NEW YORK (AP) — When Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg made the media rounds in advance of Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony this week, it was a telling sign that Dana Perino was chosen to question her for Fox News Channel.
The assignment speaks to Perino’s growing role at Fox, and a sense that sources are trusting her as an honest broker of information. Perino, who hosts an afternoon news hour and is a panelist on “The Five,” is quietly persistent in a medium where bluster pays. She believes in homework at a time when “fake news” is used as an epithet.
She’s a Bush Republican in a Trump world.
“My nature,” said the former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, “is to try to show people that we may actually agree on things more than we think.”
The Sandberg interview was only the third such interview Perino has done, and the one with the highest profile. The beginning was awkward, as Perino couldn’t dislodge Sandberg from talking points. But when the anchor observed that people are more tribal the more connected they’ve become, it opened a real discussion.
Only one question seemed designed specifically for a Fox audience, when Perino asked about concerns among conservatives that changed algorithms for sharing news would benefit liberals.
“There are a lot of people who are angry about Facebook,” she said in an interview. “But nobody has the same grievance. It was hard to kind of settle in on what to ask her about.”
For most of her career, Perino was at the other end of the questions. She grew up outside of Denver and worked as a press secretary on Capitol Hill in the late 1990s. Following the 2001 terrorist attacks, she went to work for the Bush administration and was his final press secretary, leaving the White House when Bush did in January 2009.
She searched for a second act, and found television the most satisfying. She was an original panelist on “The Five” when it started in 2011. Fox gave her more assignments — she was filling in for Bill O’Reilly when he was fired and it was left to her to tell his audience he wouldn’t be back — and earned a weekday show at 2 p.m. Eastern time last fall. Her show was called “The Daily Briefing” in part because that hour was often interrupted by the White House press briefing she once led.
While not as brash as Shepard Smith, who seems to delight in debunking theories pushed by Fox opinion hosts, Perino largely takes refuge in reporting.
During her time on “The Five,” Perino paid a summer visit to the Bush compound in Maine. She said the first time former first lady Barbara Bush spotted her, she said, “Ah, it’s the voice of reason at Fox News.”
“I’ll never get a T-shirt and wear that around,” Perino said. “But if people feel they can get that from me and get other things from other people, then that’s good. I’m reluctant to give my opinion, because I don’t want to sound judgmental or condescending.”
Her show includes Democratic guests, unlike times at Fox where they’re unwelcome or deliberately outnumbered in discussions. Jennifer Palmieri, communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, recently discussed her new book with Perino, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is booked for Wednesday. Some Democrats “come in with a little chip on their shoulder about Fox,” Perino said. “I just try to gently remove it and find a way where they have a chance to have their voices heard.”
Like her old boss, Perino believes deeply in the dignity of public service, said Josh Earnest, a former White House press secretary under President Barack Obama.
“I would guess that there’s a lot pressure working at a place like Fox that she has to resist,” Earnest said. “The path to success ratings-wise has been by having most of the personalities be extremely supportive of the administration’s talking points. She has resisted that pressure. In my mind, that is to be admired.”
Perino is trained to pick her words carefully. When she was at the podium at the White House, she assumed her boss was watching. “That’s why if I ever had a sarcastic thing that was about to come out, I would swallow it, because he would not have been pleased.”
There’s always a level of hostility between the press and a presidential administration; it’s built into their roles. She asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders once how much of the ill feelings she sees between the Trump White House and press is an act, and admitted to some surprise when she was told it was all real.
She said she always feels for press secretaries and says of Sanders, “I think she represents her boss well.” When Sanders has the opportunity to display humor, she lights up the room, she said. But that’s not often.
“I remember Greg (Gutfeld, of ‘The Five’) asked me about it and I said, ‘They’ve accomplished so much, you’d think they’d sound happy about it,'” she said. “But I do think there is a level of animosity that I didn’t feel when I was there. I would hope for everybody’s sake that they would try to find a little joy in their jobs.”
Perino said she’s been in contact only once with Donald Trump. At the time he announced his candidacy for president, Perino ridiculed it like many others, publicly wondering about the planet where that would be considered a good idea. Trump took a shot at her on Twitter and followed up a few days later, where she said they had a “frank and friendly discussion.”
She doubts he watches “The Daily Briefing,” but believes Trump catches her on “The Five.” With the president watching Fox so frequently, the network sometimes seems like a proving ground for future administration talent.
Not with Dana Perino.
“I think my White House days are behind me,” she said.