NEW YORK – The revelation that Fox News Channel personalities sent text messages to the White House during the Jan. 6 insurrection is another example of how the network’s stars sought to influence then-President Donald Trump instead of simply reporting or commenting on him.
Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Brian Kilmeade all texted advice to Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows, as a mob of pro-Donald Trump loyalists stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, according to Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, vice chair of the congressional committee probing the riot.
“Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home,” texted Ingraham, host of “The Ingraham Angle.” “This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy.”
“Please get him on TV,” texted Kilmeade, a “Fox & Friends” host. “Destroying everything you have accomplished.”
Hannity, like Ingraham a prime-time host, wondered whether Trump could give a statement and ask people to leave the Capitol.
Cheney's release of the text messages late Monday came a day after the most prominent hard-news journalist at Fox, Chris Wallace, announced he was leaving after 18 years for a new job at CNN. Wallace had grown privately frustrated by Fox's amplification of its conservative opinion hosts, particularly since the network's ratings took a brief dive following the election of President Joe Biden.
The network had no immediate comment Tuesday about the texts.
For journalists, the ethical lines are clear: Your job is to report the news, not try to influence the actions of newsmakers.
Fox has always tried to distinguish between “news” and “opinion” programming, even though those lines are often nonexistent and many viewers don't make the same distinctions. The network considers Hannity, Ingraham and Kilmeade hosts of opinion shows. Fox has argued in court that its prime-time hosts can't be held to the same factual standards as actual journalists.
It's not the first time Fox personalities acted as sort of a kitchen cabinet to Trump. Hannity frequently consulted with him during his presidency, and Tucker Carlson once asked for and received a meeting with Trump to talk about COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic.
“I don't consider them in the traditional definition of a journalist,” said Aly Colon, a professor of media ethics at Washington and Lee University. “But even so, they are representative of a news operation at Fox.”
Their actions leave questions about whether their loyalty was to Trump or to viewers, who expect to learn about the news from them or at least get news analysis, Colon said.
While CNN and MSNBC provided live coverage of the Monday night hearing in which Cheney revealed the text messages, Fox did not. Hannity interviewed Meadows but did not ask about the advice he and his colleagues sent. At the outset of his show, he bashed the committee's work.
“We've been telling you that this is a waste of your time and money,” Hannity said. “They have a predetermined outcome.”
Not everyone thinks what the Fox hosts did was wrong, including a consultant who ran Fox's news operation for eight years during the 2000s.
“I do think it was helpful to have them, or anyone else who had influence or potential influence over the president, tell him what needed to be done,” said Michael Clemente, a former executive vice president at Fox News.
At a point of national crisis, that's more important than the objectivity rules that most journalists are bound by, he argued.
“Texting the chief of staff to urge him to tell the president to call for an end to rioting is a good thing,” said Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the conservative Media Research Center. “But, ideally, journalists shouldn't be texting political advice to the White House."
Graham said he didn't think the news will be a bombshell to Fox viewers. “It shows Fox being anti-riot, so they will be heartened by that,” he said.
On the night of the riot, Ingraham told Fox viewers that the Capitol had been attacked “by people who can only be described as antithetical to the MAGA movement.” She raised the idea that anti-fascist demonstrators may have been sprinkled through the crowd — which wasn't true.
She complained about the “continual video loop” of the Capitol breach. She said the demonstration was “99% peaceful,” but “because of a small contingent of loons, these patriots have been unfairly maligned.”
Hannity, on his show that night, condemned violence at the Capitol. He also spent considerable time talking about the “train wreck” presidential election and the failure of Democrats to condemn “violent far left riots” in American cities in the summer of 2020.
Some critics said they saw a disconnect between what the Fox personalities said publicly and texted privately.
“So you are telling me all these Fox News hosts knew the coup was terrible, begged Trump to stop it, and when he didn’t they kept on promoting him?” tweeted Amanda Carpenter, a columnist for The Bulwark, a political website dominated by conservatives who oppose Trump.
On their shows Tuesday, both Hannity and Ingraham argued that there was no difference between what they said publicly on Jan. 6 and what they texted Meadows.
“Both publicly and privately, I said what I believe — that the breach of the Capitol was a terrible thing,” Ingraham said.
Hannity complained about Cheney publicizing his text.
"Do we believe in privacy in this country?” he said. “Apparently not.”