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BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I'm Bob Garfield.
And this is Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity.
SEAN HANNITY: Tonight we have a major crisis in this country. Does America have equal justice under the law? It appears tonight the answer is no.
BOB GARFIELD: No, but probably not in the way you’re thinking.
SEAN HANNITY: There’s one justice system for the Clintons, the left liberals and all their cronies, and another one for everyone else in America.
BOB GARFIELD: To bolster its premise that President Trump is being persecuted while the true villains run amok, Fox spent the week proffering misdirection, misrepresentations and, ultimately, dangerous provocations that began as soon as word of the indictments broke. Its first instinct was not to cover the breaking news but to bring on Trump’s mistress of alternative facts to change the subject. Here, with news host Brett Baier is Kellyanne Conway.
KELLYANNE CONWAY: We were fed the steady diet of Russia, Russia, Russia, collusion, collusion, a complete hoax, as the President has said. Then you turn it around now and you realize that you have the Clinton campaign and the DNC working with a foreign national, Mr. Steele.
BOB GARFIELD: Foreign national? Does she mean the ex-spy who was hired by the Democrats to do opposition research on Trump? Yes, Christopher Steele is British. And Russia involved, somehow? Yes, his dossier was about the Kremlin’s efforts to influence Trump. But she makes it all sound so sinister, which is the art of manufacturing doubt. The same goes for the constant Fox chatter about the Uranium One deal, a purchase by a Russian firm of a Canadian company’s mainly Kazakh natural resources. Some of the principals were big Clinton foundation donors, so Hannity spent the weekend treating it as a smoking gatling gun of Democrats’ collusion with Putin.
SEAN HANNITY: In 2009, our government, including then-Attorney General Eric Holder, the FBI director at the time, Robert Mueller and then District Attorney Rod Rosenstein, they all knew that Russia and Vladimir Putin were trying to corner the uranium market right here in America.
BOB GARFIELD: No, as has been widely reported, the US uranium involved represented about 1/28th of one percent of world production. It is not allowed for export without a permit and the deal was unanimously approved by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States. Clinton’s State Department was, indeed, on that committee but it was headed by the secretary of the treasury, and hers was one vote of nine.
When Fox did address the Mueller indictments, it attempted to undercut every aspect of the investigation, beginning with the very lawfulness of its scope.
SEAN HANNITY: Keep in mind that today’s indictment never mentions Donald Trump’s presidential campaign or the 2016 election. It only mentions Russia in passing, even though Russian meddling was the pretax for this investigation, in the first place.
BOB GARFIELD: Also keep in mind that this is just the beginning but, beyond that, as Tucker Carlson well knows, the law and the specific Justice Department brief both unequivocally permit Mueller’s team to pursue any illegality by principals in the investigation uncovered by the investigation.
As we've previously observed on this show, Fox voices aren’t merely passing along White House talking points, they're offering talking points to their biggest fan, Trump, and what they’re offering takes their partisan activism into a new dimension. Here's former prosecutor and Fox host Jeanine Pirro.
JEANINE PIRRO: His role as head of the FBI during the uranium deal and the Russian extortion case, his friendship with Jim Comey demand his firing.
BOB GARFIELD: The “fire Mueller” advice, by the way, was remarkably similar to an editorial the same week in the Wall Street Journal, which, like Fox, is controlled by media baron Rupert Murdoch. Sean Hannity worries about subverting the rule of law. He should. His organization is actively attempting to undermine a Justice Department investigation into the previously secret contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian figures that may or may not have encouraged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
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Misleading its audience with debunked conspiracy theories is just Fox being Fox but suborning the obstruction of justice crosses the Rubicon. It is is dishonest in a way that should leave us disgusted. It is antidemocratic in a way that should make us very scared.
Rupert Murdoch and his empire have a lot of fish to fry at the moment. They're still seeking approval from UK regulators for increasing their stake in Sky TV. They're dealing with an investigation into possible fraud for hiding sexual harassment hush money payments from their own shareholders. And their pet president of the United States is under siege. Yet, even with the ascension of Murdoch's relatively apolitical sons into top management roles, Murdoch media properties are hardly laying low.
Sarah Ellison is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and author of War at the Wall Street Journal. Sarah, welcome to the show.
SARAH ELLISON: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: I remember about, oh, I don’t know, 10 years ago when the Wall Street Journal was as archconservative a bastion of political thought as existed. Now, compared to the Breitbarts and the Daily Callers and Infowars of the world, it's, I hesitate to say, moderate but it's no longer towards the fringe, huh?
SARAH ELLISON: Yes. I mean, I think that that is generally the case, certainly compared to a Breitbart or an Infowars. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page always had a very staunch free market position, and it was something that people really, you know, used to be sort of shocked by, but it's very much moved into the mainstream, given the current political climate.
BOB GARFIELD: And then there’s Fox News Channel, which listeners have just heard me describe not only as a propaganda organ for the White House but having entered some new and frightening dimension. But it has not entered it alone. All of a sudden, in calling for the firing of Robert Mueller, it has joined arms with the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and I wonder if this has to do with something that's happening not in the newsrooms but in the executive suite, namely with Rupert Murdoch, himself.
SARAH ELLISON: Well, it’s hard not to draw that conclusion when you look at the common denominator of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Neither organization would say that they take their marching orders from Rupert Murdoch, but Rupert Murdoch is running Fox News’ newsroom. Roger Ailes passed away and Rupert went in very directly and took a very enthusiastic place at the top of that news organization.
And what's interesting about Murdoch is that he has looked for decades at a way to get in with the sitting American president. He’s done that in other countries. He certainly did that with David Cameron. He did that with Tony Blair. He's never gotten the ear of a president the way that he has with Donald Trump. And he has sort of traded his prized possession, in the way he always describes himself, as a newsman, for a position that is very much a businessman, looking out for his own business interests through this friendship with Donald Trump. He's constantly advising him. They’re on the phone multiple times a week. And he is not just talking about the Mueller investigation but through his news outlets he can influence things like who's gonna be the Fed chair, what are people gonna think about the tax policy? There are all sorts of small stories and not-so- small stories that he has the opportunity to influence through his, through his news outlets and through his behind-the-scenes conversations with Donald Trump.
BOB GARFIELD: It kind of reminds me of that scene in Godfather, Part II, where Hyman Roth is talking about working hand-in-glove with the Cuban dictator, for the first time, a partnership with a sovereign government who were bigger than General Motors, he said. But I myself -- I’m not sure if you're aware of this -- am not a business tycoon but, if I were Rupert Murdoch at this point, considering how much he is depending on British regulators to approve this Sky TV deal that he's been working on for something like, is it 20 years, and considering his potential legal exposure in the Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly hush money payments, the last thing I would do is start calling for the firing of a special counsel, the last thing I’d do! What could he possibly be thinking?
SARAH ELLISON: With Murdoch, he's always been a major fan of being counterintuitive and going against the grain and, at the very least, that's what this is. I do think there is a risk to the Sky deal, which is incredibly important, for the health and future of the company that he founded and built up, for this to go through. And, despite what people believe, he doesn't call in opinions to the Wall Street Journal editorial page. I think that Roger Ailes, in fact, did do that at Fox News, and Rupert is less overt on that front. But I think that he's at greater risk in the Sky deal over the settlements with Bill O'Reilly and Roger Ailes because that involved possibly covering up and using company money to pay for these sexual harassment lawsuits.
But if you’re sitting in a British regulator’s seat, the last thing that you would want to see as a member of the British government or as a, as a regulator in that country is somebody who could use his outlets to call for your resignation or your ouster. And I think that, you know, I don't know exactly what he’s thinking, I can’t pretend to know what he's thinking, but it does seem like it's a risky stance.
BOB GARFIELD: Roger Ailes is deceased and the nominal bosses are now the sons, but Fox has not become a more moderate voice. On the contrary, it's become increasingly extreme in the past, let's say, nine months. This, you attribute to what?
SARAH ELLISON: I think that what Fox News normally found in previous administrations was that it always did better when it was in the opposition and it always historically worked that way. Now, we’re seeing such a bifurcation in the way people think about politics, is that they don't want to watch the news about a president that is not of their political ilk. They -- all they want to watch is something that absolutely confirms their political ideology. And so, Fox is really benefiting from Trump’s presidency and backing him so wholeheartedly because the people who are Trump’s base, all they want to hear is sort of good news about Donald Trump.
BOB GARFIELD: I think what you've described for Rupert Murdoch is a win-win. Murdoch has the benefit of having not only the personal ear of the president of the United States but a president who is very much in his debt. And if Trump loses, well, then Fox News Channel would conceivably be the voice of the revolution and have an even more rabid following, presuming the Murdoch boys don't intervene.
SARAH ELLISON: Well, I think that there’s one issue with that plan in that it -- it's that the media environment and the conservative media ecosphere has shifted so much since Fox News was founded, and not only is there Fox News but there's Breitbart, there's Infowars, there’s the Sinclair Broadcasting Company that is possibly going to be a part of Tribune. And so, the fissure in the Republican Party is absolutely mimicked by that same kind of division in conservative media. And so, Fox News is, by no means, guaranteed a place in the conservative revolution. In fact, it is the place that could be upended.
To answer your question about what would happen if James and Lachlan Murdoch actually took over, they've already made a real decision to not change the market position of Fox News. The -- Fox News makes a billion and a half dollars in profit every year for them. It is absolutely something that they cannot mess up. And the problem is that it historically has been a place that has required a true believer to run it. And so, I think that the danger is that even if they don't try to, they will inevitably change it.
BOB GARFIELD: Sarah, thank you very much.
SARAH ELLISON: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Sarah Ellison is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and author of War at the Wall Street Journal.