stretches of time. I think he was isolated in almost every sense of the word.
And I had an ex-colleague of his say to me, you know, his world really shrank and he started to believe his own BS. That's not a story unique to Tucker Carlson, it is something that has happened time and time again to celebrities of various kinds, including television stars. I think he became really, really high on his own supply. And yet at the same time, he would tell his producers, treat every show like it's your last. I think that's because, in the words of one of his producers, we knew we were burning too bright. It wasn't going to end well.
GROSS: You know, something I find interesting - you just talked about how Tucker Carlson moved to Maine and Florida after an attempt to invade his home. And a lot of the things he said on the air led to attacks on other people, people who he considered villains. Their lives were at stake. Their families' lives were threatened. But when it happened to him, he got out of town.
STELTER: That's right, he had the resources to up and leave. I do think the protest at his home that night was a big deal. I also think he did exaggerate some elements of it. The police report does not match up with his version of events, but it did rattle him to have protesters at his door. And look. I get it. It's one thing for Tucker to send me a dozen donuts as a prank, as as he did one day. It's another thing when a right-wing activist shows up in your basement, as happened to me in New York City one day - shows up in your basement with a camera and a microphone, pestering you with questions about some crazy conspiracy theory. It can be unnerving when political discourse that's only happening on your television set or in front of the camera suddenly invades your personal life and your personal space. But I think your point is the crucial one. This happened all the time to subjects and targets of his show, people with far fewer resources than he has.
GROSS: I want to get back to the election for a minute. You write that Fox News execs were concerned. What will happen if Trump wins the popular vote but loses in the Electoral College? And Lachlan wrote a memo saying, if that happens, we support the Electoral College vote. That's how we have to play it. But that's not exactly what happened. Trump lost the popular and the Electoral College vote and yet said that he won. Did Fox have a plan in place before the election, knowing that Trump might pull something like that?
STELTER: I don't think I can say that Fox had a coherent plan, but I think what we see in the emails and texts is that Fox's rushing to Trump's defense whenever possible. There are times eventually where it's not possible at all. And after January 6, they refused to put Trump on the air. Rupert says, we're going to make Trump a non-person. We're going to pivot away from him - so much for that. But up until the point when there was an insurrection, Fox was always trying to give hope to its audience - by the way, false hope. You know, they were trying to, quote, "respect the audience." That's the phrase that comes up in these emails. We need to respect the audience. They're hurting right now. But they were actually disrespecting the audience because they were feeding them a bunch of nonsense, giving them false hope that Trump could somehow win a second term.
And I think this is important today, Terry, because we're about to go through this again. We're about to go through another presidential election. What Fox does, how they frame the election, how they cover the results, how they tell their viewers the news - it matters enormously because tens of millions of people are essentially only existing in this alternative media universe, this MAGA media universe.
GROSS: So Jesse Watters replaced Tucker Carlson on the air. What is his show like? How does it compare to Tucker's show?
STELTER: I would say Watters is more of a mainline Republican. He's not a part of the so-called new right the way that Carlson is. He's not as isolationist, for example, when it comes to U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine. So in some ways, Watters is a little bit more of a - I hate to use the word mainstream because I think it's not an appropriate word for the Republican Party in 2023, but he is somewhat more mainstream than Carlson was. That said, Watters has never met a conspiracy theory that he didn't like. He routinely assails Democrats as the enemy. He barely even refers to Biden by his last name. Of course, he prefers Joe - right? - as an insult. So you have that kind of - what I think is a very extremist posture that's now just baked in and assumed to be the norm all across Fox.
GROSS: Brian Stelter, thank you so much for talking with us.
STELTER: Thanks so much.
GROSS: Brian Stelter's new book about Fox is called "Network Of Lies." After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review the new series "The Curse," starring Emma Stone and the series' co-creators, Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie. This is FRESH AIR.
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