Fox News Worth Watching: An Hour with Hannity and Newsom.
There's a talent involved in presenting facts, concepts, and even a public personality. Here's a lesson in how it's done. And it didn't come from Hannity.
Screenshot of Sean Hannity interviewing Gavin Newsom in Sacramento, from Fox News on June 12, 2023.
So far the Trump/Biden-era Democratic party has had just a few figures who come across as the Happy Warriors of info-combat.
—One is Pete Buttigieg, who as a presidential candidate frequently went on Fox News to dish out fact-based, fast-paced, delivered-with-a-smile rebuttals to baiting questions. He’s busy now, as Secretary of Transportation, but periodically he still shows up on Fox.
—Another is Rep. Katie Porter, of California. Her sweet spot is at Congressional hearings, where she combines charts, whiteboard illustrations that intentionally look as if they came from a fifth-grade math class, and harmless-sounding lines of inquiry that lead witnesses into a trap.
—A third is Al Franken. He honed what we might now call the Colbert-style skill of turning well-informed “policy critiques” into sophisticated humor.1 Over the past 20 years—before, during, and after his time as a US Senator—Franken has established himself as a political figure with a talent for humor, rather than as an entertainer who also talks about politics.
Of course many others have used this style. In his prime Bill Clinton had the knack of sounding always-informed, ever-amused, rarely angry. Wry, self-aware humor was one of many ingredients in John F. Kennedy’s hold on much of the public and the press. You can fill in your own favorite examples. The sporting metaphor I think of for this rhetorical approach is Muhammed Ali in his prime—dancing around his opponent, ducking away from the telegraphed blows, and eventually landing his punch on a befuddled foe.
To this roster we can now add Gavin Newsom, in his second term as governor of California. The performance he put on this week in an hour-long interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News deserves notice for what it showed about Hannity, what it showed about Newsom, and mainly for what is showed about the art of deploying facts, anecdotes, and humor in a political cause.
Report from the DC contingent of the Fox News base.
In our household we watch a lot of Fox News. This usually begins when my wife, Deb, grabs the remote during some breaking-news event and says, “Let’s see how they’re handling this”—they meaning Fox. We start in, and then typically either switch away immediately—Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham—or stay to drink it in. I tell myself that time spent this way has the same payoff as watching Chinese state-media TV when we lived there, or of reading the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. It’s how you keep up on the Current Official Line.
So we tuned into Monday night’s Sean Hannity show by channel-surfing happenstance, and ended up watching every minute.
Also by chance, a few weeks earlier Deb and I had also spent an hour interviewing Gavin Newsom in Sacramento. Unlike Hannity, we weren’t asking about current politics—or about Trump, Biden, DeSantis, and so on. Instead we were talking with Newsom about a very ambitious California-based project that he hopes can be a model for the entire nation.2
As we were walking out at the end of our talk, Newsom mentioned that he was looking forward to a possible interview that Hannity had suggested, the details of which were still being worked out.
I thought but did not say, What???
Wasn’t this just walking into an opportunity to be talked over and yelled at? Didn’t he realize how California in general and its governor in particular were never-ending objects of snark and attack on Fox? Was this really a good idea—to engage in any way with the network that had just paid out $787 million for its knowing lies about Joe Biden’s election?
It turns out that I was wrong, and Newsom was right to take this on.
More precisely, he was right to take it on—given that he came in fully prepared. Prepared factually, rhetorically, and temperamentally, so that he ended up looking like the one who was having fun while Hannity blustered and stumbled and left Newsom looking like he was in control. To me this hour was like seeing the difference between chess and checkers. Like seeing the difference between the person who was always two moves ahead, and the person always one move behind.
But below are a few illustrations of why I found it instructive. Some of what I’ll mention deals with what Hannity revealed about the Fox info-bubble. Most of it concerns the lessons Newsom implicitly gave for others in his party.
Three kinds of preparation.
I haven’t seen Gavin Newsom in many public sessions, so I don’t know whether what he did with Hannity comes naturally or is an acquired skill. Either way, here is how it paid off for him to be ready for the discussion.
1. Factual preparation.
Newsom and his team had clearly watched enough of Hannity’s output to know just what he was going to say. You could see Newsom thinking, “Here it comes!” each time Hannity began one of his riffs. For a sample of the subtlety of Hannity’s approach, here was the segue after one commercial break:
Welcome back to Hannity. So with a declining population, it is no secret that Americans are now fleeing California in droves. Despite its vast natural resources, great weather, beautiful coastline. Now California is shrinking rapidly…. So what's going on in the Golden State? And will the state's governor take any responsibility?
As Hannity put it to Newsom, “Tell me why they're leaving your state.” He accompanied it with slide decks documenting how much more attractive Florida was instead.
“What’s up is that per capita, more Floridians move to California, than Californians are moving to Florida,” Newsom said. “That I don’t imagine is in one of your eight slides.”
He was just getting started: “This state continues to be the tentpole of the American economy.” In a recent month “25.6% of all new American jobs came from this state.” California is “on our way to be the fourth largest economy in the world—eat your heart out, Germany! Number one in R&D, in venture capital—more scientists, researchers, more Nobel laureates, more patents emanating from this state than any other.”
With a grin he said, “All due respect, but Florida doesn’t even come close.” His rat-a-tat-tat of facts was different from what some of his GOP predecessors, like Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger, might have done. But his demeanor was much like the tolerant amusement of either of those past California governors, in brushing off a put-down from some lesser entity.
There were lots of these “well, actually” exchanges —about crime, about immigration, about taxes, about the overall record of the Biden era. Via @acyn’s collection you can see a good illustration here. It begins with Hannity’s confident assertion that Biden’s record is the worst in presidential history. It ends with Newsom pointing out that three years of Biden have led to much more job growth than the previous three GOP presidents (Bush, Bush, Trump) combined. “You and I are living with the lowest unemployment rate in our lifetimes, Sean!”
Hannity seemed so flustered by unexpected facts that he skipped from topic to topic, said “I didn’t know that” at one point, and sought comfort in his prepared-slide deck. Meanwhile Newsom was working without notes.
Several times Hannity implicitly sued for peace, by saying: Well you, Mr. Fancy-Pants Governor, can make all these points so eloquently. But your aged and feeble president can’t!4 So I’ve gotcha!
There are lots more illustrations. Again, please watch it for yourselves.
We can all think of politicians who sound ponderous and condescending when saying “Well, actually….” The trick is laying out the facts without giving a lecture. Newsom was also doing that, which leads us to:
2. Rhetorical preparation.
Knowing the facts is one thing. Knowing how to present them is another. Either just by exposure or through practice, Newsom was ready to build rhetorical and political structures on the foundation of his facts.