Media critic

President Trump showed on Sunday night that despite his years of expertise in watching news show after news show and despite having done dozens of interviews with Fox News anchors over the years, he understands little about the programming scam of his most loyal cable-news buddies.

Before getting into any of the unseemly nitty-gritty of the tweets, just pause to consider the broader picture: Here’s the president of the United States tweeting about the shortcomings of cable news on a Sunday night. A Sunday night, which is perhaps the deadest news time of the entire week. A Sunday night, when a president of the United States could be plowing through piles of briefings, government reports and studies. But Sunday night is just like any other part of the week for this president of the United States — a time to extract information from a low-information cable-news channel.

Sometimes it’s clear what Fox News segment prompted a particular tweet from Trump — quotes and the like give it away. Other times, the precipitating segment is less clear. It’s possible that Trump was griping about “Fox News Sunday,” the popular Sunday morning talk show hosted by Chris Wallace. On this occasion, Fox News’s Dana Perino was subbing for Wallace and welcomed Democratic presidential candidate Michael F. Bennet to talk current events, including his campaign platform. The program ran, on rerun, at 7 p.m.

“What we don’t need in my view, I think, is a president who’s so at war with American tradition,” said Bennet. “We don’t need a president who doesn’t believe in the rule of law. We don’t need a president who doesn’t believe in freedom of the press. We don’t need a president who doesn’t believe in the independence of the judiciary. We don’t need a president who believes he’s above the law, that he can do by executive order what Congress doesn’t do ... The stuff that he does, whether it’s coddling a dictator in North Korea or laughing with Putin about Russia’s attacks on our democracy — that’s stuff that if Barack Obama did one of it, he would been indicted 24 hours a day on Fox News and President Trump is applauded.”

Upon hearing that inventory, Perino asked for evidence:

PERINO: If I could just press — if I could just press you on two things.

Well, I won’t press you on — on — on the — on the freedom of the press. Like, he gets frustrated with the press but he hasn’t tried to prevent them from being able to do their jobs.

But on the rule of law, where you think that he is not for the rule of law?

BENNET: I think — first of all, on the freedom of the press, the fact that he hasn’t dealt with the fact that Saudi Arabia killed a journalist, and — and he said what a serious thing it would be if it turned out it was true that MBS was behind it. And our intelligence agencies said it’s behind it, and he does nothing except go there and coddle MBS, that is an illustration of what American values are. I think he’s tried to intimidate the press here in the United States. I think he’s been above the rule of law on the wall, you know. He declared an emergency to build his wall, his $6 billion wall.

The murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi by a team of Saudi thugs is just one freedom-of-the-press issue that Bennet could have cited. Others would be the White House’s unconstitutional attempt to strip CNN’s Jim Acosta of his hard pass to the White House grounds, the White House’s zeal for leak investigations, the elimination of White House press briefings, or the constant invocation of “fake news” to discredit unflattering news stories.

Maybe Bennet’s routine dismissal of Perino’s pushback infuriated Trump; maybe it didn’t. In either case, Trump for months has expressed concern that his cable-news network of choice would pause for so much as a second to listen to the voices from the other side. In May, for instance, Wallace did a town-hall event with Democratic hopeful and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, prompting this commentary from the most powerful man on Earth:

The next Fox News personality to receive a late-night phone call from Trump should explain to the president how the whole Fox News scam works. That is, the network was launched on the “fair and balanced” lie — the idea that while other networks provide slanted coverage, Fox News is the only place that shoots straight. (For a dramatization of this founding myth, try the new Showtime series “The Loudest Voice,” which is based on the reporting of Gabriel Sherman, chief biographer of late Fox News chief Roger Ailes.)

The truth is that Fox News has evolved into a two-headed monster. “Opinion shows” — “Fox & Friends,” “Hannity,” “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” for example — routinely twist the truth in service to President Trump. The so-called “straight-news” shows — which pull in far smaller audiences — attempt to counterbalance the propaganda, though an investigation by Media Matters for America found that the “news” side of the network quite routinely pushes conservative misinformation.

The trappings of a straight-news product give Sean Hannity the cover he needs to tell millions of people each night precisely what Trump wants them to hear. When Hannity and his fellow “opinion” travelers at Fox News sustain criticism for their distortions, the PR response invariably points to the ballast provided by the straight-newsers like Wallace’s “Fox News Sunday” and Shepard Smith’s daily afternoon program. It’s this very separation that allows Fox News to advance the claim that it’s just like a traditional newspaper consisting of news and opinion staffs.

Trump, however, has no patience for the dull make-believe news coverage in between the good stuff at Fox News. He wants his “Hannity” on Sunday night. What do you say, Sean?

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