Jeanine Pirro’s chuckle was a sweet touch for an embattled president. It was Jan. 12, and President Trump had called in to Pirro’s Saturday night program on Fox News. Meanwhile, the New York Times had just reported that the FBI had opened a counterintelligence investigation against Trump following his firing of then-FBI Director James B. Comey in May 2017. So Pirro had to ask about that.
“The investigation was whether you were actively working for Russia or unwittingly, so I’m going to ask you: Are you now or have you ever worked for Russia, Mr. President?” asked Pirro, quite unseriously. “I think it’s the most insulting article I’ve ever had written and if you read the article, you’d see that they found absolutely nothing,” responded Trump, who received absolutely no pushback from Pirro.
Just how much does Trump appreciate Pirro’s assistance on Fox News? We found out over the weekend. Fox News kept Pirro off the air from her usual Saturday night program. Just one week earlier, Pirro teed off on criticism of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) for allegedly making anti-Semitic remarks in discussing Israel and its supporters in the United States. Omar is a Muslim and wears a hijab. “Think about it," said Pirro. "Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?”
Condemnation for these ugly remarks came from all over, including an unlikely precinct. Hufsa Kamal, a producer at Fox News itself, tweeted:
Fox News itself followed suit, releasing a statement saying that the comments “do not reflect those of the network and we have addressed the matter with her directly." As the Erik Wemple Blog pointed out last week, Fox News frequently boasts about “addressing" matters, though it’s rarely clear what the “addressing” entails and, in any case, the measures taken don’t appear terribly effective in eliminating offensive and mindless statements from the airwaves. As for Pirro, she refrained from apologizing and said she was trying to get a debate going. Really.
Then: Pirro didn’t appear on Saturday night to host her show. Why? The hyper-transparent folks at Fox News weren’t saying: “We are not commenting on internal scheduling matters,” said a statement. The cryptic explanation from the network managed to both maroon the many loyal viewers of “Justice With Judge Jeanine” as well as cloud the possibility that the network might be making a move out of principle. Think of that.
For President Trump, watching Fox News bump Pirro was like watching a hurricane sweep through a safe harbor:
Which is to say: Keep it up with the hateful language!
The tweets from the White House highlight the pickle in which Fox News finds itself these days. On the one hand, pleasing Trump has become something of a programming priority for the network. A cozy relationship with Trump — meaning interviews, private phone calls, approving tweets and the like — helps Fox News, especially opinion types such as Pirro, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and the co-hosts of “Fox & Friends,” extend its dominance in the ratings.
On the other hand, obeisance to the president and adherence to his values pose certain problems. In a common consequence for spewers of hate at Fox News, certain advertisers have announced that they won’t be doing business with Pirro’s show in the future, including Allergan, GreatCall, Letgo and NerdWallet. Carlson’s show has seen more than 30 such desertions over the past few months, thanks to his declaration in December that immigration makes the country “dirtier” and old radio comments resurfaced by Media Matters for America in which he used racist, misogynistic and homophobic language.
On Sunday, CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that Pirro had been suspended over her comments. So who announced the suspension? Was it Suzanne Scott, the chief executive? No: It was a “source familiar with the matter.” Such is the contemporary leadership at Fox News: It feels sufficiently compelled by circumstances to suspend a popular host, though not sufficiently compelled to attach a name and a face to the rebuke.
There’s a reason why a “source” at Fox News is whispering the news of Pirro’s suspension. It’s all about striking a perilous and shameful balance. Fox News wants to show advertisers that it’s serious about countering the hatred that so often surfaces on its programs. That’s good business. Fox News also wants to avoid angering the legions of Trump fans who tune in for the overreaching commentary. That’s good business, too. Apologies, though -- they’re not good business; they’re a sign of weakness, as the No. 1 fan of Fox News believes. That’s why Carlson and Pirro have remained defiant and unrepentant.