NEW YORK — The one constant with President Trump’s increasingly frequent attacks on Fox News has been the network’s refusal to respond, even as the president complains that “Fox isn’t working for us anymore.”
In recent days, however, some Fox personalities like Bret Baier, Juan Williams and Brit Hume have ceased looking the other way.
Fox is stocked with pro-Trump commentators like Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro and Laura Ingraham, and the president is a frequent viewer. He speaks up when he sees things that displease him, with news anchor Shepard Smith, White House correspondent John Roberts, commentator Williams, contributor Donna Brazile and network pollsters all targeted this summer. He groused Wednesday that news anchor Sandra Smith offered “zero pushback” in an interview with Democratic communications director Xochitl Hinojosa.
One tweet Wednesday cut to the very heart of the network’s existence.
“The new Fox News is letting millions of great people down,” he wrote. “We have to start looking for a new News outlet. Fox isn’t working for us anymore.”
Fox’s official response? There was none.
Current Fox executives declined to speak publicly about the strategy. They’re not necessarily alone; NBC News doesn’t respond to tweets, either. Some who’ve heard the president’s complaints liken it to a basketball coach “working the refs,” and the best stand stoically while getting an earful. There’s a concern that responding just gives Trump’s commentary more attention, and that Twitter attacks are simply the white noise of this administration.
The calculus is also different at Fox because that’s where many Trump supporters gravitate. If their favorite politician is perceived as being under attack by their favorite network, how would those viewers react? Trump didn’t like questions posed by Fox’s Megyn Kelly during a 2015 debate, and boos rained down upon her when she later appeared before a live audience gathered for a Hannity telecast.
“I don’t think Fox cares about Trump’s attacks,” said Alex Conant, a Republican communications consultant who heads Firehouse Strategies. “They just care about their audience.”
Still, Trump’s contention that Fox is “working for us” is damaging for a network when that perception has made it more difficult to cover the Democratic presidential campaign. Trump hasn’t distinguished between Fox’s opinion and news employees, which the network has long done to counter the argument that its purpose is to advance one point of view.
“That’s so scary that the president of the United States thinks that a media organization is his,” said Williams, the commentator called on to give a liberal point of view, on a Fox radio program. “You know, that’s not good.”
Fox’s elder statesman Hume tweeted in response to Trump on Wednesday: “Fox News isn’t supposed to work for you.”
It’s worth noting that even as Trump has attacked Fox, he still seeks its audience more than any other outlet. He gave an interview Thursday to Fox’s Brian Kilmeade.
Fox News is routinely the most-watched cable network, with an average of 2.33 million viewers in prime time last week.
Williams is among the few at Fox to directly answer a Trump attack through a column he wrote this week for The Hill. Trump last week called Williams “pathetic,” ”nasty” and “wrong,” yet “he couldn’t be nicer as he asked to take a picture of him and me for his family.”
Williams said that when Trump was a candidate, he and Fox’s Ed Henry ran into him in the lobby of the network’s Manhattan headquarters. A Fox maintenance man asked if he could get a picture with Trump, and Williams took it. The man then offered to reciprocate by taking a picture of Williams and Trump; Williams said he never asked for it or brought his family into the conversation.
When he was a Washington Post reporter covering Mayor Marion Barry’s administration, Williams’ house was broken into and his wife found a butcher knife left on their bed. He was fired by National Public Radio for a commentary after Sept. 11, 2001, when he said he was nervous about getting on planes with Muslims.
“Those attacks are a step down from the blitz” launched by Trump’s supporters after the president’s tweet, he said.
Baier, on his show last week, defended Fox’s pollsters from attacks. “Fox has not changed,” Baier said. “We have a news side and an opinion side.”
After one hostile tweet, Smith addressed one viewer Wednesday by looking at the camera and saying, “Good afternoon, Mr. President. It’s nice to have you with us.”
To a certain degree, responses like Baier’s make a network comment unnecessary, Conant said. Fox can also perversely benefit from certain Trump attacks — they make the point that there’s more to the network than Hannity’s unabashed love, he said.
“This could be an opportunity for Fox to boast,” said Carl Cameron, a longtime Fox News Washington reporter who’s left the network. It would help the morale of its remaining news reporters if Fox took out an ad highlighting times that news reporters had gotten under the president’s skin. “That’s what news divisions are supposed to do,” he said.
Silence sends a message of its own, Cameron said.
CNN and The New York Times, two news organizations that are frequent Trump targets, ignore many attacks but respond to some. The Times tends to be strictly informational. The Times has countered Trump’s nickname of the “failing” newspaper by tweeting statistics that show “business is thriving.” When Trump cast doubt on a story about North Korea building missile sites, the Times noted that it was “based on satellite imagery analyzed by experts.”
CNN has been more combative, noting in November 2017 that “it’s not CNN’s job to represent the U.S. to the world. That’s yours. Ours is to report the news.”
After a verbal confrontation between Trump and Jim Acosta last November, CNN tweeted that “the president’s ongoing attacks on the press has gone too far. They are not only dangerous, they are disturbingly un-American.”