“I Can Only Consider It a Form of Brain Damage”

Justin Peters watched Fox News for three straight weeks. Here’s what he learned.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Fox and Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Fox and Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

On a recent episode of Trumpcast, host Jacob Weisberg talks with Justin Peters, who watched Fox News for three weeks and wrote about it for Slate’s Watching Fox blog. They discuss who’s terrible, who’s decent, and why the network won’t change anytime soon. A transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, is below.

Jacob Weisberg: Justin, how are you? You look OK.

Justin Peters: I’ve recovered nicely. You wouldn’t think that an assignment that requires you to sit on a couch all day and watch TV would be super stressful, and yet it was. But I’m glad I did it. I’m also glad it’s over.

How many hours a day did you spend watching Fox News? And did you have any other sources of information?

I think if I would have artificially limited myself to just Fox News as my only information source, I would have been completely destroyed by the experiment. I read newspapers but didn’t watch any other television. It was good to have other sources coming in to be able to evaluate the things they were saying on Fox against the things that the other news sources were saying.

In terms of how long I went every day: a good eight or nine hours. Honestly, I would spend a full workday watching, then I’d go get some food and walk around the block seven times to try to clear my head. And then I’d sit back down and watch the evening programming.

What surprised you?

Most of it is actually fine. It’s news with a conservative slant, and the slant is manifested in the stories they cover, the emphasis they give them, the guests they have. That was not substantially different from the sort of stuff you’d see on CNN and MSNBC in terms of structure. Some of the hosts are actually pretty good—Shepard Smith is a quality anchor. He is someone I would watch whatever network he’s on.

He’s the good guy on Fox who seems to play it straight. Is he the only one?

There’s more than you’d think. Bret Baier’s pretty good. I like Neil Cavuto. Bill Hemmer in the mornings is a decent newsperson. I like Sandra Smith. I think Harris Faulkner does a decent job.

Say I invite you to a party at my house, and I introduce you to four people. The first person I introduce you to sort of spits in your face. And you wipe it off, and you’re like, “Why did I come to this party?” And the second person I introduce you to is OK, and the third person is also OK. And the fourth person I introduce you to punches you in the stomach, dumps a drink on your head, and then kicks you in the shins. When you go home that night, you’re not going to think to yourself, “I met two great people at that party.” You’re going to be like, “Someone kicked me in the shins and dumped a drink on me. And they spit on my face in the beginning.”

And that’s why I think it’s completely fair to evaluate Fox News, or to take your impressions of Fox, based on the worst people at the party. Because that’s what we do in real life.

Who are those worst people at the party? Sean Hannity, obviously.

He’s the one who kicked you in the shins and threw the drink on you. He is by far the least journalistic person on the network. And he’s even said in interviews, I do not think of myself as a journalist. I want Donald Trump to be president. I’ve been giving him advice throughout the campaign. And it’s very clear that his show is a news-adjacent appendage of the Trump administration.

What is the president getting from Fox & Friends?

The first piece I wrote for the blog was sort of an overview of Fox & Friends. And I think I called it the authoritarian Today show. Basically, it exists to allow viewers to start their days confident that someone in the world is dumber than they are.

For three hours they sort of present an endless parade of liberal hypocrisy and celebrity stupidity, pitted against very ostentatious displays of patriotism and country music singers who come on the show to talk about how much they love to salute the flag. And these leathery military men who come on and express their opinions that are arrived at through lived experience rather than derived observation.

You come away from the three hours watching Fox & Friends thinking This is destructive. It’s not just morning television because the president watches it. Every single morning, with a few exceptions, he will tweet something between the hours of 6 and 9 that is in direct response to something that aired on Fox & Friends—which means this show has more power than most news shows on television in American history. And I was going to say they’re squandering that power, but from their perspective, they’re not. They are saying stuff that they know is designed to get the president going, and he’s taking the bait every time.

Is the show highly conscious of that?

Oh yeah, they know. I think I read somewhere that this was the first time in the history of the world that someone thinks the television is talking to him, and he’s actually right—it actually is. Fox & Friends is talking to the president. And you know that because a few times a week they will display a tweet that the president just issued on the screen. They’ll be like, “This just in: The president just tweeted this.” And it’s something that was obviously in response to a segment that they just discussed. It’s this bizarre feedback loop.

Roger Ailes, the evil genius who created this whole style, is now dead. Bill O’Reilly, the No. 1 anchor, is gone. Megyn Kelly, who was the No. 3 anchor, is gone. Murdoch’s sons, who have been reported to be embarrassed by Fox News, are possibly taking over. Do you detect these changes at work as a viewer?

No. Fox News just celebrated its 190th month as the top cable news network. Whatever the Murdochs may or may not believe in their hearts about the rightness or wrongness of their programming, it’s making money. And as businessmen who have a long history of making money with this network, they are not, in my opinion, going to take a stand to save American democracy as long as the ratings are as high as they are.

As long as the economic opportunity is aligned with the pro-Trump opportunity, it won’t change.

As soon as they fall out of alignment, that is when you might expect a change to come, if it ever is going to come. Fox has been unafraid to jettison personalities who become toxic in the marketplace. They stuck by O’Reilly only until his advertisers started to desert him. Same with Glenn Beck, right?

The rise of super right-wing media—Breitbart, Alex Jones—has done two things to Fox News. One, it has made it in some ways seem moderate and reasonable because there’s stuff that’s popular further out to the right. And it’s also created a potential commercial threat. Do you get a sense of Fox News in relation to what’s right of it watching it all this time?

Yeah. Laura Ingraham’s and Hannity’s commentary is the sort of thing you’d expect to see on Breitbart. I think it’s fair to presume that they are so prominent these days as a hedge against Breitbart snapping them up. Think back to the middle of the presidential campaign where a lot of people were saying that Trump’s real aim in running for president wasn’t to become president, but to set the stage to start a TV network. And I think that threat is very much on the Murdochs’ minds as they’re coming up with their programming for the first bit of the Trump era.

How do they talk about sexual harassment on Fox News?

They are largely burying their own history and culpability in a rush to paint sexual assault and harassment as a strictly liberal issue.

But doesn’t that run up against their view that talking about sexual harassment is a form of political correctness, that they don’t like anybody talking about it?

When Fox has an opportunity to spotlight liberal hypocrisy, it will take that opportunity. And that’s what it’s done. That was the frame with which it covered the Harvey Weinstein scandal: Look at all of these celebrities and Democrats who were so close to Weinstein, who went to his parties, applauded his films, took his donations—they had to know. They were complicit. It used this silence on the part of so many prominent entertainers and big-name Democrats as a way to invalidate anything else they might say. To say, Well, how can you trust their opinions when they tell us about global warming? They didn’t say anything with Weinstein. There were a few Fox personalities who would stand up and say, You know, we’ve had our own history with this. Geraldo Rivera is one of the few reasonable correspondents at Fox. I came to really appreciate Geraldo’s work—

My God. What’s happened to your standards, Justin?

Help me, Jake.

But yeah, he said that to Hannity. Hannity loves talking about the casting couch in Hollywood as an example of liberal hypocrisy. He said this to Geraldo once, and Geraldo was like, “I know it is. I’ve done a dozen exposés on the casting couch. But I would submit that the perpetrators do not stick to certain ideological sides. They’re on the right; they are on the left. It is not an ideological issue. And I bemoan the fact that we rejoice when this happens to our ideological enemies, yet we bury our heads in the sand when it happens to us.”

Is there anything on Fox you’re still going to watch?

I came to really enjoy the show The Five, which there is no reason for this to have happened. I can only consider it a form of brain damage. It’s their discussion show that happens at 5 p.m., there’s five people on it, and they sometimes discuss as many as five topics. I’m not sure how the show got its name. But regardless, it’s sort of a fun watch. They’re got a well-balanced panel of people who are funny and enjoy one another and are always ribbing one another. Juan Williams is on it. He’s one of the few liberals on Fox News who’s allowed to finish his sentence, maybe even two sentences. Dana Perino is a smart, moderate-conservative voice.

Other than that, I’m not tuning in to watch any of Hannity’s opening monologues unless I’m paid to do so again.