Then, poof! By mid-November, Stirewalt disappeared from Fox News airwaves. (Fox News laid off about 20 digital journalists, attributing the move to a restructuring of some sort.)
As Stirewalt watched his career take a dip, others found fresh opportunities. Maria Bartiromo, who used her programs to promote the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, will be trying out for a new 7 p.m. opinion slot.
All at once, in other words, Fox News is bolstering its batty programming while kneecapping its journalism. As noted in the first part of this series, key personnel such as Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Bartiromo and Lou Dobbs propelled this fantasy — and generated sustenance for those who rioted at the Capitol on Jan. 6. At any other news organization, management would be facing a revolt over such madness. Yet their Fox News colleagues continue working as if nothing had happened.
Sure, there has been some anonymous leaking. After the news of Bartiromo’s tryout, a Fox “news staffer” told The Post’s Jeremy Barr, “It is ludicrous and disheartening that we are rewarding her with a prime-time spot, knowing full well she is among the most responsible for propagating the big election lie.”
That “news staffer” needs a leader at Fox News with some standing, someone who could stand up to the multimillionaires who pack the prime-time schedule with lies and distortions. Maybe someone with a nightly show at 6 p.m., or someone with decades of broadcast experience and an influential Sunday show. Yeah, we’re talking about you, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace.
It’s hard to expect a low- or mid-level staffer at Fox News to take on Sean Hannity and the rest of the bunch. They’re more than just Fox News employees; they’re cultural heroes and their bankable audiences essentially underwrite much of the operation. To attack them is to attack your own paycheck. Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott has revamped the HR operation and strived to open lines of communication, though the climate of paranoia instilled by late network founder Roger Ailes will take years to extirpate.
Shepard Smith, at the end of his 23-year run at the network, dared to use his 3 p.m. show to counterprogram the hate and disinformation that arose from the networks opinion slots. He famously skirmished with Tucker Carlson. But outnumbered and overshadowed, Smith left, and now anchors a low-viewership nighttime show at CNBC. In a recent interview with Christiane Amanpour, Smith said, “I thought it was important that I stay there because I knew that I was grounded in that philosophy and working toward that promise,” he said, referring to the goal of honest news. “If you feel like the Fox viewers were getting mis- or disinformation, I was there to make sure that they got it straight.… I stuck with it for as long as I could and at some point I realized I’d reached a point of diminishing returns and I left.”
Reflecting on his time at Fox, Smith said, “My goal was just to keep the blinders on and do my job to the best of my ability.”
That reference to blinders evokes an anecdote from CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter’s book “Hoax”: Baier told others that he put “horse blinders on” to insulate himself from the opinion crew’s nonsense and focus on his show, “Special Report.” Sometimes, however, reality has intervened. In the midterm elections of 2018, Hannity and Pirro appeared onstage at a Trump rally, where the former called the press covering the event — including the network’s own crew — “fake news.” According to Stelter, Baier and Wallace expressed their concerns in a lunch with Scott. “They embarrassed all of us,” Wallace told the boss.
Those embarrassments come every night at Fox News. None of them, however, quite match the weeks-long effort by Hannity-Pirro-Bartiromo-Dobbs to convince viewers that Trump was right about widespread election fraud. That’s an embarrassment worthy of something more than a private lunch with Scott.
Yet Baier and Wallace keep quiet. We asked to interview them for this series and eagerly await a green light from Fox News. Pressed about the behavior of the opinion anchors in a February 2020 event at the Columbia University School of Journalism, Wallace said, “Nobody tends to ask people at the New York Times, ‘Well, how do you cover your beat when you’ve got Paul Krugman, who is expressing strong left-wing views, or Charles Blow expressing strong anti-Trump views?’ Just like there are people in my prime time who are very opinionated and generally pro-Trump. And the answer is: They do what they do; I do what I do. It’s a different piece of real estate.”
No way, Wallace: New York Times opinion columnists opine from a shared set of facts. And when they veer from that standard, there’s hell to pay. Fox News prime-timers opine from a shared set of conservative fantasies. And when they veer from that standard, their viewers give them hell.
Talents such as Baier and Wallace work at Fox News in the capacity of fig leaves. They provide cover — righteous distractions — from the horror that goes down on the opinion hours. This is a dichotomy hatched by Ailes, who realized that he could get away with lunacy at night if he balanced it with something approaching sanity during the day. Baier and Wallace, accordingly, serve as highly paid enablers whose silence allows Fox News to flit from one crisis to the next.
Sure, they can choose to remain mum. But as their colleagues continue dismantling American democracy, they’ll have to share in the legacy.
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