Dana Perino’s Rising Stature in Fox News’ Post-Shep Landscape: A Mediaite Q&A

 


Fox News anchor and host Dana Perino is celebrating her second year a host of The Daily Briefing with some fortuitous timing of perhaps the most significant interview booking since she started anchoring the 2 PM news show. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg sat down for a relaxed, fair and occasionally tough set of questions, which revealed as much about Perino’s well-informed and calm demeanor as it did about Zuckerberg’s buttoned-up messaging.

Perhaps the largest takeaway from the 22-plus minute interview was just how fordable a resource Perino presents for the networks news division. And given the rather significant recent loss of Shepard Smith, Dana Perino’s influence and the role is not only growing at Fox News but is likely more important than ever to the cable outlet than right now.

Mediaite sat down with Perino at a beautifully and recently decorated 44th floor Fox Corp. commissary that felt like it was from a Copenhagen-set remake of Succession. We talked at length about her role as a contributor to opinion program The Five, how she balances roles as anchor and co-host (there is a distinction) and how she feels about Trump criticizing her old boss former President George W. Bush, whom she served as Press Secretary.

The following interview questions and answers have been condensed for editorial purposes.

Mediaite: Congratulations on your Daily Briefing anniversary. How has your show evolved since it launched two years ago?

Perino: That’s a great question. I remember before the first show, really thinking it through. I knew who the guests were going to be. I thought about all the questions. That morning, I woke up and the Las Vegas shooting had happened. That’s when it was very clear, that was at news hour where you can do some analysis along the way. Hurricane Harvey, the one that hit Houston, hit right after that shooting.

It was one thing after another. One thing I also remember about that time is because they said “Okay. Now, we’re going to go to Lauren in the field and Matt’s staying over here.” Going around, bouncing around all of these reporters that Fox News had across the board and I would say, “Where is that person from? Where is that person from?”

I was like, “Wow, Fox’s (muli-reporter) program.” I knew Fox’s news was good at this level like a prime-time level or on breaking news, but that was my first time anchoring something where I felt so secure in knowing that these people that we’re going to in the field know exactly what they’re talking about. I always loved reporters too, believe it or not, I did, when I was a press secretary. I have a really good relationship with all of them and I admire the craft.

Mediaite: Fox News viewers have known you well for over a decade and co-hosting The Five for almost a decade. How would you describe your role on The Five?

Perino: Greg Gutfeld was the one who got me to open up. I remember one day, in particular, there was a question, a topic about the legalization of marijuana. We were talking about it and I was answering as if I was the White House Press Secretary. I remember Greg said, “No, but what do you think?”

The Five was the first time I have ever given my personal opinion in public about anything because up until then, nobody cared. Why would they? My job was not to give you my opinion. I wasn’t the president of the United States. You had to explain too — what he was thinking or how he came to that decision.

I’m just grateful that they gave me that room to run. This will be the third presidential election I’ve done as part of the team. In addition to The Five and now the two o’clock show, the last two elections I’ve been on the election coverage team, so at the debates. I think, whereas I can provide analysis like everybody else can provide analysis, I have a slightly different viewpoint just because of where I worked and when I worked. I started at the Justice Department right after 9/11.

Mediaite: First, I think it’s fair to say that have some conservative bona fides of having worked in the Bush administration. You seem, however, to often offer a more moderate, a better informed, a less inflammatory take than you co-hosts of The Five. Is that a fair assessment or how would you describe it?

Perino: I remember when I saw Laura Bush and it must have been 2011. I came around the corner in Kennebunkport. She said, “Oh, there she is. The voice of reason on The Five.”

I hear that quite a lot. I think, partly, it’s just in my nature to be somebody who tries to bring people together. Ever since I was a kid, I paid a lot of attention to communication. I would sit in the backseat of the car with my sister. If my parents got in an argument, I would immediately start to think, “If she had just waited until we got home and then if he had said it this way.” I was always trying to figure out, how can we all get along better through communication?

I think about that now. It’s just my natural state. I want people to try to get along. Also, I feel like, again, with the background that I have, I’m like, “Everything changes.” I worked on Capitol Hill when President Clinton was president and we went through the Lewinsky impeachment. I was there on 9/11. I was there during the Iraq War. I was there during the financial crisis. I covered the Obama administration and now Trump. I constantly seek serenity in my life. I’m not saying I’m very good at it, but I’m always seeking it.

The other thing I love about being at Fox, and especially I think The Five helped me with this, is that I just am who I am. I can’t fake it. What you see is what you get.

Mediaite: The Five is a pretty strong opinion-based program, but then you also host a news show, Daily Briefing. I’m curious if that distinction creates any conflict for viewers or can you abide by accepted rules of standards of journalism if you’re also a host of an opinion show?

Perino: I try to every day. I tried my best every day. I also think that our viewers know us as humans as well. It’s not a secret what my background was. In fact, why would anybody even care what I have to say if I hadn’t had the experiences that I have? I think they give me a little room for one. Also, I’ve been able to book people from all walks of life and all the different sides of the aisle. I don’t want to say there’s just left and right because there’s a big spectrum.

Mediaite: Moving on to Fox News. One could argue that there has never been a stronger, more influential media oulet given the evolution of opinion media in general and Fox News ratings. Do you feel that there is some sort of greater responsibility?

Perino: If you think back to when I was press secretary on January 20th, 2009, the day that it ended at noon, I didn’t even have a Twitter account. (Social Media) certainly had an impact and amplified things and you might find people in my family who watch Fox all day long. You might find others who watch MSNBC or CNN all day long or, actually, I think most people end up watching TV all day long. I think that is over-exaggerated.

I think people are omnivores when it comes to media consumption. As I’ve already mentioned, I love local news. The recent Pew study that came out about polarization said that communities that have a local newspaper are much less likely to be hyperpolarized

Mediaite: Let’s talk about Shep Smith’s departure. He followed your show. He’s a very popular guy. What were your thoughts generally about his leaving?

Perino: Well, he was a big champion of mine. Pretty much, you can’t find anybody in the building who he didn’t, at some point, help along the way. That was very much true.

Mediaite: Do you think Shep’s departure leaves less of a moderate voice in Fox News? Will that affect what you may do? 

Perino: You asked me before if I was a moderate voice aleady.

Mediaite: Well, relative to a post-Shep Fox News…

Perino: I would repeat… I’m really comfortable with where I am in my life and with my work. I love my work. I wouldn’t want to do anything else because everything that I’m doing now, again, these building blocks of my whole life come together for this moment. Jay Wallace, when he did that interview, I guess it was last week with Variety, he talked about the way he sees the world going forward or the world of Fox going forward with news and the way that they have the line-up right now to handle the three o’clock hour.

Mediaite: There were reports of intra-talent scrapping at Fox News and some conspiracy theories that Shep was forced out, which I know not to be true, but can you comment at all? Was there any talent infighting that you saw?

Perino: I don’t know whether it’s because I’m so busy. I just don’t hear about any of it. The only things that I would hear about are things that I would read, all the places that didn’t touch me and enriched me.

Mediaite: Let’s move on to covering Trump from a news perspective that seems very different than covering maybe administrations because Trump will often promote debunked conspiracy theories as though they are true. How do you respond to that?

Perino: Well, I think what the Trump administration might say “so do the Democrats.” It does take a lot of work to constantly be looking at all this and not be Carrie from Homeland in her walled in house.

Mediaite: Well, first of all, Trump is the president He’s not just “the Democrats.” He would promote this idea that Adam Schiff was the Whistleblower or this Ukraine DNC server conspiracy, which is why–

Perino: On the CrowdStrike thing, for example, Congressman Steve Scalise brought this up on my show yesterday. I asked him, “Do you really believe that there is a server in Ukraine?”

Mediaite: How did he respond?

Perino: He said, “Well, the Democrats have never proven to us that there wasn’t.”

Mediaite: You’re saying that by raising the question, the fog of political war is an okay thing, but as a news person, isn’t it–

Perino: I like to be concrete. I started as a journalist before I ever had an opportunity to go work in Washington, DC and I love news. I think there’s some really good journalism being done across the board, not just here, but across the board.

Mediaite: Trump suggested that Adam Schiff could be the whistleblower. Do you think that that’s possible?

Perino: Do I think that Schiff is a whistleblower? No. I don’t know. He talks a lot. I didn’t hear that in particular unless he’s saying that Schiff had a connection with the whistleblower beforehand and then coached the whistleblower. I don’t know why I’m in a position of trying to be his spokesperson. I’m not.

Mediaite: The two other cable outlets will fact-check in real-time. Do you feel like that’s unnecessary or do you think that’s a passive-aggressive move? Because Trump is moving fast and he’s very exaggerative, hyperbolic. I think he is blamed for lies when he’s just clearly exaggerating.

Perino: Where he uses hyperbole?

Mediaite: Yes, but there are times where he actually seems to either be willfully misinformed or suggesting things with a false equivalency.

Perino: What is the question?

Mediaite: Do you feel obligated to correct President Trump when you know that he’s willfully either misinformed or saying things you know not to be true?

Perino: When I’m on-air and I can, absolutely. Again, I’m not on-air 24/7 and he talks a lot.

Mediaite: There was a recent poll that came out that was promoted in The Washington Post that polled Republicans for or against impeachment. They found that 94% of Republicans that watch Fox News are against impeachment, whereas only 34% of the Republicans who didn’t watch Fox News were against the impeachment.

Perino: How many Republicans don’t watch Fox News?

Mediaite: That begs a question…

Perino: I think having been on Capitol Hill in 1997 and 1998 had that same poll been taken, I bet the opposite was true. Because impeachment is a political decision.

Mediaite: Fox News had this conservative bona fides in its programming and that’s been replaced by Trumpism. What does Fox News look like in a post-Trump forum?

Perino: I have no idea … It’s just going to be exciting. I think that democracy is self-healing. We are the greatest country in the world because we show over and over again how we have peaceful transitions of power.

Mediaite: How do you feel when you hear Trump criticize your old boss, 43?

Perino: I take it all with a grain of salt because I know that politics is a little bit about distance. One of the things that happened like they have strong– I think Trump has very strong feelings against 43. However, I think that there’s been a little bit of a lessening of that partly because 43 doesn’t seek the klieg lights. He’s not in competition. One of the things that 43 had long said to me is I’m not– because I would have to prep him for interviews, I’m like, “They’re going to ask you about what you want your legacy to be.”

He would say, “I’m not worried because last year, I read three books about George Washington. If historians are still analyzing the first president, then the 43rd doesn’t have anything to worry about because you’ll never know.” I think that gave me the way that I can be right now in my life, which is more serene. With a longer view, history has a long arc. Things change.

I also think that for a long time, Republicans have said, “Oh my gosh. What are we doing?” Demographics are destiny. We know that the country is changing. It’s going to change, but that doesn’t mean politics and loyalties are static. Things can change. If you think about in the 1980s before Ronald Reagan, everyone in Texas was a Democrat then they become Republicans.

Ms. Perino will interview Ambassador Nikki Haley at the 92Y on Tuesday, November 12 at 7 pm. There will be audience Q&A and it will be live-streamed.

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