NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 10: Control room operators at Fox News studios in New York perform a live broadcast of "America Live" with host Megyn Kelly. Fox News Channel celebrated its 15th anniversary on the air on October 7th. (Jon Vachon for The Washington Post)
Media critic

Twenty years of living beyond the realm of consequence has its consequences. If Fox News wishes to say that concrete is soft; that the sun is cold; that dirt is clean; and that its news coverage is fair and balanced, it may do so. Its audience will be there to hear all about it.

Such is the takeaway from this remarkable piece: “2003 clip backs up Trump on Iraq War opposition.” To judge from the article’s positioning and labeling, it has the full force of the network’s straight-news operation behind it. For one, it comes from the “Fox News Politics” vertical on, and it has nothing marking it “opinion” or otherwise stemming from the voice of a pro-Donald Trump partisan. Here’s a screenshot:

As the article itself explains, Trump on Monday night at the first presidential debate at Hofstra University got himself in trouble again over Iraq. He continued insisting that he had opposed the March 2003 invasion launched by President George W. Bush. Debate moderator Lester Holt challenged him on this front, in a memorable exchange:

HOLT: Mr. Trump, a lot of these are judgment questions. You had supported the war in Iraq before the invasion. What makes your…

TRUMP: I did not support the war in Iraq.

HOLT: In 2002…

TRUMP: That is a mainstream media nonsense put out by her, because she — frankly, I think the best person in her campaign is mainstream media.

HOLT: My question is, since you supported it…

TRUMP: Just — would you like to hear…

HOLT: … why is your — why is your judgment…

TRUMP: Wait a minute. I was against the war in Iraq. Just so you put it out.

HOLT: The record shows otherwise, but why — why was…

TRUMP: The record does not show that.

HOLT: Why was — is your judgment any…

TRUMP: The record shows that I’m right. When I did an interview with Howard Stern, very lightly, first time anyone’s asked me that, I said, very lightly, I don’t know, maybe, who knows? Essentially. I then did an interview with Neil Cavuto. We talked about the economy is more important. I then spoke to Sean Hannity, which everybody refuses to call Sean Hannity. I had numerous conversations with Sean Hannity at Fox. And Sean Hannity said — and he called me the other day — and I spoke to him about it — he said you were totally against the war, because he was for the war.

The “record” here has gotten a lot of play. An untold number of outlets have looked at what Trump said in the months leading up to the Iraq invasion, with a tight focus on an appearance by the real-estate mogul on Howard Stern’s radio program in September 2002. Asked whether he favored the invasion, Trump responded, “Yeah, I guess so. I wish the first time it was done correctly.” That last quip was apparently a reference to the decision of President George H.W. Bush not to invade Iraq after liberating Kuwait in the Gulf war.

Though the Fox News piece acknowledged Trump’s quote to Stern, it placed a great deal of weight on the Cavuto appearance. That’s because Cavuto himself took up the matter on Fox Business Network in his post-debate coverage. Here’s how the piece breaks down the proceedings:

But Cavuto himself picked up the thread post-debate on Fox Business Network, unearthing the clip Trump referenced, from January 28, 2003 – Nearly two months before the Iraq War began on March 20. In the video, Cavuto asks Trump how much time President Bush should spend on the economy vs. on Iraq.

“Well, I’m starting to think that people are much more focused now on the economy,” Trump said. “They’re getting a little bit tired of hearing ‘We’re going in, we’re not going in.’ Whatever happened to the days of Douglas MacArthur? Either do it or don’t do it.”

Trump continued: “Perhaps he shouldn’t be doing it yet. And perhaps we should be waiting for the United Nations.”

Feel free to plumb that long-ago interview. Sure, Trump analyzed the ins and outs of an Iraq invasion. Sure, he talked about the economy. And sure, he never voiced anything approaching opposition to the invasion of Iraq. There’s more to this fact-check, too: During the primary campaign, Trump boasted of visionary skills in retrospect. “I said it loud and clear, ‘You’ll destabilize the Middle East,’” he said in a February 2016 primary debate. There’s quite a gulf between a warning about destabilizing the Middle East and wishing that “the first time it was done correctly.”

The publication of this miserable article marks a blurring of sorts for Fox News. Under now-deposed chief Roger Ailes, the network has excused the frequent distortions and sheer ridiculousness of some hosts — the entire “Fox & Friends” crew, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and others — by misappropriating a convention of newspapering: These folks are the opinion side of the operation, not the news side. They’re licensed to do stuff. And as this blog has reported, news anchors on the network have indeed provided skeptical coverage of Trump — most notably prime time host Megyn Kelly. To boot, a study by Thomas Patterson for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that over four weeks in midsummer, “Special Report with Bret Baier” churned out Trump coverage that was 67 percent negative to 33 percent positive.

Now the news side has chimed in with some valuable pro-Trump advocacy. Don’t be surprised to hear the candidate himself citing the piece on the campaign trail.

Though the publication of the pro-Trump Iraq article is remarkable unto itself, it comes amid so much other Fox News-Donald Trump garbage. Consider that during the debate, Trump sought a lifeline from host Sean Hannity for his claim that he opposed the Iraq invasion. “I had numerous conversations with Sean Hannity at Fox,” said Trump. Those conversations, though, were private conversations between two very public people. Apparently there are no recordings or transcripts available. In tweets and on his broadcasts, Hannity has spoken about these phone chats, though consider that Hannity himself has promoted Trump in a video ad, advised the Trump campaign and paid to fly Newt Gingrich to Indiana as part of the vice-presidential vetting process. On his program, Hannity has said that he carries a pocket Constitution “everywhere.” Perhaps he should add a pocket Society of Professional Journalists ethics code.

Now on to O’Reilly. The King of Cable News Tuesday night welcomed pollster Frank Luntz to talk about lessons from his focus-group session on debate night. Among the topics was the Iraq War moment from Monday night. The transcript is really something:

O’REILLY: Is it possible that no one cares about whether Donald Trump thought the Iraq war, the run-up — I don’t care. I mean, I don’t know why anybody would care at this juncture in history. So what?
LUNTZ: You’re correct. And that’s because we want to know what they’re going to do in the future.
LUNTZ: I mean, not what they have done in the past and not what they thought in the past.
O’REILLY: Look, I can support this. I know Trump. Trump didn’t like that war. He didn’t like it. So, I can tell you that’s first-hand experience. All right.

So now O’Reilly joins Hannity and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani in asserting that Trump shared anti-war sentiments prior to the invasion, in private discussions. Those anti-war sentiments, mind you, would have conflicted with Trump’s stated support for the war, as articulated in his remarks to Stern. There may even be more, as Giuliani said in response to a question from the Erik Wemple Blog at the post-debate Spin Room on Monday night: “I know he talked to Sean Hannity [about the Iraq War] because I argued with him about it. . . . I agreed with Sean Hannity and disagreed with Donald Trump. Donald Trump’s been my friend for 28 years. I played golf with him constantly. I have talked with him about every issue in the world. He and I had numerous debates about the Iraq War. It was my opinion that Saddam Hussein had to be removed. It was his opinion that that was very, very questionable and that it might create a disruptive situation in the United States. As we got really close to the war, that position really materialized. And if you listen to what I just listened to on Neil Cavuto’s show, you can see, he had grave reservations about it two months before.”

The notion that Trump didn’t oppose the Iraq War, continued Giuliani, ignores “his conversations with about 10 friends of his that I could probably produce.” “Probably” is the key word here. When The Post asked Trump to name his friends, Trump cited three off the record — “men he had had business dealings with two or more decades before, mean he had only rarely seen in recent years,” write authors Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher in “Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power.” Trump said, “I mean I think I have a lot of friends, but they’re not friends like perhaps other people have friends, where they’re together all the time and they go out to dinner all the time.”

Perhaps O’Reilly can say a bit more about his Iraq War discussions with Trump. But in the meantime, slow down and appreciate just how fully this cable-news power broker shills for the Republican presidential nominee. By saying that Trump “didn’t like that war,” he gives Trump’s position the appearance of corroboration without the benefit of specificity. At what point did he not like the war? Before the invasion? There’s no documentary evidence of that. After the invasion? Well, Trump joined millions upon millions of Americans in voicing their disgust with the operation long after March 2003. And only a skilled distortionist such as O’Reilly could reframe this controversy as a matter of foreign policy — “Is it possible that no one cares about whether Donald Trump thought the Iraq War, the run-up — I don’t care. I mean, I don’t know why anybody would care at this juncture in history. So what?” — and not a matter of Trump’s runaway mendacity.

Hours earlier, the co-hosts of “Fox & Friends,” as per program policy, did a lot of nodding as Trump held forth with offensive, stupid and self-aggrandizing statements.

It’s tempting to call this plume of Fox News Trumpism a new low for the network, or a sign that it has jumped the shark — or some such resounding conclusion. But no, this is more of the same. Though Ailes was ousted from his 20-year run atop the network, Ailesism remains in place. So long as the ratings are there for distorted news — and they will be — why bother with real news?