Everyone who reads this story arrives at the same thought. Why would a Trump cabinet official need a heads-up as to what he’d be asked about on the most Trump-friendly show on television? (Okay, second-most.) It’s not a dissertation defense. The goal is not to embarrass you or catch you in a gotcha. Trump’s practically the executive producer, for fark’s sake. The former president of the network works for him now, remember — and is still receiving money from Fox periodically as part of his severance deal.
It’s like cheating at Tic Tac Toe after you’ve been spotted the first two moves. You should be able to muster at least a draw using your own wits. At least.
They didn’t give him the actual questions he’d be asked but they did let him dictate the topics and even let his staff see the intro that would be used for the interview, making the line between news and PR blurry even by the usual standards. Here’s what happened in May 2017 when Pruitt’s staff contacted “Fox & Friends” about doing a segment on people benefiting from Trump’s environmental policies:
[“Fox & Friends” producer Andrew] Murray then copied producer Diana Aloi, saying she said she would follow up with “pre-interview questions on the agreed-upon topic, the new direction of the EPA, and helping communities that were poorly served by the last administration.”
In subsequent emails, Aloi repeatedly sought “talking points” and the “top three priorities are for the EPA that Mr. Pruitt would like to discuss specifically.”
Once Graham sent over the talking points, Aloi sought the government official’s approval for the script introducing Pruitt’s segment.
“Would this be okay as the setup to his segment?” producer Diana Aloi asked.
The following year producers sent Pruitt’s staff an email before another interview specifying the three topics he’d be asked about. Six of the eight questions that were ultimately asked of him dealt with those topics. Question: Don’t cable-news producers normally do that sort of pre-interview before having someone on?
Can we please stop w the outrage over Fox sharing scripts w their right wingers? I can tell you from experience that producers from all the cables give you guidance on what the agenda is and want to know what you think pre-hit. Not to this extent but it happens.
— jimmy williams (@Jimmyspolitics) November 27, 2018
Right, but it doesn’t usually happen with government officials per industry experts who spoke to the Daily Beast. The point of the pre-interview with random guests is to see what their point of view on an issue is, whether they have something interesting to say about it, maybe (hopefully?) whether they’re qualified to discuss it at all. When you’re interviewing a cabinet member about policies set by his own agency, all of those concerns are moot. He’s newsworthy and knowledgeable by definition. Fox itself acknowledges that what happened with Pruitt and F&F is inappropriate, saying in a statement that “This is not standard practice whatsoever and the matter is being addressed internally with those involved.”
Lotta matters being “addressed” internally, notes WaPo’s Erik Wemple:
That PR formulation — we’re addressing the matter — makes periodic appearances in Fox News crisis archives. Like when Hannity appeared onstage with Trump at rally (“This was an unfortunate distraction and has been addressed.”); or when it was revealed that Fox News anchor Bret Baier had played a round of golf with Trump (“addressed the matter”); or when Andrew Napolitano made evidence-free claims about the alleged wiretapping of Trump (“the matter was addressed internally.”); or when “Fox & Friends” ran a four-minute video slamming President Barack Obama (“We’ve addressed the video with the producers and are not going to discuss the internal workings of our programming any further.”); and when the network had to admit a “breakdown” in covering the story of Shirley Sherrod (“will be addressed internally”).
Who knows if “addressing the matter” means a genuine reprimand or something more along the lines of “don’t get caught next time.” I think there probably is sincere consternation among the executives over things like this and Hannity’s impromptu campaign rally with Trump a few weeks ago, if only because there are doubtless people on the “news” side of the network who dislike the reputation it’s gotten from the “entertainment” side as a handmaiden to Trump and have made their feelings known. (CNN’s media reporters are forever quoting those people anonymously in pieces critical of Hannity and the like.) Big names from the news division like Shep Smith and Chris Wallace have occasionally voiced their differences with the entertainment division in print and on air, albeit tactfully. A Fox exec confronted with the reality of F&F producers feeding Pruitt’s team the agenda for an upcoming interview might have to impose discipline if only to reassure people like Smith and Wallace that standards continue to be enforced, at least during daytime programming.
But how much is that reassurance worth when Shep and Chris see headlines like this?
A total blackout on the day’s biggest bad news during the most-watched hours of programming seems more resonant of state media than Pruitt getting a cheat sheet before an interview that no one expected to be hard-hitting anyway. Pattycake interviews happen all the time, even if they’re not quite as pattycake as that. Suppressing news to protect viewers from the unhappy reality that America’s superhero president hasn’t ended layoffs as we know it doesn’t.
But then, I think that helps explain why these matters that require “addressing” keep recurring. Some Foxies who cross the line ethically may believe they’re simply balancing the scales in light of the favoritism shown towards liberals by the rest of the media. Poll Fox viewers on whether they think Democratic politicians are being given the questions in advance by “neutral” reporters on other networks and 80 percent would say yes, I guess. Ask them if Hannity did anything qualitatively different from what CNN anchors do on air every night in broadcasting his biases by appearing onstage at a rally with Trump and maybe 80 percent would say no. Since Trump was inaugurated more than one lefty critic of Fox has mused that the network often seems to behave overtly the way righties think the liberal media at “neutral” outlets behaves secretly. The case of Pruitt receiving the topics from F&F before an interview may be evidence of that. “Didn’t MSNBC give Obama the questions before they interviewed him? No? Well, they might as well have.”
Exit question: Is the discomfort between the news and entertainment wings at Fox about to get worse? Their new streaming app, Fox Nation, went live online today. It’s heavy on the entertainment side, aimed directly at Fox superfans who value the network for its cultural influence more so than its reporting. (Smith and Wallace aren’t part of the initiative.) It’ll air live programming throughout the day — until 7 p.m., when it’ll go dark just as Fox News’s primetime shows begin to roll. That is, Fox’s news division will now be competing with the entertainment division for eyeballs during daylight hours whereas the entertainment division will have the arena to itself in the evenings. Hmmm.