For years, Fox News has worked to undermine and discredit the work of other news organizations that have reported damning details about President Trump and his administration. But on Friday, something unusual happened: The network turned a skeptical eye toward reporting from its own correspondent.
After spending much of the day bashing The Atlantic for Jeffrey Goldberg's jarring report which said Trump had disparaged military members who died in service to the country, Fox News itself confirmed key aspects of it. In a lengthy Twitter thread, correspondent Jennifer Griffin said she had confirmed Trump disparaged veterans; didn't want to honor the dead at the Aisne-Marne Cemetery; and did not want to lower flags after the death of John McCain.
An actual news organization would aggressively tout that it had matched much of the reporting at the center of the biggest news story of the day — especially given that Fox rarely delivers on original reporting of its own. And it would have mattered because Fox viewers are so often shielded from the truth. But Fox didn't proudly hold up Griffin's reporting. Instead, it acted as if it were ashamed and inconvenienced by it.
Griffin delivered her report in the 3pm hour. But during "The Five," pro-Trump hosts Jesse Watters and Greg Gutfeld moved to discredit The Atlantic's reporting — the same reporting that Griffin had confirmed key aspects of. Gutfeld called it a "hoax" and said "there are no sources" and that it had "already been debunked."
Quite the opposite, Gutfeld, your own network had just confirmed it!
Alright, let's put Gutfeld in with his fellow pro-Trump propagandists. Surely Fox's "straight news" anchors — the ones who are marketed as delivering hard-hitting news — forcefully showcased their colleague's reporting? Surely the network didn't bend the news toward Trump, given that its own reporting indicated he actually disparaged the military members?
Nope, not the case.
Bret Baier, Fox News' chief political news anchor, aired a segment in which he ran this chyron on the lower-thirds of the screen: "'FAKE NEWS': TRUMP DENIES STORY HE CALLED DEAD TROOPS 'LOSERS.'" Baier let John Roberts, who had relied on anonymous sources to try to pour cold water on The Atlantic's article earlier in the day, deliver a report casting doubt on it. And then he presented Griffin's reporting. Apparently unable to tell viewers whether Griffin's reporting was accurate, Baier concluded the segment by saying, "Thought we'd lay all of that out for you to make a decision."
Later in the hour, the show ran another chyron, this time with a notable omission: "QUESTIONABLE COMMENTS: ATLANTIC STORY ALLEGES TRUMP REMARKS ON SERVICE MEMBERS." Why not note Fox had reporting indicating this as well?
"It just comes down to a he-said, she said"
Things didn't improve when anchor Jon Scott, filling in for Martha MacCallum, covered the story in the 7pm hour. Scott interviewed Pete Buttigieg and repeatedly aimed at casting doubt on The Atlantic's reporting. Scott emphasized the denials from Trump flacks and claimed to Buttigieg, "It just comes down to a he-said, she said."
Perhaps you want to give Scott the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was just playing Devil's advocate as a journalist? You would have maybe been able to make that argument, but later in the hour, when Trump communications director Tim Murtaugh appeared on the program and bashed The Atlantic's reporting as "fake," Scott stood idly by and didn't challenge him. It was stunning to watch: the Fox News anchor pushed back on a guest making arguments aligned with his network's own reporting, then let another guest trash that reporting without challenging him at all.
Instead of leading its homepage with Griffin's reporting, which confirmed many of the key aspects of The Atlantic's reporting, what did the network do? It led with Trump's denial. The splash headline quoted Trump saying, "IT'S A HOAX." And the main headline read, "Trump denies Atlantic report he belittled military in canceled trip amid conflicting accounts."
Jon Passantino, who now works at CNN, tweeted: "I used to manage the Fox News dot com homepage. This would be an extraordinary and unusual decision to run this denial as the top story despite having confirmed key details of the reporting..."
Trump calls for Griffin's firing
In a late-night Friday tweet, Trump attacked Griffin and claimed her reporting had been "refuted by many witnesses." The President then went further, saying, "Jennifer Griffin should be fired for this kind of reporting." He added that he believed Fox News is "gone."
Why Fox does what it does
Brian Stelter writes: "From the reporting in my new book 'HOAX,' I think this passage from Page 18 is most applicable to Friday's news. I wrote that anchors and commentators felt 'excruciating pressure to please the Fox base -- and avoid their wrath.' This pressure comes, in part, from the daily ratings reports... The Nielsens are like 'an invisible hand,' one Fox veteran said, pushing everyone in a rightward direction. So banners and segments and bookings are all influenced by the fear that viewers will turn the TV off..."
About the word "Hoax"
Brian Stelter writes: "Trump said the word 'hoax' five times in 15 seconds at Friday's press briefing. He said Goldberg's story was a 'hoax' just like 'Russia-Russia-Russia was a hoax.' By doing so, he basically explained the title of my aforementioned book. At this point, his copious claims about hoaxes add up to... a hoax! He has been using the word more and more, every year, accusing his opponents of malice. The word is a building block in his permanent campaign of disbelief, as I wrote in this NYT op-ed..."
"Hoax is a potent word, in being an angry and mean one," the linguist John McWhorter told Stelter. It "carries an air of accusation, of transgression." McWhorter called it "the quintessence of Trumpian self-expression..."