Confessions of a ‘Shocked and Angry’ ‘Advocate for Factual Journalism’

REVIEW: 'Hoax' By Brian Stelter, Sometimes Referred to as 'Humpty Dumpty'

• September 6, 2020 5:00 am


There is an interesting story to be told about Fox News in the age of Donald Trump. But in his recently published book, Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth, cable news personality Brian Stelter only tells the tabloid version.

As noted in the New York Times, Hoax relies on "gratuitous gossip" and "name calling" to deliver an "easy-to-digest but unnuanced conclusion that would play well on cable news." Stelter invites his target readers—college-educated white liberals who probably would've been more excited about a Warren-Buttigieg ticket but can't wait to vote for Biden because the future of our country is at stake—to gorge themselves on righteous anger, the most profitable emotion.

The readers already knew they hated Fox News, even before they started hating Trump. They just never knew how much—until now. Nearly two decades have passed since the release of the Media Matters documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism. The white liberals are hungry for new, long-form reasons to be mad. Hoax delivers, with chapter subheads so cheeky and concise they could have only been written by a man who is constantly surrounded by CNN chyrons: "Bats—t crazy," "Profit machine," Anti-journalism," "Democracy at Risk," "Prostitutes."

The book is somewhat entertaining, but I'm not the target reader. Not everyone will be able to stomach 300-plus pages from an author who describes himself as a "shocked and angry … advocate for factual journalism" and invokes the Society of Professional Journalists' ethical code in a paragraph lamenting "how many Fox New devotees died from the [corona]virus." ("No one will ever be able to say, with absolute certainty," Stelter concedes.)

To his credit, the author knows how to keep his intended audience hooked. Juicy tidbits about how Don. Jr.'s new girlfriend "knew how to use sex to get ahead," according to an unnamed "friend." Pithy takedowns of Fox News hosts, such as Jessie Waters and his "s—t-eating, Trump-loving grin." Stelter also EVISCERATES the president throughout. "One of [Sean] Hannity's confidants said the president treated him like Melania, like a wife in a sexless marriage," Stelter writes, cheekily, in his unmistakable former-media-gossip-blogger prose. "Arguably he treated Hannity better than he did the First Lady."

Attacking Trump and Fox is an easy way to sell books and boost ratings. More importantly, it allows professional journalists (and other celebrities) to position themselves as righteous defenders of truth and decency. To the extent that mainstream networks are biased, Stelter writes, it's because they embrace "liberal values" and a "dedication to truth," subjects he frequently discusses with factual-journalism icon Dan Rather on his show Reliable Sources. This, for want of a better phrase, is a steaming pile of covfefe.

In our increasingly polarized political environment, one of the few issues that still unites the country is distrust of, if not outright disdain for, the media. In a recent Pew survey, a plurality of Americans said the news media "are not professional," "are too critical of America," and "hurt democracy." An outright majority said professional journalists "don't care about the people they report on."

The success of Fox News is driven in no small part by the sneering condescension of these self-anointed truth warriors. Like CNN, for example—whose top White House reporter safeguards democracy by shouting obnoxious questions and makes money writing books about how it's a "dangerous time to tell the truth in America." Whose legal department settled with a random teenager the network publicly maligned for wearing a MAGA hat at a pro-life march. Whose favorite pundit was a grifter attorney who laundered false allegations on air before being convicted of fraud. Whose Democratic scion news anchor conducts goofy prop-assisted interviews with his Democratic scion brother, the governor of a state with a worst-in-the-nation coronavirus death toll on par with Italy's.

The New York Times criticized Stelter for a lack of curiosity when it comes to understanding Fox News viewers, whom he portrays as "gullible members of an extremist cult." In fairness, most professional journalists aren't interested in understanding Fox News viewers; some might not be capable of it. Fox "is an addictive substance," Stelter asserts, without evidence. It's "an identity, almost a way of life."

He's not wrong. Politics in the Trump era, and the perpetual outrage that defines it, is addicting. It defines us as individuals and informs the way we live our lives. We're all junkies. That explains how CNN, for example, earned record profits in 2016 thanks to its nonstop Trump coverage. They no longer carry his rallies in full, but the network remains obsessed—and primed for outrage.

Every tweet is BREAKING NEWS. Stelter ran an entire segment on presidential typos and recently interviewed a Yale professor (and undisclosed Democratic donor) who provided "expert" analysis on Trump's fascism—a frequent topic on a show ostensibly dedicated to "how journalists do their jobs." During one 2019 segment, for example, Stelter nodded along as a Duke University psychiatrist mused that Trump "may be responsible for many more million deaths" than Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong. Because the truth is all that matters.

Even if Stelter's critiques of Fox News in the Trump era are valid, or even inarguable, that doesn't make the CNN host a "reliable source" on the matter. Far from it. To suggest otherwise would be…

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a hoax.

Published under: Book reviews, Brian Stelter, CNN, Fox News