WASHINGTON — Hours after President Donald Trump railed on Twitter last week that “social media giants are silencing millions of people,” the response from two Fox News personalities was one of bafflement.
“John, what is he talking about?” anchor Shepard Smith asked Fox News’ chief White House correspondent, a bit incredulously.
Roberts surmised Trump was “venting,” but added, “The Twitter thing to me was a little strange because no one is more prolific than him.”
Such moments catch the attention, if only because it diverges from the criticism that Fox News is little more than a house organ for the Trump administration, with vocal supporters Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham dominating its primetime lineup of opinion programs.
Roberts often finds himself in the position of having to reinforce his journalistic credentials and to push back against the perception some hold that he is in the tank for Trump’s White House, what with the president’s vocal preference for Fox News and one of Fox News’ former top executives, Bill Shine, serving as White House communications chief.
Roberts recently spoke with Variety about why he thinks such notions of favoritism are misguided, his own concerns over the president’s attacks on the media, and his recent ordeal: Just before, during and after Trump’s trip to Europe and summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he was experiencing chest pains. Doctors finally discovered two blocked arteries that required him to have two stents. Roberts spent a night in the hospital then recuperated in a pre-scheduled weeklong vacation.
“If you think something is wrong, and you have never felt like you are feeling before, it’s a good chance that something is wrong,” he says.
President Trump calls CNN “fake news” but Fox News a “real news network.” What kind of position does that put you in?
I have explained this before, that we really have two different divisions, and they are quite separate at Fox News. We have the news division and then we have the programming division… I know that the way that I conduct myself is exactly the same way as when I was on CNN, exactly the same way when I was on CBS. I consider all sides of the story, I report all sides of the story and I try to do it fairly.
If the president screws up, I report that the president screws up. I don’t try to sugar coat it in any way. And if the president does something that is beneficial to the country, I report that as well.
I think if you go to Twitter, I get a lot of people criticizing going, ‘Oh you are Fox News. You know, you are a mouthpiece for the administration.’ But they haven’t been watching my reporting so they don’t know. They don’t know that I from time to time irritate the president with a very difficult question.
What about the president’s attacks on the media?
I think a lot of times the president goes too far. There are certain stories that seem to look for the most negative thing possible, but the president does give the press corps a reason to look for the most negative thing possible.
His assessment of the reporting following the Helsinki summit. It is not fake news to say that press conference was not his best moment. In one of my reports, I said, here is a growing consensus across the country by people who were reacting to it that he threw America under the bus. And then he looked at all that coverage, and started calling it fake news. Well, it wasn’t fake news. That was not a bright and shining moment for the president.
Just before that summit, Trump gave a press conference at Chequers in England, where he called on you but refused to call on Jim Acosta because CNN was “fake news.”
[NOTE: Roberts was criticized by other journalists for going ahead with his question rather than speaking out in the moment against Trump’s attacks].
Mara Liasson was in exactly the same situation at a press conference in January 2017 at Trump Tower, where Jim Acosta and the president started going at each other and he refused to take a question from Acosta because he felt he was interrupting, and he went to Mara Liasson and Mara Liasson simply asked a question. I haven’t told anybody about this, at least not for publication, but that morning, all day, from the moment I woke up until I was sitting in that press conference, I thought I was having a heart attack. We were sitting out there in the hot sun in Chequers, and it took all my focus to not pass out at that moment, and then all of that happened. At that moment I was more concerned with trying to make sure I didn’t keel over in front of everybody, which is why a couple hours later, and after I started getting beaten the crap out of on Twitter.
[NOTE: Roberts later issued a statement calling Trump’s attacks on NBC News’ Kristen Welker and CNN “unfair.”]
I said, ‘Look, the president [also] said this about Kristen Welker of NBC, and I don’t think that’s true. I know Kristen. I think she’s a terrific journalist. I she is as honest as the day is long, and I used to work for CNN, and I don’t think that it is fake news. But Acosta and the president, they have got this thing, where they do this back and forth and that was certainly another example of it. It was maybe in the most visible form than it had been before. Again, at that moment, I wasn’t paying much attention to the back and forth between the president and Acosta, because I was just trying to stay lucid.
Trump called the “fake news media” the “enemy of the people.” How concerned are you that the attacks could lead to violence?
There was one moment where I thought he went way too far. It was at the US Bank Arena in Cincinnati. I got there early, so I had been there a few hours. The press plane was late and the press corps marched in and the president had already wound up the crowd about the “fake news” media. But as the press corps was coming in they were getting roundly booed by thousands of people in the arena, and it looked to me at one point like it was actually going to get ugly. I think Katy Tur, correspondent from NBC, had to be escorted through the crowd by a Secret Service agent to get out of the arena.
If you want to say that you don’t think you are getting fair coverage, that is one thing. But I think the president does go too far in making the press the enemy and using that as a foil at rallies, because at some point it could get dangerous.
How much disagreement is there among the White House press corps as to how approach the president?
I don’t ask questions a certain way to try to get under the president’s skin so that I can become famous for doing that. I am like so many of my colleagues in the press corps — Steve Holland, Zeke Miller, Jeff Mason, Maggie Haberman. I know all of those people who ask a straight question, it can be a tough question, but I don’t try to put a top spin on it.
What do you think of Jim Acosta’s approach?
It is not for me to say. His approach is his approach. He is the one who should talk about his approach and not me.
How unusual is it for you to have Bill Shine now working for Trump?
I expect that we will probably have a good relationship in terms of being able to talk with each other, because we have known each other for a long time.
It is like when Sean Spicer became press secretary. I had known Sean for years. It is somebody that you know. It is somebody you went out and had drinks with, but now they are in a different role. To some degree Shine is going to be skeptical of what I am I do, and I will have a healthy dose of skepticism of what he is telling me, because he is coming from the administration spin side of things.
What’s the biggest challenge for you right now?
There is almost like a wall that is being built between the West Wing operation and the press, and I think that comes out of the animosity that there is between the press and the White House. I think if there is something that can be done to kind of break down that barrier, then let us in a little more to talk to the people who are actually doing the work I think that would certainly help me as a journalist and I think it would help Americans understand to greater degree what is going on here at the White House.
A lot of the information that we get passed our way, too, is driven by somebody’s agenda. The whole thing about ‘John Kelly is on his way out’ was driven in part by people who were gunning for his job. So everything that you hear, unless it comes from an absolutely reliable source, you have to take with a grain of salt and make sure that you got your facts straight. Now I think that there was some pretty high-profile mistakes that were made in reporting late last year. I think that people are a lot more diligent now in getting the information right before they go out there and report it. So I think that the claims of quote ‘fake news’ are certainly less valid than they might have been on a couple of occasions in the past.
How are you handling the pace of breaking news?
You have a president who gets up in the morning. and if he doesn’t see himself above the fold on the front page on at least three newspapers, he does something to get himself above the fold on the front page. … On an average day when things are up and running there are four or five big stories coming out of this White House. In previous White Houses that I have covered, if we had four or five a week. that would be a lot. We are getting that every day.
You’ve started to limit your use of Twitter. Why?
It was just becoming such a forum of anger and hatred, that anytime I would post anything it would create this long cascade of back and forth between people who didn’t like what I said, or didn’t like the president, or liked the president and were arguing back and forth. … [Staying off of Twitter] has been a really welcome break from the day-to-day stuff that comes over the transom on Twitter. I never thought that it would change my life to the degree that it has.