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The former Fox editor who announced the 2020 results says there's a media problem

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A few days ago, the White House hosted what it called the United We Stand Summit, a gathering of civic activists, authorities in various fields and survivors of violent hate crimes. Although the specific focus of that gathering was to address hate-motivated violence, the event was part of the administration's broader argument that this country's deep political polarization is a threat to the nation's well-being, and that well-meaning citizens have to work together to address it. That's something Chris Stirewalt has been thinking a lot about, too.

Even if you don't know the name, if you follow politics, then you know his work, because as a political editor at the Fox News Channel, his team was the first to call Arizona for Biden on election night 2020, the first sign that the former president, Trump, would not win reelection. The announcement infuriated the former president and his allies, who raged at Fox and Stirewalt. One senator even said he should be fired, and a couple of months later, he was, although Fox called it a restructuring. Stirewalt later testified before the January 6 committee about the attempt to pressure his team to backtrack on its decision.

But Stirewalt doesn't just point the finger at Fox. In a new book, he says that most of the country's leading news organizations have become part of what he calls the rage machine, catering to a real or perceived base. His book is called Broken News: "Why The Media Rage Machine Divides America And How To Fight Back." And he's with us now to tell us more. Chris, thanks so much for being with us.

CHRIS STIREWALT: Well, it's a treat. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So first, just a little bit about you. Like a lot of us, you caught the news bug early. You got started in newspapers in West Virginia, where you grew up, doing local stories, political stories, particularly kind of focused on that. And then you kind of stumbled into television. What appealed to you about it?

STIREWALT: Well, employment was very appealing about television. I like that a lot, because as it turned out, I arrived in the newspaper business the last days of the Raj. And profits were high. And the industry was arrogant. And I hit the beach full-time professionally in 1997, right as everything started to fall apart. So I had to get nimble and had to learn how to do what I did on TV. And as it turns out, there is quite an audience for people who want to know about politics, but maybe not through a hyper-partisan lens and maybe like their race analysis without the thumb on the scale.

MARTIN: So you very much make clear that you don't see yourself as a guy wearing one team jersey or another - right? - that you came into it with the goal of being a straight-shooter. Fair?

STIREWALT: Yeah. You got it. You got it.

MARTIN: OK. So when did you see the rage machine take hold, as you describe it? I mean, you talk about this election night meeting back in 2010. You were working for Fox at the time, where the execs were hyping the Republican's chances. And you knew that it wasn't true based on all the reporting and the work that you and the team had done. Was that the first time you realized that the goal, at least for some of your colleagues, wasn't the facts per se, but something else?

STIREWALT: Well, I know - here's the - I expect partisans to overestimate their chances in every election cycle, right? In 2010, the Republicans had a spectacularly good year, and it was my first year as the politics editor at Fox. And an amazing thing was revealed to me, which is that even though the Republicans - they went on to win 63 seats in the House. It was a huge victory. But there were still people who were willing to pad the numbers even beyond that because it was good for ratings. It was good for the number of bookings that they were going to get. It was good to keep them on TV.

And that's when I realized that the interests of the party and the interests of - a lot of people - I heard a lot of people over the years tell me that Fox News was a mouthpiece for the Republican Party, but not really, because the two interests diverge. And if all you had to do was look at, let's say, the rise of Donald Trump, that hasn't been good for the Republican Party, but it was awfully good for cable news, right? It was awfully good for clickbait kind of coverage because Trump drove massive ratings. Trump was everywhere all of the time, and that wasn't good for Republicans. But right-leaning outlets were still going to do that because it was in their economic interest.

MARTIN: You argue that this model isn't just a model for cable news. You argue that this model has pretty much taken over. I mean, you say every day, editors and producers go hunting for any story that will either flatter their outlet's target audience or more likely show the fundamental inferiority or evil of the other side. You say they don't do this because they are bad people themselves or even necessarily aligned with the slant of the story. It's just that this kind of contempt is profitable because it's easy to trigger. To get somebody to look at a story in an impartial way takes a lot of work.

I think that a lot of people might not agree with all of your adjectives, OK, but they would agree with that general kind of tenor and concern about sort of the tone. But for you to argue that this has taken over like all these legacy organizations, I mean, you start the book citing The Washington Post ticker. I've not been in The Post's newsroom since they moved. And you use this example of this retweet of a story that, you know, about this - a cleric who was critical of COVID safety protocols who later got COVID. And you point out that this was a popular story for Washington Post subscribers of digital news.

How would you argue that this retweet of a story is the same as a network whose leadership, whose biggest stars are involved with pushing racially divisive storylines of hyping people up? And this is something which is approved of, organized at the highest levels, as opposed to this story on this particular day. Do you see my point? I think a lot of people say that those just aren't equivalent.

STIREWALT: Well, it would - look. These are matters of degree, not matters of one side is good, and the other side is bad. It is that some are better than others, and some are worse than others. Like, I would say that The New York Times has acquitted itself better during the Trump era than The Washington Post did, because The Washington Post leaned in on sort of the rage revenue in a way that maybe The Times didn't. Fox News basically collapsed a lot of the prior structures that it had had in place as the chase for ratings intensified and standard slipped.

So it's not that The Washington Post is the same as Fox News. It's that the problems that afflict the industry are the same wherever you go. In the old days, the idea of journalism was that we had information and that we were going to give it to people. And they would either give us their subscription money or advertisers would pay for their attention on a broadcast or a broad audience basis. But now the relationship is reversed, and it is that the audience has feelings and lots and lots of intense feelings. And in an atomized market space, they're going to look for the outlets and individuals that tell them what they want to hear.

MARTIN: And you have obviously a broader civic concern, one which is shared by many people. But again, I sort of wonder - some of the things that you consider equivalent problems. Like, you equate The New York Times' 1619 Project with a Fox personality, Tucker Carlson, pushing this incredible document - faux documentary - I can't call it a documentary - implying that January 6 was a false flag operation. And you imply that The Times just wanted to sell books. You know, respectfully, that just seems unfair on its face, particularly for somebody like you, who's obviously a history buff. Right?

So, you know, to what - when are people in - you know, just seeking confirmation bias or they're engaged in thought exercises? I mean, The 1619 Project is about reconsidering the role of slavery in the American economy, the building of the American nation and culture. It was a serious journalistic project by serious people. And it's a thought exercise. It's not trying to push people to kill people or overturn an election. You see my point?

It's like you're calling some of this like self-indulgence. Other people would call it, you know, honest inquiry by people who have not had the opportunity to ask these questions before and want to do that and now have access to some of these institutions and want these institutions to ask the questions they're asking. You see, Mark, my question here?

STIREWALT: I do. I - look. I am sure that Tucker Carlson would say that the work that he is doing is important and necessary and probably believes that to be true himself. I know this, that I live in a country today where both the left and the right tell me that America is a disaster. I hear so much negative coverage that attack not just individual problems or failures of the current regime or how things are structured in the United States or all of that stuff, but basically questioning the fundamental idea of the American system and the American experiment.

Now, I'm not saying it's not sincere. But what I am saying is that when news organizations profit by this kind of journalism or whatever it is, when Fox News profits by putting black helicopters in a commercial that says the January 6 attack was a false flag operation, that's not a wholesome way to make a profit because it's bad for the country. And I respectfully think that the original premise of The 1619 Project wasn't to raise questions. I think the original premise of The 1619 Project was to say that the founding of the United States was not a legitimate thing and maybe not even a good thing. And I don't think that was helpful, either.

MARTIN: Forgive me. I have to ask. Have you actually read it?

STIREWALT: I have, of course.

MARTIN: No, not necessarily, not of course. On the other hand, though, you say - this is - look. This is a tough thing to ask you, but I have to ask you. But is - part of the problem here is that critics would argue that the fundamental difference between Fox and some of these other outlets is that the people at Fox, particularly at the top, their most prominent personalities and the leadership of the company are fundamentally hypocrites because these are very rich people, very famous people who have benefited magnificently, you know, from the country and all that the American experience has to offer, who are the ones now saying it's a disaster because it advantages them to say so. And that is a fundamental difference for the other people who are criticizing the country, because they are approaching it from a position of not having had access to all that this country has to offer. What would you say?

STIREWALT: There is no way that we will ever have any kind of perfectly fair journalism, because, as you point out, there are voices right now that are not heard because of their ancestry or because of their station, because of their income, because of their level of education. We always will come up short in the effort to be fair. My point here, though, is I could write a book - many Republicans have - I could write a book that would talk about all the hypocrisy on the left. I could say that, oh, Rachel Maddow is this way, and here's how The Washington Post is. And you could even write one that would be factually basically correct, but it wouldn't be fair because it would overlook the problems with Fox News or the problems on the right-wing media.

I don't want to let anybody off the hook. I don't want anybody to ever be able to use this book to say, ha-ha, we're good, and they're bad. Beating up on Fox, it is a staple good of left-side media. Right? I know it's true, because I have gotten to turn down a billion interview requests from people who wanted me to talk to them about how bad Fox News is. And that's not good enough, because what that does is tell the people listening to those outlets or paying attention to those outlets, you're good. You're virtuous. You're not like those bad people who watch Fox. You're one of the good people. And I don't think that's a good enough standard for us.

MARTIN: Chris Stirewalt is a former political editor at Fox News. He's now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He contributes to The Dispatch and NewsNation. And his latest book is "Broken News: Why The Media Rage Machine Divides America And How To Fight Back." Chris Stirewalt, thanks so much for joining us to talk about all this.

STIREWALT: You're so kind to have me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.