Martha MacCallum knows, if nothing else, the Trump administration is bringing good TV.
“It is like the ultimate reality TV show,” MacCallum said, sitting at a table outside the New York newsroom of Fox News. The area has been remodeled in recent months after being moved up to the second floor from the basement, something MacCallum, a Fox veteran at this point, is grateful for. It’s brightly lit and clean with modern modular furniture — if it weren’t for the producers running back and forth (this was the day of the already infamous Kanye West summit at the White House) it could be the office of any new company.
But it’s Fox News, the 24-hour news network praised by President Trump and his supporters as the only source of nonliberal news and maligned by people and politicians on the left as now little more than state-run TV.
MacCallum, who anchors “The Story” on weeknights, knows the country is divided and that it’s easy to pander, but she wants to present both sides of the issues she covers and does not want to be seen as a shill for the administration.
During a recent show soon after Trump suggested the murder of journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi was the work of “rogue killers,” MacCallum told her guest Judith Miller, a journalist whose post-9/11 reporting at The New York Times regarding Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction later proved largely inaccurate, that the explanation “strained credulity.” Miller pushed farther and said how “interesting” she found it that Trump was the very first person to float the theory, likely after speaking with Saudi officials, and called the entire episode “a huge diplomatic embarrassment.”
This is the kind of TV gold that the Trump administration keeps cranking out and MacCallum finds it all “fascinating” — a word she uses a lot to describe political episodes of late and possible events of the future. She’s a journalist, not a pundit, something else she’s keen to clarify, and although her network has a particularly symbiotic setup with Trump, she says it doesn’t influence her work or her reporting.
“When I did the Kavanaugh interview, I spent three-and-a-half hours in the car on the way to D.C. writing my questions and nobody weighed in on them at all,” MacCallum said.
She thinks she got that interview (the only one that now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has given since his nomination and the assault allegations levied against him by Christine Blasey Ford) because the White House wanted someone who would ask “tough” questions and get answers. She fit the bill and delivered on the first part, but his actual answers were very few. MacCallum saw Kavanaugh was “seething” during her interview and contended that without it, the judge wouldn’t have shown his rage and tears before the Senate.
That interview seems to have had something of a halo effect on MacCallum, too. If you bring up her name to a non-Fox viewer, it may not ring a bell, but describe her as the anchor who interviewed Kavanaugh and they’ll place her right away. Her ratings, too, consistently beat CNN and MSNBC doing the same time slot, according to Nielsen.
WWD caught up with MacCallum to talk about the possibility of a Trump political dynasty, whether she thinks Kavanaugh should have been confirmed, previous instances of harassment at Fox and even the merits of elections based on a popular vote, among other things.
WWD: Let’s start with how you got here to Fox News — you actually started in theater, right?
Martha MacCallum: Yeah. I worked at CNBC for several years. Theater school was way back. I loved theater and went to Circle in the Square’s post-graduate program for two years and studied acting and directing and I loved it. I loved acting and directing — I really like directing a lot. Some days I think maybe someday I’ll go back and direct something. At that point I never would have imagined really the crossover to here, although I was always interested in politics — I was a political science major in college and did a lot of writing for the paper and all of that. So journalism and theater were two tracks I was always really interested in and so I kind of did a little bit of one and then whole hog the other. I worked at The Wall Street Journal and CNBC, then came over here about 14 years ago.
WWD: How was it coming to Fox News — what about it appealed to you?
M.M.: They came to me and pitched. Originally, it was in the earliest days of them wanting to be in the business channel, and I spoke to them and said, “If I come, I really want to do politics,” because that’s my first love.
WWD: Was there anything about Fox specifically that appealed to you or just the opportunity?
M.M.: It was, I’m trying to think back, it was a long time ago now. Honestly, I can say that when I did come here I thought that the people were so great and there was just a really kind of familial environment with the people and I liked it right away. And the opportunity to do politics and to do real news, that was the biggest draw of all. At that point in my life, any network that offered me that kind of package of news coverage and politics, I would have jumped at. I had been doing business news for a long time and I really wanted to make that transition.
WWD: Lately the company has been working on re-branding a bit and bring out a sort of “new Fox” mentality. You’ve alluded to the fact that the harassment issues came as a shock to you. You’ve said that Roger Ailes was a “terrific” boss and basically everything was so great for you here. So I’m curious how you felt when the allegations came out and how you feel about it now with some time in between?
M.M.: Well, as I’ve said, I was very surprised, I was shocked. And I think, you know, I think there were people who had that attitude, “How could you not know?” and I think that since then, it’s happened at so many other places across the country, from Hollywood to NBC to CBS, and I do think that there are plenty of people who had a similar reaction when it happened where they worked. We’ve seen a lot of people support Tom Brokaw, support Matt Lauer. But when the characteristics, the behavior described does not match up with the person, it’s very surprising. And, I think that, you know, Roger was a complicated person, he had a lot of very positive aspects to his personality and to his career and his success and the other part of it was very upsetting and disturbing. When you feel that you know someone and you work with them and you respect them, those are not the things you want to believe initially. So there was definitely a reality check with a lot of that, but I also still would say there’s a complexity to human beings. So, there was a lot of good along with the bad.
WWD: With the changes that have been going on, does anything stand out to you between Fox News under Roger Ailes and Fox News since he was deposed, so to speak? Was it sea change or gradual?
M.M.: I think it was a grinding hard change. It was difficult. I think we all felt rocked by all of that. It was a lot of change. And again, I would say as I watch my colleagues at other networks go through similar changes, I know how they feel. But I think we’re in a much better place now and I’m really excited about new Fox. Having Suzanne Scott in charge, she’s someone I’ve known ever since I got here. It’s great to have a woman in leadership here, which is unusual in the media world, and I think there’s been a lot of constructive hard work to make sure that people feel that they’re working in a workplace that’s safe and fair and open.
WWD: Do you feel like it’s more open?
M.M.: Absolutely. I mean, it’s not like people were walking around the halls [before] like, “Oh did you hear that this happened?” Certainly that wasn’t my experience, when it all, sort of, unfolded it was very disconcerting, very hard. But it was a cathartic experience and we are in a much better place. I certainly hope everyone feels that way. There’s been a lot of effort made in training and new h.r., Suzanne in charge, so I hope all of those things make people feel in a good place. That’s important to me.
WWD: You took over Greta Van Susteren’s time slot, right?
M.M.: Well, Tucker [Carlson] was in it, it was Greta and then Tucker for a brief period, then I took over and he moved to 9 and I moved to 7 from morning.
WWD: Was that a big decision for you, considering why Greta left and moving from morning to night, too?
M.M: Yeah. I initially wanted to stay where I was. Bill Hemmer and I worked together for seven years, we’re a great team. We do a lot of election coverage together and our producing team was terrific. Initially I was a little reluctant to make the move, I’m really glad that I did and I was encouraged to make it. I love having my own show, I love crafting it every day. It’s a really creative process and I feel like it’s an accurate representation of me and what I think is important to do in news and analysis.
WWD: What is important for you to do in news and analysis?
M.M: Well, every day it’s a little different. We’ve been in the most intense news cycle I’ve ever experienced in my life for the past two years. It’s been incredible. I remember being in meetings [before Trump’s election] being like, “Well, what are we going to do at the end of the show?” But those days never happen any more.
WWD: Right, how could they?
M.M.: It’s been absolutely an incredible news cycle. And I think everybody feels that way. I would never complain about that because that’s our lifeblood and I know we’re living in an extraordinary time, no matter how you feel about the President or how you feel about politics and how divisive it is right now. As a journalist and an anchor, I know someday I’m going to look back on this period and say, “Wow, was I in the catbird seat.” Incredible.
WWD: I can’t remember who said this, but someone quipped that nonfiction book publishing is going to survive the next 50 years off of just this presidency.
M.M.: Absolutely. I’ve always been a person that thinks nonfiction is more interesting than fiction, I love to read presidential biographies. The other thing I’d say about that is when you do that, when you look back at history, we’ve been through a lot of tumultuous divisive times in this country and in the middle of it, it always feels unusual and extraordinary. Over the course of American history you’re going to find a lot of moments that feel very divisive and very tumultuous.
WWD: People are incredibly ideologically divided, but I’m wondering how you feel about the rise in cable news and its effect on how divided the country is right now, whether you think it’s had an effect?
M.M.: I think there’s a lot of things in that cocktail, but cable news is certainly one of them. When I was growing up there were basically three evening news programs on.
WWD: And they were all hard news.
M.M.: Absolutely. And now, if you look at it like a newspaper that is represented on every cable channel, you’ve got your news during the day, your opinion at night, and you do have silos that people gravitate to that match how they look at the world. There’s no doubt about it: We’re center right, MSNBC is center left, CNN the same, so people gravitate to them. I do, just in my own life, I spend a lot of time flipping channels and looking at everything. Even in my office during the day I have two big TVs on my wall, like everyone in this business, and I go back and forth all the time. I was just watching the Kanye West White House visit — I don’t know if you got the chance to see it, but it was quite something. So, I immediately am flipping around to see what all the different commentators are saying about it because I don’t ever want to live in a bubble. I want to be fair and I want to cover all sides of the story. But I do think that perhaps if more people did that on a daily basis, we might be in better shape in terms of the divide. But most people don’t work in the news business, they have a job to do and other stuff to do so they come home at night and watch what they want to watch, which I completely get.
WWD: Do you ever feel like being at this network, and it could be the same at any network, has there ever been a situation where your journalistic sympathies were at odds with the image of Fox News and that created an issue for you?
M.M.: I can honestly say that has never created an issue for me. It’s funny, like I said, most people don’t work in the news business so they don’t have a good understanding of how it works, but literally my team and I put our show together every day and there’s a lot less input from above than people realize. When I did the Kavanaugh interview, I spent three-and-a-half hours in the car on the way to D.C. writing my questions and nobody weighed in on them at all. They trust us, which I think is great, and is a sign of confidence in our abilities. But that being said, every show on our network has a slightly different character and rhythm and everybody brings their unique perspectives into it. Do my feelings ever enter into what I do? Of course they do, I’m a human being and I think there are areas where I express myself a little bit more than might have happened in past news coverage that was a lot more…not robotic, but more staid. But I know what my line is that I don’t cross and I know I have to walk out of there every night and feel like I did a fair show and that I listened to all sides, and that I made sure that all sides, not all sides, but you know, a good exposure to both sides are on the show. Sometimes I’ll play devil’s advocate in the show, if I feel like another perspective isn’t really making it into the conversation.
WWD: With the Brett Kavanaugh interview, it was inbound from the White House.
WWD: And you’ve been in contact with them before, was there any specific reason this time?
M.M.: Well, they handled the nomination and they handled all of his media communications Raj Shah was handling communications for him from the minute he was nominated until the end. I don’t think anyone expects to get an interview with a judicial nominee for the Supreme Court — it just doesn’t happen — but I was gratified that they chose me, because I think they, I know they wanted him to do a real interview. And they wanted him to answer the tough questions. I think they wanted to see how he was going to respond; it was kind of a let’s see how he does before Thursday. So, I felt great that they wanted me to do it. And obviously I was glad to be picked.
WWD: Do you feel like he did answer your questions?
M.M.: There were times when he was a little bit rote and he kept saying the same thing over again about how “I never did this” and it was very interesting because, I clearly felt like he was simmering beneath the surface and that there was more underneath there. And do I wish he had cracked open more and done what he’d did at the hearing? Sure, but I don’t think he was at that point yet and he was under an extraordinary amount of pressure and so was his wife. It’s not every day that you sit next to your wife and answer questions about whether you gang raped people in high school, so it was uncomfortable for them to be sure. There was not a lot of chit-chat after. I don’t know if they were happy or unhappy with the interview — it wasn’t really important to me, but I felt good that we gave them an opportunity to speak. And I thought that he, there was a big difference between the interview on Monday and the hearing on Thursday and I have a feeling that he would not have been who he was on Thursday if he had not been happy with how he did on Monday, to a certain extent. I think he and perhaps others felt — look if you feel wronged you better let everybody know.
WWD: So you’re not surprised by the version you saw [at the Senate hearing]?
M.M.: No. it was a progression that we all sort of witnessed. It was definitely seething beneath the surface, no doubt. But for whatever reason he was concerned about getting too emotional about it, perhaps. I don’t know, I can’t get inside his mind, but we definitely saw the full brunt of his feelings [at the hearing]. And hers by the way, Christine Blasey’s, absolutely. It was intense, emotional drama on all sides.
WWD: The interview, not to be gushy, but you were roundly praised for it. A lot of people on the left were pleasantly surprised that you were a little more hard-line, people on the right were also pleased that you didn’t give softballs, so they didn’t have to face that criticism. But do you think your experiences at Fox over the last two years, now with maybe a more nuanced understanding of women’s issues, influenced how you interviewed Kavanaugh at all, how you pushed on certain things?
M.M.: Hmmm…Well, going into it, he had not spoken about any of it, at all. He had put out sort of short cursory statements responding to the allegations, so it was very clear to me that there were a number of questions that absolutely had to be asked. He had to respond to all the specific allegations, so I just felt like there was a job to be done in terms of getting him on the record on these issues. So, it was actually very straightforward for me in terms of what needed to be accomplished and I felt in a way that it was a journalistic service that needed to be done. He needed to answer the questions and I needed to ask him if he’d ever blacked out — it was interesting to me that that question came up again and again and again [during the hearing] and [my interview] was the first time he put himself on the record about it. If he’d said “yes” suddenly on Thursday and changed his story that would have been news. But I feel like we laid the groundwork for a number of questions at the hearing, because they were the questions to ask. Once he laid that groundwork, I mean he felt those were honest responses, so he stuck with them.
WWD: Do you feel that there’s any kind of issue that could present itself, publicly or with your own work, with how closely Fox and the Trump White House seem to be aligned?
M.M.: Here’s my take on that: You know, there have been, throughout the course of history, warm relationships between certain networks and presidents. You can easily make the argument that MSNBC had a good relationship with the Obama administration, you saw a lot of people from the administration on there quite often. You look at the people [Obama] chose to sit down with, it generally was not us, although he did end up doing interviews [with Fox].
WWD: And you interviewed him, right?
M.M.: I interviewed Obama before he was president, he was just warming up to run at that point. But you go back to J.F.K. — he had a very warm relationship with Ben Bradlee at The Washington Post, and in fact [Bradley] questioned his own closeness and whether or not he was able to be completely objective because they were such good friends. So, is there a relationship between the Trump administration and certain members of Fox? Absolutely. Do I think that’s unprecedented? Absolutely not. Does it prevent me from looking at it fairly? It doesn’t. I’ve had brief conversations, well, I’ve interviewed the President three or four times, I guess, and I’ve had brief conversations with him where he says things to me like, “Sometimes you’re nice to me and sometimes you’re not.” So, I figure I’m doing my job, because sometimes there’s a positive response to things that are happening and sometimes not so positive.
WWD: And they keep coming back to you.
M.M.: Yeah. And it’s those relationships that the President has with some people here are separate from what we do. So….
WWD: What is your read on Trump? I know you’ve said in the past that you thought he should be more disciplined with his agenda or how he speaks in public, etc. Do you think that’s taken hold at all?
M.M.: What I like to do is not really try to dictate any of that. I like to observe what’s happening. I feel like there are so many people who are spending a ton of air time criticizing the President or sticking up for the President in different ways, so what I like to do is just peel it back and say, what’s going on? What’s going on with the employment numbers? What’s going on with North Korea? What’s going on with this Saudi Arabia story? Is he going to pressure Saudi Arabia when we all know that the U.S. prefers to have a friendly relationship with Saudi leadership? He’s obviously an extremely unique personality, he’s unlike any president we’ve witnessed in modern times, certainly in my lifetime. Is he brash sometimes? Absolutely. Are there tweets I look at and go, “Oh my gosh.” Everybody does, I think. But I find it fascinating to cover him and that’s what my job is. If it got really boring it would make my job less interesting, to be perfectly honest. I like watching this for sure.
WWD: I think everyone does, it’s an addiction at this point.
M.M.: It is. People are just so fired up and interested in politics, whether they love him or hate him and I think the country is more engaged in this debate. It’s probably bad for regular TV shows, it’s the most interesting game in town. It is like the ultimate reality TV show.
WWD: So what are the major issues you’re looking at right now?
M.M.: Obviously, the Supreme Court story was so enormous over the past few weeks. I think some of the fissures that it opened will remain through the midterms — we’re laser-focused on the midterms now and that’s going to be a huge report card for the administration and it will be read that way, no matter what. It looks like the House will probably go Democrat and the Senate will probably hold Republican, which tends to be a position America likes to be in.
In terms of the “me too” issue — I think we’ve done some very interesting work over the past couple of years in looking at both sides of the story and I really do feel like it’s important to look at the truth of each case rather than believing all men or believing all women. You have to look at the facts of the case just like you would any other crime story and figure out what happened.
WWD: Do you think that Kavanaugh should have been confirmed?
M.M.: That was a decision for the members of the Senate. Do I think he should have been confirmed? I think like everyone else, just as an American citizen watching the process, when you put against it a preponderance of the evidence, which is actually the bar that’s used in harassment cases, whether it’s on college campuses or in this situation when you’re not in a court of law, did they prove that it was more likely than not that it happened? Probably not. Just looking at it from that question. Because that’s the measure: Is it more likely than not that it happened? It was difficult with no corroborating evidence. Do I know what happened that day 36 years ago? Absolutely not. Did I find her to be sympathetic and to be credible? You know, I think she believes her story a hundred percent. I think she’s a very sympathetic and important character in America today, in a lot of ways. I think that’s why a lot of people look at her and are sympathetic because these are tough cases and it’s tough when there isn’t that evidence to support it. I hope that everybody can learn going forward…women should make an effort to try to grab hold of some evidence, whatever it is, and to talk to someone they feel comfortable with right away, to get some of these things written down and documented. Because I’m sure she wishes she had more to present and hang onto and it’s tricky and it’s not easy in these situations and we know there’s all kinds of complicated reasons why people don’t report things.
WWD: Do you think the rise of punditry over the last maybe 20 years has anything to do with how people digest media and how quickly things seem to go because there are pundits that feed into this idea of always being in crisis mode, always finding something new happening?
M.M.: It does to a certain extent, but I always try to remember that we’re so in the middle of this world, this media bubble news world. On a great night, several million people are watching our show and other shows, and we’ve got 325 million people in America. So, I think our impact is probably a lot less than what we think it is. People have lives. They’re busy. I think pocketbook issues are really the most important thing for them. If they feel like they’re doing well, they’ll probably vote to reelect the president. If they feel like they’re not, they’re probably going to look for another option. So, I think punditry has a very limited audience and within the circle of people who are interested in it, yes, I think it has an impact. But there’s a lot more experts out there these days.
WWD: So what do you see in 2020? I heard Mika Brzezinski say that she thinks Ivanka is going to run…
M.M.: When I look long-term, I don’t think in 2020, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see a member of the Trump family run for office in the future. I don’t expect any one of them to run for president in 2020. I think President Trump is planning to run for president in 2020. He shows absolutely no sign of not running. And he said the other day, “This is gonna be so easy,” so I think it’s going to be fascinating to watch and I think there’s no shortage of people running on the other side — Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, very interesting dynamic politicians, and it could just make for a fascinating battle. I thought Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was probably the most fascinating battle we could possibly see, but I think the next could be even more interesting. I also think one of the things to watch for in 2020 is a Republican who decides to run against the President, and that’s something we’re going to be watching very closely. That person would have to know they could garner independent voters and peel off some Democrats and Republicans from both sides, in electoral states that matter, to make that happen. But I think that’s a possibility.
WWD: Do you think there are enough “never Trumpers” left on the Republican side that someone else could win?
M.M.: I think that’s a very powerful voice, the Republican Party is very divided. And you also have Democrats who voted for President Trump. So, I think the dynamic is evolving in a very interesting way. I wouldn’t be surprised if you end up with three parties in this country at some point because there are a lot of people who are craving something in the middle. Whether or not they are able to win is another question.
WWD: Do you think that would be worse for politics, as it is, for there to be a third party consistently?
M.M.: To expect that the system we have will continue into eternity is probably unlikely. I think it would be fascinating to see what would happen if you had three legitimate candidates slugging it out — from my perspective that would be a great story.
WWD: The parties as they are now, too, are much different than they were 100 years ago, and I think sometimes that’s part of the upset going on, that the parties really are shifting again.
M.M.: I think they are shifting. Some of the names I mentioned really have gone farther to the progressive side and I do think there’s a lot of people who are more in the middle who don’t necessarily believe in some of the ideas that reflect a more socialist kind of government, and I mean what you see in Canada or in France or in the United Kingdom. And whether or not that is a winning idea in America, I think is interesting. You get a lot of younger people who find that an appealing idea. I think when I was in college I thought that, you know, like, sort of giving everyone an equal amount and spreading it around seems like a wonderful idea.
WWD: So do you think Trump gets a second term?
M.M.: I don’t know. I think in this moment, looking at the larger picture, it’s certainly possible. It looks like he’s absolutely running and he’s excited about it.
WWD: And getting more comfortable, too. There’s something happening lately, not that he was ever lacking in confidence…
M.M.: No, he’s definitely not, never had a problem with that. I think he absolutely believes that he will run again and that he will win again. Whether or not that’s the case, we’re all along for the ride. We will see.
WWD: What do you think happens if the House does go to the Democrats? Impeachment’s been thrown around…
M.M.: I think there’ll be a lot of time spent doing investigations. I think the Oversight Committee will go into overdrive.
WWD: Of the President? Kavanaugh? Both?
M.M.: Perhaps both. I think it will look like it did when Republicans were overseeing the committee and were investigating Benghazi and all of that. That’s the pattern and I would look for a lot more of that kind of investigation.
WWD: This weaponization, can you track it back to any specific event, or any term?
M.M.: There are a lot of things you can point to. The oversight committees on both sides and the investigations that they root for. You can point to the end of filibuster for judges. We don’t live in a world where judges get approved by 95 votes anymore; there’s no sort of blanket acceptance [among politicians] that we’re here to advise and consent and to run the government. We’re in a nonstop election zone most of the time and I don’t think that’s necessarily a positive thing for the country.
WWD: Do you sense any kind of momentum around changing the electoral college system, or every state, regardless of population, getting two senators?
M.M.: When I hear that, my reaction is that’s the way the government was set up, everyone gets two senators and then you have representatives in the House based on population. I think it’s worked pretty well for a long time.
WWD: So you think it’s better than having a popular voting system, something we’ve never had?
M.M.: You have to have a pretty high bar to change the way that that’s done. That would have to be looked into by people far above my pay grade to understand what the lasting implications of it might be. I think we have a pretty good system. It’s not the best system, but it’s the best system in the world, as far as I can see. So I think you’d have to think long and hard about that kind of constitutional change.
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