BOB GARFIELD: Despite the founding slogan, the Fox News Channel's most visible prime time pundits were never exactly balanced or fair. And even less so since the channel's mastermind exited stage right. Consider two recent episodes. First, the onstage appearances of Fox hosts Jeanine Pirro and Sean Hannity at a Trump political rally.
SEAN HANNITY: Four and a half million new American jobs, 4.3 million Americans off food stamps, four million Americans out of poverty and we're not dropping cash loads, cargo planes of cash to Iranian mullahs that chant death to america. Mr. President, thank you. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: And this week, embarrassment number two.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Here to help is in what's going on with the federal government, we've got the EPA administrator Scott Pruitt.
SCOTT PRUITT: Good morning. Great new studio, first time I've been in your new studio.
BOB GARFIELD: E-mails obtained by The Sierra Club revealed that the president's favorite morning show Fox and Friends handed former EPA chief Scott Prewett control over topics questions, and even in one case, script approval in advance of his interviews.
SCOTT PRUITT: So we're doing, I think, a really good job as a country trying to advance innovation and technology to reduce our CO2.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: You think that people would be happy with that, but many in Hollywood and many on the left aren't including one Stevie Wonder who at a telethon--[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Sarah Ellison covers media and politics for The Washington Post. She's been following the fallout–or the lack of fallout. Sarah, welcome back to OTM.
SARAH ELLISON: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Anyone fired or even suspended?
SARAH ELLISON: No. No one's been fired. As far as we know, no one has been suspended. Fox News said that it had spoken to Sean Hannity about his campaign appearance. A spokesperson said that the employee in charge had been disciplined for sending questions in advance to Scott Pruitt. But that's all we know.
BOB GARFIELD: Now at other news organizations, heads would have rolled. So if the discipline is apparently so modest, you know, why bother even pretending?
SARAH ELLISON: There are elements of Fox News for sure that are very much more by the book than what Sean Hannity does or then what Fox and Friends does. Fox is sort of finding its way post Ailes. And it's proven to be more difficult than they may have anticipated, not least because you also have to add in the factor of Donald Trump.
BOB GARFIELD: Long before Trump, Fox News has been populist and conservative. In cahoots with the Republican Party, sharing daily talking points and so forth. But these new episodes seem maybe to be taking the channel into a whole other dimension of partisanship and political activism. Or aren't they?
SARAH ELLISON: Well, Roger Ailes was very clear about the way that he wanted to operate and for a long time he was a kingmaker in the Republican Party. He would sort of create stars in that party that were media figures as much as they were political figures. What's different is that that influence and that weight has really shifted into the White House. The person who has sort of taken the place of the most powerful person at that network is Sean Hannity. I interviewed Bret Baier, who is one of the more straight and narrow of their personalities. He does one of their news programs and he even said very openly that he knows that the president is watching his show. So it's not just the opinion programming. I don't think we have ever seen a sitting politician that is so influenced by one particular outlet.
BOB GARFIELD: Well there's another thing as well. A couple of years ago, in the wake of Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly getting the heave ho over their sexual predations, they were soon followed out of the door by Ailes number two, Bill Shine. Who was alleged to have covered up the whole culture of creepy conduct at Fox.
SARAH ELLISON: Or at least ignored it. Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: And now he's Trump's deputy communications director. And his predecessor Hope Hicks is taking the top PR job at Fox. Have either of them really even left their previous jobs?
SARAH ELLISON: You know, it's a small small world. For someone like Bill Shine, I think he knows the similarities between his old job and his new job. He's worked for egomaniac, mercurial, difficult accused sexual harasser. Now he's working for a different one. In some ways, he's just swapped out the names for a very similar type of situation. I think Hope Hicks comes with great reputation among some journalists. She doesn't lie to people but you have to imagine would she have been able to get this particular job if she had just worked for the Trump organization versus in the White House with a sitting president who has the kind of relationship that he does with a lot of personalities at Fox News. And I think that she's going to be playing go between in a way that she had never really imagined.
BOB GARFIELD: Ailes had never wanted the GOP to direct Fox's coverage. As you wrote earlier this month, Ailes quote 'wanted to run the GOP.'.
SARAH ELLISON: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: Now. there was some thought that, with his departure and with Rupert Murdoch's sons and successors taking over the operation, some of the explicit collaboration would be rolled back and along with it maybe some conspiracy mongering and hate speech. But no such luck. This was author Ken Auletta while speaking at a live event with Lachlan Murdoch.
KEN AULETTA: But are you embarrassed by what they do?
LACHLAN MURDOCH: No. I'm not embarrassed by what they do at all. You have to understand that Fox News is the only mass media company in America with strong conservative opinion in prime time. It's the only one. And I, frankly feel, in this country, we all have to be more tolerant of each other's views. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Tolerance? Seriously? That's got to just be a PR gloss to protect the goose that lays the golden egg.
SARAH ELLISON: Well, you've identified something which is the difficult position that the Murdock's all find themselves in. Lachlan Murdoch's brother, James Murdoch, is leaving the company. He was the one who was most at odds with Fox's opinion hosts. But ever since James and Lachlan Murdoch took over the company from their father, who was still alive and still plays a major role, they have wanted to sort of reform the place but not change its key market position which is extraordinarily profitable. They are not going to upset the apple cart. The one thing you have to remember about the Murdoch sons is that as much as this political moment is a surprise to them, running this company, even though it's going to be a much smaller company because of the sale of most of the company to Disney, is something that they have been prepared for their entire lives.
BOB GARFIELD: You referred earlier to the news shows with the likes of Brett Baier and Shepard Smith which have long been used to support Fox's claim to be a real journalistic operation. I'd call it the sheep's clothing. On the other hand, Fox was the first news organization after Jim Acosta of CNN lost his press pass to the White House to file an ambitious brief in support of CNN against the White House.
SARAH ELLISON: There are real journalists absolutely who work at Fox News and what everybody wants to know who's sitting in the chair like yours is like how can they continue to work there? This is so embarrassing. It's state TV. People just say I'll do what I've been doing for 20 years at Fox News, keep my eye on my own job. But certainly after someone like Hannity jumps on stage with the president and is essentially campaigning for him, it becomes all the more important for that news organization to act like a news organization for all kinds of reasons–to protect your sources, to preserve the confidentiality of your source relationships. That's key for anyone who is in this business even nominally. And so yes, there are real journalists there but it is also very important for Fox News to be seen as a news organization.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about one more thing that took place this week and that was the debut of Fox Nation, the streaming app for Fox superfans.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: What happens when you raise fuel taxes to pay for your environmental whelms? Your country burns in protest?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Our dog is an Australian shepherd, Harley. And he is amazing with a frisbee. So he has a great big yard out here and he and the vice president come out playing Frisbee at least once a day.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A lot of times you have infighting and families. We've been so fortunate we've never had that. You know, Don's my best friend in the world. Ivanka is my best friend. I mean, we are immensely close as a family which is why we always operated very well.
PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP: This is the Ivanka. Who is doing a tremendous job. Doing alright? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: I have so many questions about what the strategy is here. You know, I have some guesses but I wonder what you think.
SARAH ELLISON: Well, these early streaming programs are always a bit of a disaster when they first come on the market, they're sort of embarrassing. And this is no exception. But the people whose opinion Fox cares about are not the media writers in New York. It's the people who are actually going to sign up for this thing. This thing I think is, let's just say euphemistically, finding its way. But I do think that what this streaming service will help people really see and define is the taste of the super fan of Fox News. And that could be an interesting mirror for people to look in.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Sarah thank you very much.
SARAH ELLISON: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Sarah Ellison covers media and politics for The Washington Post.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, trying to drive home reality by way of satire.
BOB GARFIELD: It's a perilous road. This is On the Media.