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The media wants the audience’s trust. But is it being earned?

Brian Stelter on the fracturing of news, the decline of trust, and what we’ve learned from the Fox News scandal.

The Fox News logo. Andy Kropa/Getty Images

About a month ago, we learned something important about Fox News.

For decades, the conventional view of Fox — certainly from the left — is that it’s a propaganda arm of the Republican Party. Thanks to a defamation lawsuit from the voting machine company Dominion — and the trove of internal communications from Fox News it’s unearthed — we now know that the reality behind the scenes is a tad more complicated.

Fox is being sued by Dominion because of the lies people on the network were telling about their voting machines in the wake of the 2020 election. As revealed in emails and text messages Fox News hosts and higher-ups were sending to each other, it turns out they were lying because they believed — correctly — that that’s what their audience wanted to hear.

This is a pretty high-level media industry scandal, so I invited Brian Stelter, a longtime media reporter and the former host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, to talk about it on the latest episode of The Gray Area.

Stelter wrote the 2020 book on Fox News, called Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth, so he’s been tracking this for years. We cover the Fox story, but it became a much broader conversation about why he thinks people are losing trust in the press. Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity.

As always, you can listen and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday and Thursday.

Sean Illing

I want to ask about the Fox News revelations first. As someone who wrote the book on Fox, what was your reaction?

Brian Stelter

When I wrote Hoax in 2020 and then updated it in 2021, I was relying almost entirely on anonymous sources. There was one brave staffer who put his name on the record, but it was mostly anonymous sources saying that the place is out of control, that it’s been radicalized because the audience has been radicalized.

I think it was a producer who said, “I feel like we’re being held hostage by the audience.” And there were all these anonymous complaints about lack of leadership at Fox, people saying, Well, if Roger Ailes was still around despite all of his abuses, he would’ve had more control. There were people complaining about the Murdochs being too passive and not being involved enough.

So there was a general sense, internally, that Fox was moving even further away from being a news brand and even more into this extreme opinion brand, but it was anonymously sourced — and now you can see it all on the record.

That’s what’s amazing to me about this case. You can read Tucker Carlson in his own words. You have all these producers and executives on the record, admitting to the very problems, the very ills, that outside voices have pointed out and internal anonymous sources have pointed out. So for me, it’s been a little bit of a relief, right? The reporting was accurate.

Sean Illing

People have always called Fox a propaganda machine, but I think that’s misleading because it implies a clear, consistent ideological objective, and I’m not sure that’s right. To me, this is just reality television and they could absolutely care less what they’re selling. They just need the audience to buy it or they need the audience to be so invested in the stories that they don’t care that it’s fake, like WWE or something.

So it’s not that Fox doesn’t have a right-wing bias; it’s that it primarily exists to flatter the delusions of its audience, and they do it even when they know it’s bullshit.

Brian Stelter

Yeah, I saw you tweet last month that no one has a lower opinion of conservative voters than conservative media —

Sean Illing

I really think that’s right, and it’s partly why I have such contempt for what Fox does.

Brian Stelter

This is reminding me of a quote from Hoax from this former Fox & Friends producer who gave up because he felt so disenchanted and eventually had to quit. But he said that he realized one day when they were doing a segment, some anti-marijuana segment, and then after, he goes to a house party with a bunch of his colleagues and everybody’s getting high.

That’s when he fully realized that we don’t believe all this stuff. We just tell people to believe it. And that’s the kind of anonymous thing that’s been affirmed in these legal filings.

Sean Illing

I bash the news media as much as anyone, but let me do something stupid and throw a quick grenade at the people. There’s a demand-side problem here that’s independent of the supply side, right? Like, it’s also a problem that people want to be entertained, they want to have their biases flattered, they want the spectacle, they want to be titillated in that way —

Brian Stelter

One of the reasons why the morning shows always cover the snowstorm or the tornado outbreak is that it’s good video, right? It’s interesting video; it makes you pay attention. I’m not even sure the producers and the anchors are fully aware of this all the time.

I wasn’t always self-aware. When I was at CNN, I would be writing the banners on live TV. I was such a nerd. I would write the banners a lot of the times that were onscreen, so if there was a misspelling or something, it was my fault. And when I was doing that, I was partly doing it to try to keep the viewer’s attention. I wanted to keep the viewer watching, and I don’t think I was fully aware of that in the moment. I was just trying to make the show better. And when you do take a step back, you know it’s about those commercial impulses you’re describing.

But I see an enormous potential for different brands, for new brands, for old brands, to reach people different ways. There are huge opportunities out there that don’t involve trying to reach the news junkies, who are already pretty well-served, but to reach more casual news consumers, and those casual news consumers tend to be less trusting. Really I’m just thinking aloud in a kind of startup mode about what could be built that would win some of those folks back.

Sean Illing

In your newsletter right after Trump was elected, you posed a deeper question. You were asking if all the fact-checking mattered, if all the newspaper investigations mattered, if all the editorials mattered. You may disagree with this, but I think the answer is “nope.” They didn’t really matter.

Maybe the real question you were asking, though, is if there’s still any point in trying to persuade people with facts and arguments? My view is that the press was mostly confused about the whole “post-truth” crisis. Truth, for the most part, has always been a function of authority. Because we don’t have direct experience with lots of things we take to be true, we’ve always trusted people in positions of authority, and when that faith in authority goes away, we’re sort of at sea.

I don’t think we have a good answer as a democratic society to what we should do when the facts or when the reporting of the facts don’t matter because a huge subset of the country doesn’t trust the people and the institution’s doing the reporting — but that is, I think, where we are.

Brian Stelter

Well, let’s take the Fox News scandal, which I believe is a scandal, and clearly many of my colleagues in the media also believe it’s a scandal. The right-wing media universe is barely touching this. They have chosen to believe it’s not a scandal. And their authority with their audience conveys that because they’re not writing about it and they’re not really covering it and they’re not treating it like a scandal. So in the conservative media world, nothing’s wrong, there’s nothing to see here.

This is the reality of people inhabiting separate media environments that are wholly different. Thirty or 40 years ago, when the major networks decided that some presidential story was a scandal, it was a scandal. But no one really has that kind of power anymore. The institutionalist in me would say that the CNNs and the Washington Posts and the NBCs do still have a significant amount of power and authority, but things have changed.

I don’t want to act as if all has been lost. It hasn’t. The January 6 hearings were widely televised and broke through in a way that made a statement. So there is still some of that authority, but there’s a minority in the country that’s in a very different media ecosystem and there’s no real crossover.

Sean Illing

There’s a ton more to say about all this, but let’s step back a little since you’ve always been a big-picture observer of the press. On the last episode of your CNN show Reliable Sources, you said, “We are all members of the media now. That’s probably the biggest change that’s happened while this show was on the air.”

Why is that such a huge change, in your view?

Brian Stelter

I’m a product of this digital age where there are no gatekeepers. I was able to create webpages when I was 9 or 10 years old, teach myself HTML when I was 18, and launch a blog obsessively tracking TV news, and because of that blog, the New York Times hired me to cover CNN. None of that would’ve been possible 20 years earlier. That’s a big shift, and it’s why I say we’re all members of the media now that we all have those capabilities.

And, increasingly, even if you’re just posting on Instagram or TikTok, you’re a member of the media. You’re thinking about the experience, about what you choose to view and not view, and you’re training the algorithms, almost acting like a producer or a director. Which is to say, we’re all sort of in this now. We’re all doing this. We all have an ability in our little way to make the media environment healthier or more poisoned and more polluted.

I’d like to think that when I worked in professional newsrooms, we were trying to make the immediate environment a little healthier, but now there’s so much information out there, so much noise and pollution in the air. And we’re all involved in it in our own ways, whether we think about it that way or not.

Sean Illing

I definitely get that part of it, but you went on to say in that show that because we’re all media now, because we all have a platform now, that it’s “loony” to say that the “media is the enemy of the people” (something Trump was saying back in 2019). I agree that that phrase is inane, but I do think it’s a mistake to not think about why lots of people have lost trust in mainstream media institutions, because that’s really what all this is about.

People are turning more and more to alternative sources because they don’t trust the establishment and they’re not wrong to notice how commercial and ideological pressures drive coverage. That’s got to be part of the reason the bad-faith attacks on media have the firepower that they do, right?

Brian Stelter

Since I left CNN, I’ve leaned into the stay-at-home-dad life. I get up with my kids every day and I get them breakfast, and I flip through the morning shows and the cable networks just to see what they’re all covering.

A lot of what I’m seeing on those shows doesn’t impact my life. It’s not news as I would define it. But maybe that’s what I’m getting at: What is the definition of news? What is news?

A big part of my brain still lives in that world. And I think to myself, well, obviously the latest trial is a big story, and obviously some mass shooting is a big story. But what if we think about the definition of news differently, if we think about the best way to actually serve the audience? What does the audience most need to know today in order to be more informed and make better choices about the world around them? Then the shooting or the snowstorm may not be the story we would cover. And so I wonder when you’re talking about trust in media if we’re actually earning that trust every day by covering the stories that are relevant to the audience?

I think that might be an interesting place to start the conversation about trust in media as opposed to, say, going through a list of self-inflicted wounds and pressure from politicians and attacks from this and that person. It may all be true, but I wonder what it would be like if we started over and created an entirely new news environment.

Like, one of the weirdest things about the news environment is you’ll get 10 push alerts from 10 different outlets about the same thing. Your phone should be smart enough to only send one to you. I watch the news and they’re all telling me about the same fire for three hours. My TV should be smarter than that. We shouldn’t hear the same shit over and over and over again.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here , and be sure to follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts