How Trump helps Fox & Friends set the media agenda

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

President Donald Trump often spends large chunks of his mornings tweeting along to recordings of the Fox News morning show Fox & Friends, a fun-house mirror of a program that serves up a ready stream of praise for the president and condemnations of his political foes. This unusual feedback loop leads to bizarre phenomena: The hosts often seem to be using their show to advise the president, Republican politicians try to pitch ideas to the president during on-air interviews, and Trump singles out the show for praise when confronted by more critical journalists. But because the president’s tweets are treated as breaking news by journalists at other outlets, the president’s superfan status and his tendency to comment on the show to his 40 million Twitter followers also gives Fox & Friends rare power to set the agenda for the rest of the press.

That’s what happened this morning. Fox & Friends devoted several segments to a story that the other cable news morning shows did not cover. But then Trump tweeted about the Fox & Friends segment. And within a few hours, CNN and MSNBC had both reported on his tweets, thrusting the Fox & Friends narrative into the mainstream media spotlight.

The Fox morning show devoted multiple segments this morning to the decision yesterday by two executives at the opposition research firm Fusion GPS to refuse to give testimony to a Senate committee. The company is reportedly trying to avoid being compelled to violate its clients’ guarantee of confidentiality by revealing who funded the production of a controversial dossier authored by a former British intelligence agent. While some portions of the dossier have reportedly been verified by U.S. intelligence officials, co-host Doocy described it as the “fake Trump dossier that helped kick start the FBI's Russia probe.” During the segment, Fox senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano said, “We all want to know the origins of this fake dossier. Did the FBI pay for it? There are reports out there that the FBI offered $50,000 for it.”

At 7:56 a.m. EST, Trump, who was apparently watching the segment and tweeting in response, highlighted the Fusion GPS decision to plead the Fifth and questioned whether the dossier may have been commissioned by the FBI, echoing Napolitano:

Trump’s repetition of a conspiracy theory that he is being victimized by the FBI is consistent with his efforts to undermine the federal investigation into his ties to Russia. There’s no evidence to support this; while the FBI reportedly did consider compensating the dossier’s author for further work on Russian interference with the election, there’s nothing to indicate that the bureau funded the original dossier, which was paid for by Republican and Democratic sources.

The White House’s failure to treat Napolitano’s claims with skepticism has previously had disastrous results. In March, then-press secretary Sean Spicer quoted from Napolitano's report that a British intelligence service had spied on Trump on President Obama’s behalf during a press briefing. This caused an international incident, with furious denials from the British, and led to Napolitano’s suspension from Fox.

By highlighting Napolitano’s latest claim on Twitter, Trump pushed the Fusion GPS story out of the right-wing media echo chamber and into the mainstream.

Fox & Friends’ MSNBC counterpart, Morning Joe, had not mentioned Fusion GPS on this morning’s broadcast. But at 8:58 a.m., the hosts brought up Trump’s tweet on the story. Mika Brzezinski portrayed it as “Trump’s latest attempt to change the conversation away from the four American soldiers killed overseas,” while co-host Joe Scarborough said the president had “finally show[ed] his hand” by “bashing American law enforcement officers who protect us.”

CNN also had not mentioned the story this morning, until a segment on the president’s tweet that ran in the 9 a.m. EST hour. “Amid all of this this morning, and there is a lot going around and swirling around this White House, the president chose to tweet about Russia,” CNN Newsroom anchor Poppy Harlow said before reading the tweet. “It's an extraordinary charge,” added co-anchor John Berman, “to suggest that the FBI was paying to put together a big giant dossier of negative information about him. I mean it’s, he says it in passing right there, but that really jumps out at you. That’s not the kind of thing you normally see, the president accusing the FBI of coming after him.”

Within a few hours, The Associated Press, The Washington Post, Politico, PBS, and a host of other news outlets had run stories on Trump’s tweet. Many of the reports indicated that Trump’s claim had been baseless. But the reaction nonetheless shows the ability of Fox & Friends to warp the contours of the news environment, shifting the discussion that plays out in the press because of the newsiness of the comments made by the program’s most powerful viewer. Before, most media outlets were not focused on Fusion GPS. Now, thanks to Fox & Friends and Trump, they are.

Trump often spends his early mornings dashing off thoughts on Twitter on a number of seemingly unrelated items. But there’s often a method to the apparent madness. On three occasions over the past few weeks, I’ve found a strong correlation between his tweets and Fox & Friends’ programming that indicate that he is watching the show and tweeting about what he sees. It can be difficult to match up tweets to corresponding segments because the president is known to record shows and watch them at his leisure, and because Fox & Friends will often air similar segments during multiple hours of the broadcast.

Here’s my effort to chronicle the pattern on Twitter this morning (note that I went back and reconsidered my correlations when Trump added an additional tweet after I had started working).

Trump was apparently also watching Fox & Friends and tweeting about it yesterday morning:

He seems to have done the same thing on October 10: