NETWORK OF LIES: The Epic Saga of Fox News, Donald Trump, and the Battle for American Democracy, by Brian Stelter
It’s easy to be blasé about a new exposé of Fox News. There have been many, going back at least as far as Al Franken’s best-selling 2003 book “Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them): A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.” Fox News, at this point, resembles a car whose windshield is thickly encrusted with traffic citations. Yet this car (surely a Hummer) manages to barrel out anew each day, plowing over six more mailboxes, five more crossing guards, four elderly scientists, three communal enterprises, two trans kids and a solar panel.
Two new Fox books are out. Michael Wolff’s “The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty,” which was published earlier this fall, has already been reviewed in this newspaper. Now comes Brian Stelter’s “Network of Lies: The Epic Saga of Fox News, Donald Trump, and the Battle for American Democracy.”
The authors and their books make a study in contrasts. Wolff strides onto the page like the Devil’s ambassador, a man who has cut his own share of bargains, one who has an intimate understanding of what Sun Tzu called “the strategic disposition of power.” He appears to have the soul of a pirate. His book is laced with innuendo. It reads at times like a brash, wised-up monologue, something Eric Bogosian might deliver.
Stelter, a young fogy who once worked at The New York Times, has a wonkier disposition. He uses words like “shenanigans.” He wrote his book, he says, to help readers feel “empowered” to push back. He’s like a Canadian Mountie who has stumbled upon a gerbil-stomping ring. For Stelter, journalism might be a humble calling, but it is a patriotic and noble one. It burns him to see its ideals perverted.
Stelter barely mentions Wolff in his book except to say, in a line that seems lifted from a colonial-era newspaper, that his pen is “oft full of poison.” Wolff, being Wolff, puts Stelter in a headlock and gives him a noogie. He calls Stelter, who hosted a media show on CNN for nine years, that network’s designated “Fox besmircher.” Wolff writes that CNN fired Stelter in 2022 “at least in part because his sense of personal outrage seemed to trend into self-parody.”
I admire a lot of things about Wolff’s book; he knows more about the inner workings of the Murdoch family, and he has a silky sense of human motivation. And oddly, his might be the more influential of the two. This is because loyal followers of hosts like Sean Hannity — who kind of resembles Lou Costello, as Sigrid Nunez wrote in her novel “What Are You Going Through” — are more likely to read it than one by Stelter, a longtime Fox News punching bag.
Yet Stelter’s is the better book. He delivers a straightforward, grinding, momentum-building account, from an inside-Fox-News perspective, of the conspiracy to steal the 2020 presidential election, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit and Tucker Carlson’s defenestration. He does this so deftly that “Network of Lies” reads like one of Bob Woodward’s mightier books. Stelter makes especially good use of the years of private texts, emails, chats and memos that Fox News was forced to release to Dominion.
Stelter’s guilelessness matters, for reasons Martin Amis understood. Amis told The Paris Review all the way back in 1998 (when Fox News was 2 years old): “As the planet gets progressively less innocent, you need a more innocent eye to see it.”
Much of the Dominion case material has been previously reported. Yet Stelter finds new nuggets. The essential thing he does is lash this material together, as if he were a prosecutor, and turn it into a narrative with sweep and power. He places time stamps on obvious lie after obvious lie from Fox insiders, nearly all of whom knew they were peddling snake oil.
Stelter has watched a lot of Fox News, nearly as much as anybody alive. In doing so he has been — to borrow a term from “Succession,” the Murdoch family-inspired HBO series — a national pain sponge. He has been glued to the set, eyes peeled, notebook in hand, so others don’t have to be.
He really lets the brown water flow over you. His Fox News is a nightly Russell Stover assortment of ginned-up grievances and predictions of cataclysm and collapse. The network delivers insinuation instead of reason, in this account, irritable gestures instead of journalism, a great deal of voice and little of mind. Fox News is biased against expertise and culture. Its hosts patrol and destroy, as white blood cells do in the body, any hint of sequential reasoning. They deliver the kind of shallow and primitive totalitarian propaganda that George Orwell, in “1984,” called prolefeed. In “Network of Lies” it is a dead-end grotto of the human spirit. Flood the zone with wit, as Steve Bannon did not say.
Stelter spends a good deal of time on Tucker Carlson. There is his “big, hysterical, hyena-like laugh” and his “look of chronic dyspepsia.” More essentially, there is his mainstreaming of white nationalism. His paranoid messages sounded good to certain ears: “You are being manipulated”; “It’s our country, not theirs”; “Your views are not evil.” Stelter describes how, when Carlson left Washington, D.C. and began spending all his time in remote Maine, and on an island in Florida, the isolation changed him because “it separated him from people and events, from the diversity of the real world.”
Carlson’s influence over the Republican Party was enormous. He was like Joaquin Phoenix in “Gladiator,” asking the crowd to give a thumb’s up on whether someone, in this case a politician, lived or died. Stelter tracks the long list of reasons (ad boycotts, sexist and racist texts, the dislike colleagues felt for him, his smug sense that he was bigger than his network) that led to his firing.
Carlson and Fox News changed conservatism. Together, they put the wedgie into wedge issues. And they helped erode, Stelter writes, “some Republicans’ commitment to the basic tenets of democracy.” Alongside Trump, Fox changed the tone of American conversation. This is what “trickle down” has come to mean: We live in a stupider, more bellicose world.
Democrats are led by the brain, the old saw goes, while Republicans are led by the gut. This has, by and large, been a healthy balance in America. But what happens when the Republican gut becomes merely colon, rectum and anus, this book asks, and hot filth pours from it? Reading Stelter I was reminded of a tweet that made the rounds a few years ago: “Fox News did to our parents what they thought video games would do to us.”
Stelter’s book never takes its eyes, for long, off Rupert Murdoch, the family patriarch. He is 92 and, not to be ghoulish about it, the death watch is on. Stelter quotes a conservative media insider who tells him, “Rupert’s death will change politics more than Trump’s descent down the escalator.”
Nearly a century ago, the British journalist C.P. Scott is said to have predicted that no good would come of television because the word is half Greek and half Latin. On television these days, cards are being shuffled in the run-up to the 2024 election. Stelter’s excellent book makes one fear that no ace will rise to the top of the deck.
NETWORK OF LIES: The Epic Saga of Fox News, Donald Trump, and the Battle for American Democracy | By Brian Stelter | One Signal | 384 pp. | $30