On Monday afternoon, at the tail end of some brief remarks to reporters by President Joe Biden, Fox News White House correspondent Peter Doocy blurted out an objectively cruddy question. “Do you think inflation is a political liability ahead of the midterms?” Doocy asked. As you might expect from a man who grew up in the heyday of Mad magazine, Biden had a snappy answer to this obvious question. “It’s a great asset,” an annoyed Biden mumbled in response. “More inflation. What a stupid son of a bitch.”
Relatable as Biden’s response might have been—of course he knows inflation would be a political liability—it was an indecorous thing for a president to say to any member of the press, and Biden later walked it back in private. Appearing on Hannity later that night, Doocy revealed that Biden had called him and “cleared the air,” assuring Doocy that he had meant “nothing personal.” But while Doocy seems to hold no grudge, we might as well answer the question at hand: Is Peter Doocy actually a stupid SOB?
Let’s look at the evidence. On one hand, Doocy was smart enough to get hired by the “smart side” of Fox News: its news division. On the other hand, he was a legacy hire: Doocy’s father, Steve Doocy, has co-hosted Fox & Friends since the program debuted in 1998. But maybe genetics are a point in Peter Doocy’s favor: Steve Doocy is, after all, clearly the most intelligent of the three Fox & Friends hosts. (On the other hand, Fox & Friends is consistently Fox News’ dumbest show, so that’s not really saying very much.) Peter Doocy has succeeded in his own right at Fox, going from general news reporter to campaign correspondent to White House correspondent. On the other hand, Fox News just gave Jesse Watters a nightly prime-time show, so clearly the network’s quality control is a bit suspect.
I decided to dig deeper into the data. Doocy has been Fox News’ White House correspondent since the beginning of 2021, and it isn’t hard to find a record of the questions he has asked at official White House press conferences and news events. While it’s worth noting that the recurring pseudo-event that is the White House press conference is hardly an ideal venue for intelligent inquiry, it’s also worth noting that there certainly is such a thing as a dumb question. It is reasonable to make inferences about the questioner based on the consistent quality of their questions.
So! Can we infer anything about Peter Doocy from a quick look at his question corpus? I reviewed some recent transcripts to get a better sense for the quality of Doocy’s work. Let’s evaluate several actual questions he has asked Biden or White House press secretary Jen Psaki this month.
“Do you think inflation is a political liability in the midterms?” [Doocy to Biden, Jan. 24]
You can’t blame the president for finding this question annoying. Inflation is obviously a political liability for Biden and the Democrats ahead of the midterms, and everyone, including Peter Doocy, knows that Biden knows this. But asking questions to which you already know the answer isn’t necessarily a sign that the questioner is stupid. The question wasn’t designed to elicit useful information, it was designed to elicit a reaction, and at that goal it succeeded wildly. The fact that Biden took Doocy’s bait, and that the fallout subsequently consumed an entire news cycle, is evidence that the Fox reporter is canny, not that he is an idiot. RULING: Not a stupid question.
“Does the president think it’s a big deal that today the Dow Jones is down, at one point, over 1,100 points?” [Doocy to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, Jan. 24]
The subtext of this question, just like the inflation question, is that the president ought to bear some responsibility when the economy isn’t doing well. This contention should not be a controversial one, and if Biden wants to own the economy’s successes, he should be ready to wear its failures, or to convince the public that a dip is sometimes just a dip, and not necessarily indicative of anything worse—which is basically where Psaki went with her answer. This is a replacement-level White House press conference question, and, with minor tweaks in phrasing and emphasis, it could have been asked by any reporter there. RULING: Not a stupid question.
“So you said that the president is never satisfied if people don’t feel safe. Does he know that after a year in office, people do not feel safe in this country?” [Doocy to Psaki, Jan. 24]
OK, this is a stupid question. Even by the standards of Fox News fearmongering, “People do not feel safe in this country” means nothing. If the implication is that all people in America feel unsafe, well, that’s clearly untrue; I am a person in America and I feel safe right now. If the implication is that most or many people feel unsafe, well, that’s a vague and unfalsifiable assertion. If Doocy meant that some Americans feel unsafe right now, well, the same could be said about literally any point in American history. Or did he mean that many Fox News viewers feel unsafe? Well, the fact that Fox News has been feeding its viewers a steady diet of “American carnage” stories ever since the George Floyd protests probably has something to do with that.
The larger issue is that Doocy works for a network that is very ready to name Biden responsible for any bad thing that happens anywhere in the country during his tenure, and yet is unwilling to extend him credit for any wins under his watch. But, then again, conservatives loved to say that the mainstream media never gave Donald Trump any credit for his successes, either (such as establishing the Space Force and using his bully pulpit to repeatedly give Rosie O’Donnell “the business”). RULING, FOR EMPHASIS: Very stupid question.
“I heard the president say, ‘Google “COVID test near me.” ’ So, [as] somebody isolating with COVID, I did that. And the appointments everywhere were completely jammed. So, why is it that you guys were so unprepared for the need for testing after the holidays?” [Doocy to Psaki, Jan. 10]
Doocy asked Psaki this question after he himself had contracted COVID and isolated for 10 days. And you know what? It was—RULING—actually a good question! The omicron surge was not the Biden administration’s finest hour, and it was totally valid for Doocy to ask this question so bluntly.
“You guys have been very aggressive countering COVID misinformation. So, what do you guys think about COVID misinformation coming from the Supreme Court and Sonia Sotomayor’s false claim that over 100,000 children are in ‘serious condition and many on ventilators’?” [Doocy to Psaki, Jan. 10]
Sotomayor’s comment, made during oral arguments in a recent case, was factually incorrect, and it’s not entirely out of bounds for a reporter to bring it up. But when that reporter works for Fox News, which has been a locus for COVID-related malarkey for almost two years now, it’s a bit of a pot-kettle-black situation. RULING: Annoying question.
So what have we learned about Peter Doocy? The questions that he tends to ask aren’t actual stupid-person questions. Sometimes his questions are actually good ones, and all credit to him for that. They are, however, thematically repetitive, and the theme of most of them is Why won’t the president admit that he’s doing a bad job? That line of inquiry isn’t designed to draw out valuable information—but telling his viewers things they don’t already know isn’t Doocy’s job. His job is to ask the sorts of questions that reinforce what Fox viewers think that they already know: that Joe Biden is a weird old man who is so incompetent he might actually think runaway inflation will win him the midterms.
The press corps is supposed to be adversarial. Media historian Michael Schudson once wrote an entire book titled Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press. But there’s a difference between asking hard questions that pin public officials down on relevant issues and expand the sphere of public knowledge, and being a professional irritant. It’s not that professional irritants are incapable of asking good questions and eliciting useful information—it’s that they tend to do so incidentally. When Doocy replaced longtime actual news guy John Roberts in the Fox News chief White House correspondent role early in 2021, it was a sign that the network wanted someone who would ask narrative-based questions predicated on the premise that Joe Biden stinks. There’s a strategy to putting Doocy in that briefing room, and it isn’t a stupid one.