“Fox & Friends” is inventing a new species of political interaction called the speecherview. It’s a speech by a political candidate interrupted every so often by an interviewer’s question.
The form was on display Sunday morning, as a “Fox & Friends Weekend” crew was holding a 12-minute session with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. At the 2:29 point in the interview, co-host and Fox News correspondent Ed Henry finishes a question about anti-Islamic State strategy.
Three minutes and twelve seconds of Trump monologue follows. He talks about how Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham “talk like tough guys, but their plan is totally wrong”; how the Islamic State consists of “bad dudes and we have to take them out”; how “Russia’s really now bombing the hell out of them, and that’s a good thing”; how we need to use “better terms to demean” terrorists.” After he petered out, Trump was asked about surveilling mosques.
Later on, Henry asked Trump about the Black Lives Matter protester — Mercutio Southall — who reported having been assaulted by Trump supporters at a rally Saturday in Birmingham, Ala. “The man that was, you say, roughed up — he was so obnoxious and so loud, he was screaming,” responded Trump. “I had 10,000 people in the room yesterday, 10,000 people, and this guy started screaming by himself and I don’t know: roughed up? Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.” The hosts seemed fine with that response; though Trump’s own campaign said it didn’t condone any roughing-up, the hosts never pushed the candidate on the discrepancy between the campaign’s position and the candidate’s casual endorsement of violence.
The speecherview came at the front end of a tricky patch of publicity for Trump. He has faced headlines over not only the treatment of Southall but also over a retweet that communicated false and racially inflammatory crime data blaming African Americans for most white homicides, and also his false claim that he watched “thousands” of people in New Jersey cheering the 9/11 attacks. “There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down,” said Trump on ABC News’s “This Week.”
Three issues, three instances of racially divisive politics: seeming to support the beating of a black man; fear-mongering over the homicidal threat from African Americans; and demonizing Muslims by asserting that they showed up in droves to cheer mass murder. All of it is ugly.
Bill O’Reilly, host of the cable-news-dominant “O’Reilly Factor,” aired an interview with Trump last night. In love with his self-promoted reputation as being “tough on everybody,” the host has to show his viewers that the policy applies even to Trump, with whom he has a decades-long friendship. The two commonly go to ballgames together.
For his good friend, O’Reilly whipped up a clever smokescreen. The host claimed he was “bothered” by Trump’s retweet of the racial data. To his credit, he even fact-checked Trump, saying, “You tweeted out that whites killed by blacks, these are statistics you picked up from somewhere, at a rate of 81 percent. And, that is totally wrong, whites killed by blacks is 15 percent. You tweeted it was 81 percent.” He also said, “You are a presidential contender, you got to check it.”
Sounds like a real scolding, and indeed various news outlets picked up on O’Reilly’s work. Business Insider, for instance, assessed that O’Reilly had “lecture[d]” Trump over the episode.
Yet there’s a reason Trump won’t likely launch another “boycott” of Fox News over the interview. The exchange regarding the retweet was smuggled inside an O’Reilly care package that placed any condemnation in bubble wrap. “Are you aware that the liberal media and the Democratic Party in general, trying to paint you as a racist? Are you aware of that?” asked the host in kicking off the retweet discussion. Toward the end, he summed up, “Look, you know I am looking out for you, right?” O’Reilly said to Trump. “You know that? I am looking out for you. I look out for every honest politician. I don’t care what party they are in. Don’t do this. Don’t put your name on stuff like this, because it makes the other side — it gives them stuff to tell the ill-informed voter that you are a racist. I mean, you just handed them a platter.”
Bolding added to highlight an are-you-kidding-me moment.
In any case, it’s nice of O’Reilly to equip Trump with a counter-platter. As O’Reilly cast things, the big problem with Trump’s retweet is that Trump’s opponents can deploy it against him. Optics, in other words. Brilliant, two-story interviewing work by O’Reilly: On one level, O’Reilly is ripping Trump on matters of fact and accountability — good. On a higher level, he’s exonerating him by depicting him as a victim of liberals — bad.
“Fox & Friends” and “The O’Reilly Factor,” of course, are opinion vehicles at Fox News. They get to treat Trump pretty much as they please. For a more sober look at the day’s Trump news, Fox News viewers might have dialed up last night’s “Special Report with Bret Baier,” on which Stephen F. Hayes of the “Weekly Standard” took the front-runner to task for his statements about jubilant Muslims circa 9/11. “He is fact checked because he got the facts wrong. There were not, in fact, thousands and thousands of people in Jersey City cheering,” said Hayes.
The Donald Trump as showcased on Fox News opinion shows vs. the Donald Trump as showcased on “Special Report” and other straight-news vehicles: That’s a tension worth watching as the presidential race heads around the holiday corner toward Iowa and New Hampshire. Fox News helped to launch Trump’s presidential run, as the then-commentator/businessman held a weekly date on “Fox & Friends” for years — a great place for him to practice his talking points and the art of expressing delight over quasi-journalistic sycophancy. Weeks after he launched his candidacy, he battled with Fox News’s hierarchy over questions directed at him in the Aug. 6 Republican presidential debate and also his treatment on the airwaves.
Whatever zigs and zags the relationship has sustained, Trump appears to remain in good stead at the network. He is the front-runner, after all, and he assists with Fox News’s amazing ratings. He’s also looking more and more erratic. As he racks up more appearances, he continues telling falsehoods. The more he gets challenged on these statements, the greater his allegiance to them. Through it all, pundits are scanning the landscape for signals that Trump is finally done for. Safe to say that a shellacking on “Fox & Friends” would be a pretty good indicator.