It’s no secret President Trump loves to loathe the mainstream press, as witnessed by a Friday tweet dismissing CNN, the “failing” New York Times, NBC News, ABC and CBS as “the FAKE NEWS media” and calling the press an “enemy of the American People!”
But Trump does have a soft spot for the morning show, Fox & Friends, the Fox network and its millions of loyal viewers.
At a presidential press conference Thursday — while mentioning “the fake news media” seven times — Trump singled out Fox & Friends as “very honorable people… It’s the most honest.” In an earlier tweet, slamming other cable channels as “unwatchable, he added “@foxandfriends is great!”
Why shouldn’t he like Fox? A new Pew Research Center survey of Trump voters taken in late November revealed that 4 in ten said Fox News was their main source for election coverage.
This mutual love affair makes it all the more impressive that two prominent, well-respected, veteran Fox News anchors – Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith — just took on the president, publicly rebuking him for his press attacks and falsehoods. Their words earned praise from media colleagues and Twitter tongue-lashings from Trump supporters.
On Sunday morning, Wallace said Trump’s Friday tweet calling the media an enemy of the public went too far. (Fox was not on the list.)
‘‘Look, we’re big boys. We criticize presidents,” Wallace told his colleagues on Fox & Friends. “They want to criticize us back, that’s fine. But when he said that the fake news media is not my enemy, it’s the enemy of the American people, I believe that crosses an important line.’’
Wallace knew he was going to rile viewers. But that didn’t hold him back.
‘‘And I know there are a lot of (Fox News) listeners out there who are going to reflexively take Donald Trump’s side on this,’’ said Wallace, who anchors Fox News Sunday and joined the network in 2003. ‘‘It’s a different thing when it’s a president — because if it’s a president you like trying to talk about the press being the enemy of the people, then it’s going to be a president you don’t like saying the same thing. And that’s very dangerous.’’
After Trump’s highly unusual White House press conference Feb. 16, Fox’s Shepard Smith had enough. The chief news anchor and managing editor of Fox’s breaking news division went on his own eight-minute rant about Trump’s falsehoods and refusal to answer questions.
“It’s sort of our job to let you know when people you have elected say things that are untrue,” said Smith, who joined Fox in 1996 and anchors Shepard Smith Reporting. “This president keeps telling untrue things. He does it every single time he’s in front of the microphone. It’s demonstrable.”
Smith was clearly annoyed that Trump said he got the biggest electoral win since Reagan. “He didn’t,” said Smith, flatly. “He’s said this repeatedly over and over again. And every time he says it, it’s not true.”
But what galled Smith was Trump dodging and deflecting press conference questions about Russia. Smith demanded on behalf of the American public that Trump answer inquiries about his prior and post-election association with Russia.
“One of the biggest questions that people asking questions have right now is what is this relationship with Russia?” said an exasperated Smith. “We don’t get a straight answer on this question which leads us to continue to ask the question.”
“It’s crazy what we are watching every day,” he continued. “It’s absolutely crazy. He keeps repeating ridiculous throwaway lines that are not true at all and sort of avoiding this issue of Russia as if we are some kind of fools for asking the questions. Really? Your opposition was hacked and the Russians were responsible for it and your people were on the phone with Russia on the same day it was happening and we are fools for asking these questions? No sir, we are not fools for asking this question and we demand to know the answer to this question. You owe this to the American people…. We have a right to know.”
As Wallace and Smith know well, journalists are not the enemy of the White House or the American people.
It’s their job to ask tough questions. Reporters would ask them regardless of whether a Republican or Democrat were in the White House. (Check with Bill Clinton on the Monica Lewinsky story.) It’s a journalist’s responsibility to hold public officials accountable.
A free and adversarial press plays a key role in a democracy and a necessary check on power. The president needs to hear this repeatedly. If he is going to listen to anyone hit this point hard, it will be prominent anchors at Fox News.
So thank you, Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith, on behalf of thousands of journalists for standing up for the First Amendment and fighting back against a president who prefers to deflect and attack rather than answer valid questions.
Alicia Shepard is a veteran media writer and a former ombudsman for NPR. Follow her on Twitter @Ombudsman