“Destructive propaganda machine”: How current and former staffers have ripped into Fox News

“Destructive propaganda machine”: How current and former staffers have ripped into Fox News

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

Current and former Fox News employees have repeatedly denounced the network's "unhinged" "birther-like" coverage and service as President Donald Trump's "propaganda machine" since he was elected and his administration and the network effectively merged.


Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Fox News is a “destructive propaganda machine” whose right-wing hosts “don’t really have rules” and push “a political agenda” over “facts.” The network is “assaulting our constitutional order and the rule of law,” “fostering corrosive and unjustified paranoia among viewers,” and “wittingly harming our system of government for profit” while producing “birther-like coverage” that “feels like an extension of the Trump White House.” 

That’s what current and former Fox employees have said since Donald Trump was elected president and his administration and the network effectively merged

Big names like Shepard Smith and Chris Wallace have sought to hold space at Fox for more responsible reporting while publicly criticizing their more conspiracy-minded colleagues. Less prominent staffers keep quiet publicly but anonymously denounce the network and its biggest stars to other news outlets. And a handful have quit after years or even decades at the network, condemning Fox as they left. 

Carl Cameron, Fox’s former chief political correspondent, is a member of that last group. One of Fox’s first employees, Cameron spent more than two decades reporting from the political campaign trail before retiring from the network in August 2017. 

Cameron told CNN’s Brian Stelter that he had left in part because “the opinion hosts in prime time and elsewhere on Fox had become more than I could stand.” 

“I have no objection to opinion hosts,” he added, “but I do believe that it’s important that the information be accurate, fact-based, verifiable, and information that helps as opposed to hurt people in their effort to make a good decision when it comes to our politics.” He later said that the access some Fox hosts have to Trump “is questionable, if not dangerous,” adding that they “need to be understood as allied” with the president.

Former network strategic analyst Ralph Peters did a media tour after declining to renew his contract last March and criticized Fox’s sinister turn toward Trump. Bill Kristol, who spent years as a network contributor before leaving in 2012, has also slammed the network since Trump’s election. And longtime Fox reporters Adam Housley and Conor Powell both reportedly left due to similar concerns with the network’s direction. This group of five spent nearly 70 years combined at Fox.

Fox’s internal critics deserve few accolades. It may have taken Trump’s election for them to see it, but the network’s bigotry, conspiracy theories, and partisan machinations were built into its business model from the very beginning. And the effort they make to silo off the network’s “news” division and focus their critique solely on the “opinion” hosts shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the “news” division’s purpose in Fox’s corrupt propaganda machine. 

But it’s still striking that so many long-serving Fox employees have concluded that the network is an unrestrained organ of the White House. If even they can no longer lie to themselves about where they worked, the situation is quite alarming.

Former Foxers slam network as “propaganda machine” rife with “partisan misinformation”

Carl Cameron, former Fox chief political correspondent

Cameron, who had spent over two decades at Fox and served as a longtime political correspondent covering campaigns, left the network in 2017. He had a long record of promoting conservative politicians, organizations, and talking points.

Cameron: Fox’s “right-wing hosts drowned out straight journalism with partisan misinformation.” In a video promoting his new media venture, Front Page Live, Cameron said: “I was one of Fox’s first hires. The idea of fair and balanced news appealed to me. But over the years, the right-wing hosts drowned out straight journalism with partisan misinformation. I left.” [YouTube, 6/24/19]

Cameron: The access Fox hosts have to Trump “is questionable, if not dangerous. It's not normal,” they are “allied.” In an interview with CNN, Cameron said he left Fox because “the opinion hosts in prime time and elsewhere on Fox had become more than I could stand,” suggesting that their commentary is inaccurate and “hurts people in their effort to make a good decision when it comes to our politics.” He later added, “The access that some at Fox have in the entertainment side to the president is questionable, if not dangerous. It's not normal,” suggesting that Fox figures who have such access to Trump “need to be understood as allied.” [CNN, Reliable Sources, 7/7/19]

Ralph Peters, former Fox strategic analyst

Peters, a retired United States Army lieutenant colonel, was a Fox strategic analyst from 2009 to 2018. His history of inflammatory rhetoric at the network included regular denunciations of Islam (“you can’t say it’s a religion of peace”) and then-President Barack Obama, whom he called “the reincarnation of Pontius Pilate” who “romanticizes Islam” and “despises the men who served honorably” in the U.S. military. In 2015, Peters was suspended for calling Obama a “total pussy” on-air.

Peters: Fox is “wittingly harming our system of government for profit.” In a blistering March 2018 email to his Fox colleagues, Peters said he was not renewing his contract because the network “is assaulting our constitutional order and the rule of law, while fostering corrosive and unjustified paranoia among viewers” and has become “a mere propaganda machine for a destructive and ethically ruinous administration.” He added: 

When prime-time hosts--who have never served our country in any capacity--dismiss facts and empirical reality to launch profoundly dishonest assaults on the FBI, the Justice Department, the courts, the intelligence community (in which I served) and, not least, a model public servant and genuine war hero such as [then-special counsel] Robert Mueller--all the while scaremongering with lurid warnings of ‘deep-state’ machinations--I cannot be part of the same organization, even at a remove. To me, Fox News is now wittingly harming our system of government for profit. [BuzzFeed, 3/20/18]

Peters: “With the rise of Donald Trump, Fox did become a destructive propaganda machine.” In an interview with CNN, Peters said, “For years, I was glad to be associated with Fox. It was a legitimate conservative and libertarian outlet, and a necessary one. But with the rise of Donald Trump, Fox did become a destructive propaganda machine, and I don't do propaganda for anyone.” He also stated that Fox is doing a “great deal of damage” to the country and that the hosts who attack Mueller are “doing it for ratings and profit” and “doing a great grave disservice to our country.” [CNN.com, 6/7/18]

Peters: “Trump idolaters and the merrily hypocritical prime-time hosts are destroying the network.” In a Washington Post op-ed, Peters wrote that he left the network because “Fox’s assault on our constitutional order intensified, spearheaded by its after-dinner demagogues.” He claimed to have been blacklisted from appearing on Fox to discuss Trump’s ties to Russia because he disputed “the party line” that Mueller’s probe was a “witch hunt.” He concluded, “Trump idolaters and the merrily hypocritical prime-time hosts are destroying the network — no matter how profitable it may remain.” [The Washington Post, 3/30/18]

Bill Kristol, former Fox contributor

Kristol, the neoconservative founder of The Weekly Standard and one of the leading promoters of the Iraq War, was a Fox contributor from 2002 to 2012. 

Kristol: Fox is now mostly “birther-like coverage.” In a 2018 interview with CNBC’s John Harwood, Kristol said that “Fox was always of course somewhat conservative,” but that now “75 percent of it seems to be birther-like coverage of different issues.” He added that there’s been “a gradual increasing of recklessness” on Fox, citing as an example host Tucker Carlson, whose commentary Kristol said is “close now to racism, white — I mean, I don’t know if it’s racism exactly — but ethno-nationalism of some kind.” [CNBC.com, 1/25/18]

Kristol: “It’s just propaganda.” Kristol told The New Yorker that Fox has “changed a lot. Before, it was conservative, but it wasn’t crazy. Now it’s just propaganda.” [The New Yorker, 3/4/19]

Other Foxers reportedly left due to dissatisfaction with network’s direction

Conor Powell, former Fox foreign correspondent

Powell was a Fox foreign correspondent for nine years before leaving the network last year. 

Powell “was growing increasingly embarrassed by the channel, by the positions, by the relentless blind defense of Trump,” according to a friend. Politico reported of Powell leaving the network:

Powell reported for nine years for Fox News from the Middle East but, according to a friend who worked with him overseas, felt that the network had moved away from news and more toward opinion. With less opportunity to report on air, the friend said, it became more difficult for Powell to stomach what he saw the Fox News brand becoming.

“Conor was growing increasingly embarrassed by the channel, by the positions, by the relentless blind defense of Trump,” the friend said. “If you’re overseas and doing important work like Conor was, you can certainly focus on the work and tell yourself, ‘Hey I’m doing important things and I’m just going to focus on this and ignore all the rest.’ But it just became impossible to ignore.” [Politico, 8/23/18]

Adam Housley, former Fox correspondent

Housley, a Los Angeles-based correspondent, joined Fox in 2001 and left in 2018. In his later years at the network, he produced anonymously-sourced reports that promoted debunked conspiracy theories about the 2012 Benghazi attacks.

Like Powell, Housley was reportedly “unhappy with the tone of the conversation of the channel.” Politico reported:

Adam Housley, a Los Angeles-based reporter who joined Fox in 2001, felt there was diminished opportunity at the network for reporters and disapproved of the tenor of its on-air discussion, according to two former Fox News employees with knowledge of his situation.

Housley believed that as the network’s focus on Trump has grown — and the number of talking-head panels during news shows proliferated — it had become difficult to get hard reporting on air, according to one of those former employees.

"He’s not doing the type of journalism he wants to be doing," the former employee said. "And he is unhappy with the tone of the conversation of the channel." [Politico, 8/23/18]

Top network “news side” anchors rip “opinion” hosts

Shepard Smith, Fox chief news anchor

Smith, one of Fox’s initial staffers, is the anchor of Shepard Smith Reporting. He regularly uses his show to debunk right-wing misinformation promoted elsewhere on the network.

Smith said he re-upped his Fox contract in part because he was worried about who Fox would replace him with. In an interview with Time, Smith said of renewing his contract with Fox: “To stop doing it would be bad because I think that there is a need for it and I know the degree to which we care about it and focus on it and we want it to be as perfect as it can be. And I wonder, if I stopped delivering the facts, what would go in its place in this place that is most watched, most listened, most viewed, most trusted? I don’t know.” 

He also said his “opinion side” colleagues “don’t really have rules” and some of their programming “is there strictly to be entertaining.” He added: “I think we have to make the wall between news and opinion as high and as thick and as impenetrable as possible. And I try to do that. And if I were doing this, there would be a lot more fact-based reporting, but it’s available for people who want it. I don’t know how badly they want it.” [Time, 3/15/18]

In “subtweeting” his colleagues, Smith said journalists “must never knowingly deceive.” In a March 2019 speech that CNN’s Brian Stelter described as Smith “subtweeting his opinion side colleagues,” Smith said: “Being accurate and honest and thorough and fair is our primary mission. It's our professional calling. And everyone on my team takes it extremely seriously. … I personally believe this is the duty not only of journalists but of every person who has the honor of a platform of influence,” he said. “We must never manipulate or invent. We must never knowingly deceive. Because to do so is a disservice to our audience and potentially injurious to our society.” [CNN.com, 3/14/19]

Chris Wallace, Fox anchor

Wallace, who joined Fox in 2003, is the anchor of Fox News Sunday. 

Wallace criticized colleagues for “bashing the media.” In an October 2017 interview with The Associated Press, Wallace said of his “opinion side” colleagues: “I don’t like them bashing the media, because oftentimes what they’re bashing is stuff that we on the news side are doing. I don’t think they recognize that they have a role at Fox News and we have a role at Fox News. I don’t know what’s in their head. I just think it’s bad form.” [Media Matters, 10/21/17]

Wallace slammed colleagues on-air for “pushing a political agenda” over “facts.” Discussing a recently released letter from Mueller criticizing Attorney General William Barr’s summary of his report, Wallace said on Fox: “I know there are some people who don’t think this March 27 letter is a big deal -- some opinion people, some opinion people who appear on this network, who may be pushing a political agenda. But, you know, we have to deal in facts.” [New York, 5/2/19]

Fox employees respond to network’s failures by anonymously denouncing it

Fox employees have repeatedly responded to the network’s embarrassing coverage and ethical failings by anonymously leaking their displeasure to media reporters at other news outlets.  

Fox’s Mueller coverage makes the network look “like an extension of the Trump White House”


Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Fox staffers told CNN that the network’s coverage was “absurd” and “laughable.” In October 2017, following the revelation that a grand jury had indicted two top Trump campaign staffers as part of Mueller’s probe, Fox devoted less airtime to the revelations than the other networks and repeatedly questioned the special counsel’s credibility. Fox staffers commented anonymously on the situation, telling CNN’s Oliver Darcy:

  • “I’m watching now and screaming. … I want to quit.”
  • “It is another blow to journalists at Fox who come in every day wanting to cover the news in a fair and objective way. … Fox feels like an extension of the Trump White House.”
  • “This kind of coverage does the viewer a huge disservice and further divides the country.”
  • "That segment on Outnumbered [questioning Mueller's integrity] was absurd and deserves all the scorn it can get.” It was “laughable” seeing hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham “tripping over themselves saying [Mueller's team has] found nothing thus far.”
  • “It's an embarrassment. Frankly, there are shows on our network that are backing the President at all costs, and it's that short term strategy that undermines the good work being done by others.” [CNN.com, 10/31/17]

Promotion of Seth Rich conspiracy theory was “embarrassing” and “heartless”


Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

In May 2017, Fox published, promoted, and eventually retracted a story that amplified the conspiracy theory that murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, and not the Russians, had provided the Democratic National Committee emails published by WikiLeaks. Fox’s adoption of the conspiracy theory, a narrative led by Hannity but also pushed by the network’s newsroom, created a firestorm of controversy, including inside Fox. 

Fox employees tell CNN they are “disgusted.” Fox staffers commented anonymously on the situation to CNN’s Darcy before the network retracted its initial story, with one staffer wondering why Fox's senior leadership was allowing Hannity to spread the conspiracy theory on the network. Quotes from Fox sources included:

  • “I'm disgusted by it. ... It hurts those of us who are legitimately focused on journalism. We have a chance to turn the corner at Fox, and perpetuating this conspiracy theory damages our integrity.”
  • “It is disappointing because it drags the rest of us down.” 
  • Hannity is still talking about the Rich story because he wants to “distract from any and all Trump scandals.” [CNN.com, 5/22/17]

Network staffers slam Hannity to The Daily Beast for “embarrassing” Fox. The Daily Beast’s Andrew Kirell and Asawin Suebsaeng spoke to “nearly a dozen reporters, pundits, and hosts inside Fox News who all conveyed the same sentiment: Hannity is ‘embarrassing’ the network, and the promotion of the Rich conspiracy theory is senselessly cruel to a grieving family.” According to the report, “Several of the network’s opinion pundits expressed disgust at the conspiracy theorizing, using words like ‘absurd’ and ‘unhinged’ to describe Hannity’s antics.” Other quotes from Fox sources included: 

  • “ARE WE STILL AIRING THAT SHIT?!”
  • “The other reporters I’ve talked to [about this] are similarly pissed about the whole thing. … Some find it embarrassing, others downright heartless [to spread this]. ... It’s just gross.”
  • “I mean, have you seen some of the stuff we put on air?” [The Daily Beast, 5/23/17]

Staffers to CNN: “People need to start getting canned,” but no one is held accountable at Fox. Fox retracted its initial Rich report and promised to conduct an investigation into what went wrong. More than two months later, Fox staffers spoke to Darcy about the network’s lack of transparency. Quotes from Fox sources included:

  • “People are talking about it. Frankly, there's confusion over it.”
  • “This is like a huge question mark internally. This is a giant mystery.”
  • “People need to start getting canned over the [Seth Rich] thing. What a mess.”
  • “It stirs up the same embarrassment as when the story first got peddled. It makes people doubt Fox.”
  • “I think the lack of transparency is not that surprising. But it really forces the question, how much journalistic integrity does Fox News really have? Because most other news outlets, these situations come up, but they are dealt with appropriately. People are held accountable. People are fired, they are disciplined or whatever. But this is like classic Fox. No one ever gets fired from Fox for publishing a story that isn't true.” [CNN.com, 8/2/17]

Hannity's appearance at Trump rally crosses “a new line”


Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

The night before the 2018 midterm elections, Hannity and Fox host Jeanine Pirro spoke at a political rally featuring Trump and praised his administration, a massive breach of journalistic ethics at any other news outlet. Fox subsequently issued a statement saying the network “does not condone any talent participating in campaign events” and that the incident “has been addressed.” But the network did not apologize, directly criticize the hosts, or indicate they had been punished. 

Foxers express outrage to CNN and The Daily Beast over Hannity’s rally appearance. “Fox News journalists were outraged and disgusted after Sean Hannity, the network's star host, campaigned with President Donald Trump on Monday night ahead of the midterm elections, more than half a dozen employees told CNN Business,” Darcy reported. Quotes from Fox sources to CNN included: 

  • “People throughout the company think a new line was crossed.”
  • “It disturbs me to my core. ... I am so f---ing mad.”
  • “I'm aghast as are a number of other people.”
  • “The whole thing is just so embarrassing that this guy basically has free rein to do whatever he wants, and management is either helpless or uninterested in doing anything about it.”

Fox sources told The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani:

  • “It’s just embarrassing that Hannity is allowed to play by his own rules, and that management is so hapless that they either can’t or won’t do anything about it. He’s out of control and the second floor needs to step in because it’s getting ridiculous.”
  • “Sean Hannity dealt a major blow to those who work in the news division here. Our leadership should do a better job at protecting the news folks whose great work is overshadowed by selfish moves such as the one we saw last night.” [CNN.com, 11/6/18; The Daily Beast, 11/6/18]
Network/Outlet
Fox News Channel
Person
Bill Kristol, Carl Cameron, Ralph Peters, Adam Housley, Conor Powell
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