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It is impossible to tell the story of President Trump’s rise to power without understanding his relationship with Fox News. Together they form one of modern America’s most defining duos, argues CNN’s chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter, who documents their symbiotic dance in his new book, Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.

Through countless interviews with sources at various levels of power inside Fox, Stelter reveals how the wildly popular cable channel has subordinated journalistic integrity to President Trump’s political interests, while setting the broader daily agenda for his administration. “Every day’s a new episode,” Stelter told Mother Jones Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery during a recent livestream hosted by the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. “Certainly Fox programs his presidency that way.”

Stelter argues there is no Trump without Fox. Trump entered the national political arena via a weekly call-in segment on Fox & Friends, during which he pioneered the racist birther lie; he regularly regurgitates talking points from Fox News’ The Five; he is emboldened by—and wed to—positive coverage from anchors like Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, and Tucker Carlson, whose shows reach millions every night; and Hannity is a close adviser who even stumped for the president at a rally in Missouri.  

“We don’t feel we have power to fact-check Trump,” Stelter recounted being told by one Fox journalist. “We feel like we’re being squeezed out by propaganda.”

The title of Stelter’s book was inspired by back-to-back uses of the word “hoax” by Trump and Hannity to describe the emerging coronavirus crisis in the United States. Both Trump and Fox downplayed the threat at the outset, a deadly error for which they face dual culpability (but zero accountability from Fox brass)—a travesty made all the more apparent following the recent release of Bob Woodward’s tapes. 

For a look inside the Fox-Trump feedback loop that has distorted the meaning of truth and threatened American democracy, read the edited transcript of Jeffery’s interview with Stelter below, or listen to their conversation on this episode of the Mother Jones Podcast:

Listen to the latest episode of the Mother Jones Podcast: Subscribe using Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app.

You say that Hoax is essentially about the Foxification of Trump and the Trumpification of Fox. Who leads this dance, the president or the network?

It’s hard to know where Trump ends and where Fox begins, and vice versa. But I think this is largely Fox-driven, meaning Fox sets the agenda, Fox comes up with the day’s narrative, and the president reacts to that. There are hundreds of examples of him reacting to what he sees on Fox & Friends in the morning or cheering for something Sean Hannity says at night. Those are mostly visible on his Twitter feed, right? A lot of this is out in the public record.

But in addition to that, I had many sources at Fox talk to me about the network’s influence behind the scenes, and what they hear internally about Trump’s obsession with the network. Some people are proud of it, but many other people are horrified. And even top executives at Fox said to me in confidence, “We wish he’d watch less TV. We wish he would turn the channel.” Which is a wild thing to hear someone say.

In the book, you’re on fire about his reaction to COVID and how that, too, was shaped by Fox.

That is why the book is called Hoax. It would have been named Wingmen: Sean Hannity and others at Fox are Trump’s wingmen. But when the pandemic broke everything, and Trump used the word “hoax” once, and Sean Hannity used the word once, it was pretty clear that this is the most haunting example yet of how the president’s unreality—and Fox’s unreality—has life and death consequences.

I am glad that Hoax came out a couple weeks before Bob Woodward’s book. We both have these one word titles. His is Rage, mine is Hoax. They do make for a great pairing, and I’m not saying that as a sales pitch! We’ve heard this new information from Trump himself, from inside the White House. When you pair that with what Fox was saying at the time and what he was hearing from Fox, you get a really clear understanding of why the country was so misled, why there was so much downplaying of the disease in February and March. Partly Trump’s fault, partly Fox’s fault. Trump had the biggest platform in the country, and Fox had the biggest platform on cable. Now we have these clips of Trump talking in early February about the disease in a much more serious way than he was talking on Fox. Clara, I think we need to hear from the people at Fox about this, Sean Hannity and others, who were on the phone with Trump being misled in front of millions of viewers.

The central revelation of Bob Woodward’s book was that, in late-ish February, Trump was taking the coronavirus seriously. He knew how deadly it was, knew that it was aerosolized, and knew all the things that he would deny for months. Would your supposition be that he started there and was talked into a more treacherous place by Fox vis-à-vis COVID response? Or is it just that he can’t keep something in his head for very long?

“Every day’s a new show, every day’s a new episode… Certainly Fox programs his presidency that way.”

Part of it is that every day’s a new show, every day’s a new episode. He seems to program it that way. Certainly Fox programs his presidency that way. I quote Trump in the epigraph of the book saying, “It will go away. Just stay calm, it will go away.” That was March 10th, when there were thousands of people sick already in Washington State, and California, and New York. And he was in denial about that publicly. So, you’re right, I think there are still some unanswered questions. Either way, what we know is that February was a lost month, that Trump was behind the curve in a way that was dangerous, and that Fox was behind the curve in a way that was dangerous. It is, sadly, the best example of how this Fox-Trump feedback loop can have dangerous consequences.

Do you imagine that, when you contemplate that shift in his rhetoric, it’s about him wanting to look good or a shifting idea of reality? He’s now saying he didn’t want people to panic, but that doesn’t really square with your reporting on his demeanor about COVID and other issues.

I think it’s quite possible Trump is being told how dangerous this disease is, and then he decides to instead play to his base by firing individuals that testified against him in the Ukraine scheme and by cheering on Roger Stone. That was what mid-February was about. It was about this post-impeachment revenge tour.

You know, by the way, I’m here at CNN in New York. I’m in my office, where I rarely am these days because of the pandemic, and the lights have turned off because nobody’s in the building. So the automatic light sensors have decided that I’m in the dark. I mean, what a metaphor.

This gets us to another question that kind of bubbled up in media Twitter today. People were very angry that Bob Woodward knew this back in February and did not report it. What do you think the journalistic ethics are about knowing things—and especially life-and-death issues—and keeping them from the public for so long?

I’m still chewing on this. But I think Woodward’s defense is notable. He just shared it with the Associated Press. He said, “Yeah, I had these quotes from Trump in February but I didn’t know how real they were. I didn’t know if they checked out. I didn’t know if he was exaggerating. I wanted to know if he was really told this by his aides.” And it wasn’t until May, he says, that he had confidence in the information. By that point he said his goal was just to get this book out as fast as possible. So, putting myself into Woodward’s head for a moment: If Woodward’s working on this over the summer and he knows it’s going to come out in September, I’m sure that in his mind that feels like a really fast turnaround, and absolutely a responsible thing to do. But I can understand why there were folks on the outside, looking at this, saying, “If he knew in February, why didn’t he tell us by March?” Would anything have changed? Would there have been a consequence? Do you think there would have been a consequence if these quotes had come out, let’s say, in May? I’m happy to be wrong.

I think it’s impossible to know. But notably that would be right when states were deciding to open up, as we now know, too quickly, and there was this rush to appease the anti-mask folks and the demonstrators in Michigan. We don’t have a time machine, but it could have.

I suppose I am more personally disturbed by what Trump what was saying publicly at that time, in February, in March, contradicting health officials, showing up at events without any protection or social distancing, almost gleefully rejecting the best practices and advice given him by his government. And that was all in front of our eyes. So, I guess, count me as a skeptic that knowing what he was saying privately would have changed minds or would have made a big difference.

Let’s talk about Fox and that dynamic. It seems like a central premise in the book is that there was a paradigm shift within Fox in 2016, 2017, where they went from being a, let’s put it nicely, super feisty partisan operation to full-blown disinformation enterprise. Was there a sort of “aha!” moment when you realized there had been that kind of switch?

Well, first of all, I bet that you slightly disagree with my portrayal of the first 20 years of Fox News, where I say it was conservative but not usually conspiratorial. Glenn Beck and others were pretty outrageous and extremely conspiratorial in the pre-Trump years. I don’t mean to totally gloss over some of the nuttiness that was airing on Fox pre-Trump, but I do see a distinction between those years and the Trump years. Partly because Roger Ailes was in charge, partly because nobody was as addicted to Fox as Trump is now. And partly because there weren’t these perverse structures to appeal to Trump in the way that there are now. Because Bush wasn’t hanging on every word that Bill O’Reilly said, O’Reilly wasn’t trying to program his show for George W. Bush, and certainly Keith Olbermann on MSNBC wasn’t programming for Barack Obama. That’s one of the key differences now in the de-evolution of Fox.

You anticipated my critique, which is that they were indulging in vituperative white grievance politics all throughout the Obama era, and they did carry a lot of water and misinformation about WMD. So, to your mind, the switch is that the politicians were more directly plugged in to the almost hourly messaging from Fox hosts?

I think that is one of the big differences. I think another difference is that Ailes wasn’t there to, in some ways, control the content. Look, we’re going to talk about Ailes and we’re going to acknowledge that he was a sexual predator and a person who abused his power. He did, however, reign in his talent when necessary. For example, on Birtharism. Ailes was a Birther, but didn’t let his talent go full birther. I think another difference is the right wing has changed, what the audience wants has changed, there’s even less interest in news than there might have been 10 years ago, and there are fewer people at Fox providing that news.

Do you think there is, or has been, an entity equal to Fox on the left in willingness to warp the truth, as well as at least some measure of market share?

I don’t see anything like it. I think this is an example of asymmetric lying. Trump lies a whole lot more than Joe Biden or any other Democratic politician. There’s asymmetric lying going on and that’s true in the media as well.

And one of the reasons I ask is because, in 2009, Obama called out Fox for being a misinformation machine, pretty pointedly for Obama in particular. How does that look in retrospect?

I was just looking at my story about this from 2009. I wrote, “Attacking the news media is a time-honored White House tactic, but to an unusual degree the Obama administration’s narrowed its sights to one specific outlet, the Fox News Channel, calling it part of the political opposition.” I said that both sides see benefits in this feud, which was definitely true at the time. I think, in 2009, that story holds up because we had never seen a president like Trump come along and try to destroy outlets he didn’t like. Now, in retrospect, what the Obama aides were saying about Fox was so gentle. It was so polite compared to the way Trump talks about channels and outlets he doesn’t like. Pre-2016, it was disturbing to a lot of White House reporters to see Fox being singled out by the administration. In retrospect, that was the calm before the storm.

Now they’ve all been booted to make way for OAN.

And I think what you’re getting at also is: Why is there this defense of Fox, when it is a political operation as well as a news operation? It is an outlet that produces journalism, but is really hostile to journalism. I had people at Fox describe it to me a place that’s about anti-journalism. An anchor there said to me, “You can produce journalism here, but what are the incentives? It’s easier and more rewarding just to talk about the news and to defend Trump and attack Biden.”

So, Trump is, I think we would all agree, an extremely lazy president. But he has put in time studying cable news and Fox in particular. What were his insights?

In 2011, he gets a weekly call-in show on Fox & Friends, and I think that was ultimately more important to his election victory than The Apprentice. Fox & Friends taught him about the GOP. Taught him about what Fox’s priorities were. It taught him about what Fox viewers want, what they crave, what they like to hear. I think of it as almost a job interview.

He was usually on the phone, even though he was a few blocks away in Trump Tower and he could have walked over. He seems busy and important and hard to reach, powerful, mysterious. I don’t think any of this was that intentional by Trump, he just wanted publicity and air time.

Now he’s news and he’s calling in even more often. By then he knows what Fox wants.

I might jump up and down to turn the lights on. Is that okay?

Yeah, sure.

I’m going to wave my arms wildly and see if I can turn the sensors on. It’s going to be a little kooky. But, sorry, go ahead. It’s not working anyway.

So how did Trump graft himself onto that audience? Which came first, the cult of Trump, or the cult of Fox?

“Every move, every turn Fox makes over 24 years, is a turn to the right.”

Well, I think the Fox base was there first. What Fox News has become in 2020 is a conclusion of decades of right wing media and rhetoric against the rest of the media. In the ’90s it was about media bias. In the 2000s it was about media bias. Now, the rhetoric is so much more extreme. It’s about enemies of the people. The way I say it in Hoax is: every move, every turn Fox makes over 24 years, is a turn to the right.

Is there any evidence that these folks who are staying there, who are in that more straight news category, are providing a fig leaf? There was a really interesting example last week where a very good reporter on national security issues confirmed a big story about Trump calling the troops losers and suckers, and it may have made it on the air in other programs, but it mostly made it on the air because it was mentioned in an opinion show. So even though her reporting confirmed that story, if they’re not airing it, what difference does it make?

I think CNN might have talked about her reporting more than Fox talked about her reporting. And that’s at the heart of the problem. There’s nobody in a position of leadership at Fox who says, “Our reporter got a great tip. She confirmed a really important piece of information. This is the priority now. She’s going to on at 3, and at 5, and at 7, and at 9.” Instead, these shows are like fiefdoms and the producers and the stars, they want to please this Trump-loving audience. And I hate to say this word, but this word came up repeatedly in the reporting, from sources at Fox, who talk about it like a cult. In that environment, Jennifer Griffin’s reporting is something to be feared as opposed to reported and shared and spread. And that is incredibly demoralizing for the reporters inside Fox. That is why some of them leave, like Shep Smith and a number of others, have fled.

And for say Chris Wallace or Bret Baier, you report that they view it much like GOP senators who say they don’t read the tweets, they claim they don’t watch the other shows. How does that square with just existing at that network and the larger media ecosystem?

I think Chris Wallace is the exception to the rule. But the rule is very strict and very clear. The fact that there are a couple of exceptions just supports it further. He has a lot of autonomy. He’s on once a week, Sunday morning on Fox Broadcast, and then re-aired on Fox News. He’s a man with an island.

And nobody else really has that island. In fact, anchors at Fox said to me things like, “You know, we don’t have any power. We don’t feel we have power to fact check Trump. We feel like we’re being squeezed out by propaganda.”

In some says, people like Hannity, they’re not newsmen, they’re stop-the-news men. We’re getting more and more propaganda.

I’m curious what your analysis is of why the Murdochs either can’t or won’t or don’t step in? Is there just nothing in it for them? It’s minting them money, so what do they care?

That is essentially the explanation I was given several times. People would say it a little more gingerly. They would say things like, “Well, Lachlan Murdoch is a soccer dad at heart, he doesn’t care that much about Fox News. He’s not a religious Fox News viewer. He cares about the business. He cares about making deals. He wants to grow the empire and go off and buy startups.” That’s great, Lachlan, go do that, make sure someone’s watching the channel 24 hours a day, so they don’t hurt the viewers. Right?

But at the end of the day it is about that profit machine, it is about that focus on the bottom line instead of the content of the editorial. That came through loud and clear in my interviews.

What happens to Fox if Trump loses? The business model, at the moment, seems completely tied into him now.

“I think Fox is bigger than Trump at this point.”

I think Fox is bigger than Trump at this point. And, yes, he can go off and try to launch a channel, he can go off and have a Twitter fight with somebody if he loses reelection, but I think Fox is bigger than Trump. And for Fox’s business model, it’s better to be anti-Democrat than pro-Trump.

I can see that, but it seems like Trump’s fans are so devoted to him, and they may not abandon Fox, but it’s uncomfortable to put your whole faith into something that then falls apart one way or another.

What does December look like? What does February look like? Maybe it looks like this: Biden wins and the narrative is the “deep state won.” One of the things about Fox is, these prime time stars, they distill really complicated, nuanced things into these talking points, into these slogans: “This was a deep state plot.” It’ll be interesting to see how many people accept the results of the election and believe the results of the election. I don’t think people will wake up and say, “Trump who?” I don’t think there’s going to be that dismissal of him. If anything, I think the core Fox viewer will hold Trump more tightly, right? And turn to Trump Jr. as the future.

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What the 1918 flu pandemic can teach us about coronavirus

(CNN)At this point in the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 32 million infected and more than 980,000 dead worldwide, describing this time as "unprecedented" may sound like nails on a chalkboard.

This pandemic, however, actually isn't without precedent: The last time we dealt with a pandemic so mysterious, uncontained and far-reaching was in 1918, when influenza devastated populations around the globe. 1918: Nurses care for victims of an influenza epidemic outdoors amid canvas tents in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The 1918 flu killed 50 million to 100 million people through 1919. There are eerie parallels between the 1918 flu and the 2020 coronavirus pandemic: a disease with a startling range of symptoms for which there is little treatment, human behavior as a hindrance to public health and cluster outbreaks that have become widespread, to name a few.
    For 102 years, influenza scholars and infectious disease experts have attempted to educate the masses in hopes of preventing future pandemics. And yet, here we are. To be clear, the coronavirus at fault for the current pandemic isn't a flu virus. And yet the 1918 and 2020 pandemics share similarities in terms of their basis on a novel, formidable virus that took the world and every aspect of society by storm. To learn the lessons of the 1918 flu, the missteps we've taken since and our post-pandemic future, CNN spoke with three experts on the subject. Read MoreThe 1918 flu caused Halloween cancellations across the US. It could happen againThey are John M. Barry, author of "The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History"; Dr. Jeremy Brown, an emergency care physician and author of "Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History"; and Gina Kolata, a science and medicine reporter with The New York Times and author of "Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It." These conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.CNN: What are the lessons of the 1918 pandemic? John M. Barry: Number one, tell the truth. Number two, nonpharmaceutical interventions work. The Asian countries, New Zealand, Germany and Senegal have done an incredibly good job because of transparency. But we've demonstrated you can actually control the outbreak if you do the nonpharmaceutical interventions (social distancing and masks). In the United States we haven't done them. We haven't adhered to them; we've played with them. Dr. Jeremy Brown: There was a backlash against the wearing of masks in San Francisco in late 1918 and early 1919. People essentially were fed up. There was a group of libertarians who suggested that it was a breach of their rights and freedoms to be forced to wear masks, and actually ended up preventing the board of health there from renewing a mandate to wear masks. Young adults were more likely to die during the 1918 flu pandemic, in contrast to the current Covid-19 pandemic, in which the elderly face a higher risk of serious illness and death.What happened was another spike in San Francisco in influenza cases in early 1919, and they went back to wearing masks. The message is, perhaps, that things are not as novel as they might seem, and that human behavior in response to pandemics of this magnitude is actually fairly predictable.Gina Kolata: Even though we know exactly what the 1918 virus looks like, we still don't know why it was so deadly. And here we have the coronavirus, and we know so much more, and we still don't really know why it's so deadly or what it's doing. I think that's a very powerful lesson that you can think, "I know molecular biology, I know about viruses, I know how they replicate," and still there can be these diseases that you do not understand.CNN: Experts on 1918 and infectious diseases have stressed heeding history to prevent future pandemics. Where do you think we've gone wrong since the 1918 flu? Brown: We have to be very careful saying, "Well, it was obvious, do this, do that." But I think it was fairly clear that the next pandemic threat was going to be a virus and not a bacteria, fungus or parasite. Most people thought that it would be an influenza pandemic, and I was one of them. What I think we needed to spend more time on was actually considering that it could be influenza and other things. It doesn't really matter, because if we had put enough preplanning into how we would handle an influenza pandemic, we would also have in place a game plan for how we would handle a pandemic from another virus. Unfortunately, we know that funding for these things comes in waves. Funding money is allotted based on essentially what's going on today. There's very little attention paid to what may happen down the road, and we've become complacent with our belief that we have the ability to control everything. We're all subject to the great extremes of weather but also nature. Women wore cloth surgical-style masks to protect against influenza.Had we kept the pandemic planning front and center, then we would, I think, have been in a much, much better place. But each year that you fund pandemic planning, you're saying no to funding something else. When there is no pandemic on the horizon, it's very easy to say, "Why don't we take these many millions of dollars and put them into curing Alzheimer's disease?" CNN: How did the 1918 pandemic eventually end, and how do you think the current pandemic will subside? Brown: The 1918 influenza petered out toward the beginning of 1919. Today, the influenza viruses that circulate include a descendant of that initial 1918 H1N1 virus. So we are actually exposed to a descendant of that initial pandemic. Generally speaking, infectious disease ends when people run away from it until it goes away and when all those people who are exposed to it have died from it, so there is nobody else. And when other people who are exposed survive and achieve immunity, which gives you some protection. We've seen those three effects through history in 1918, and we will see some variant of that today. There's no doubt that we will see an end to Covid-19. The big question is, what will be the cost and when will that be? CNN: Given what you know about the 1918 flu, what are you particularly worried about right now? Barry: The thing that's most disturbing would be that we know the virus does damage to the heart and lungs, even if people have no symptoms whatsoever. It probably damages other organs even in people who have no symptoms. So, we don't know the long-term effects, whether that damage is going to heal and whether it will haunt them and affect their lives 10 or 25 years from now. A man receives a shave from a barber in an influenza mask during the ongoing pandemic in Chicago in 1918.Brown: I'm most worried about the selfishness of people and this thought that, "If I'm OK, that's all that matters." I think that the message we've seen is that people are selfish to a remarkable degree that I don't think we've seen before. The selfishness of people and their inability to have empathy for others who aren't like themselves is one of the very, very worrying aspects that the disease has highlighted. I think this is a deeply rooted part of American society. Kolata: I worry about society, employment, people who've lost everything and people who don't have enough to eat. I'm worried about the kids in school because remote learning does not work. And college kids who have to go to college remotely. People who just graduated can't get jobs. They're sort of like a lost generation when they should be starting their careers. I worry about people who are long haulers — they just sort of never recover. I worry about people who lose family members. CNN: Is there anything about the current pandemic that gives you hope? Barry: Trump is right about one thing: This virus won't disappear; it's going to be here forever. But I think eventually, people's immune systems will adjust to it with or without a vaccine. It probably won't be as dangerous in the future as it is now. At least there's a good chance of that. Brown: First of all, people seem to get back to normality very quickly. Now I think that's because infectious disease was such a common occurrence at the turn of the century — we had no vaccines against diphtheria, measles, hepatitis or meningitis, so waves of these diseases were very common in Europe and the United States. People have been dealing with infectious diseases in their lives for centuries. In 1918, they bounced back relatively quickly. Get CNN Healths weekly newsletter

    Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.

      With Covid-19, I think it remains an open question as to whether there will be an economic bounce back and, more importantly, an emotional bounce back — where we are reminded in ways that we've never been reminded before that we are subject to the whims of nature when it comes to diseases. Kolata: Societies have somehow come through, recovered and survived some pretty horrible pandemics in the past that were much worse than we're going through now. Now, at least, we have a chance of getting a vaccine that might actually stop this virus before it runs through the entire population and affects everybody that could be affected. So, I have some hope.

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