Fox’s big reveal is a teachable moment about journalism

Polls repeatedly show that trust in the American news media is at an all-time low, to the great consternation of the industry and its supporters.

My view is: Well, of course. If you include Fox News as part of the news media – and pollsters do — that’s kind of inevitable. Put the New York Times and Fox News in the same broad category, and there’s something for everyone not to trust.

It’s a categorization problem even more than it’s a trust problem.

And it needs to change. Fox should not be considered part of the news media. It’s something else entirely. Indeed, it’s the opposite of news.

So I see a real opportunity in the recent spate of revelations showing decisionmakers at Fox News describing — in their own words– the process of knowingly and intentionally spreading lies to their gullible viewers for political and financial gain.

Now is the Time

Now is the time for the real news media to publicly and definitively distinguish between Fox and actual journalism. That means explaining journalism’s core values and how Fox does not share them. It means never again allowing anyone – the public, the pollsters, the funders, the political parties – to confuse the two.

Some of us have tried to make this point before. But it’s been an uphill battle. Fox has long been accepted and normalized by establishment media figures. There was cross pollination. They invited each other to cocktail parties.

It was going to take something really epic and shocking to get elite journalists to repudiate those they had over time accepted as colleagues and competitors.

Well, ta-dah!

The texts and emails released as part of Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion lawsuit against Fox have altered the firmament.

That Fox knowingly spread harmful disinformation is no longer an allegation, it’s proven. Those aren’t conspiracy theories, they’re right there in black and white. And after years of being trolled by Fox’s “fair and balanced” slogan, now we can see that Rupert Murdoch was sharing confidential information about Biden’s ad buys to Jared Kushner.

As Rutgers University law professor Ronald Chen asked NPR’s David Folkenflik: “How often do you get ‘smoking gun’ emails that show, first, that persons responsible for the editorial content knew that the accusation was false, and also convincing emails that show the reason Fox reported this was for its own mercenary interests?”

What is Journalism?

Every journalist and every news organization in America should be taking advantage of this moment to publicly ask and answer the question: What are the distinguishing characteristics of real, truth-seeking journalism?

In their seminal book “The Elements of Journalism,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel identified the essential principles and practices of journalism. It is more aspirational than it is descriptive, but it’s the code we try to live by.

Among their key points, brutally summarized by me:

Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
This “journalistic truth” is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, subject to further investigation

Its first loyalty is to citizens
Publishers of journalism must strive to put the public interest – and the truth – above their own self-interest or assumptions.

Its essence is a discipline of verification
Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment, all signal such standards. This discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other forms of communication such as propaganda, advertising, fiction, or entertainment.

Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover
That means not becoming seduced by sources, intimidated by power, or compromised by self-interest. It speaks to an independence of spirit and an open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity that helps the journalist see beyond his or her own class or economic status, race, ethnicity, religion, gender or ego.

It must serve as an independent monitor of power
Journalism has an unusual capacity to serve as watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens. It may also offer voice to the voiceless.

It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise
Journalism should attempt to fairly represent varied viewpoints and interests in society and to place them in context rather than highlight only the conflicting fringes of debate.

That is journalism. That is the journalistic process. Spreading known lies for profit and political gain, encouraging race-based hatred and insurrection, and intentionally deluding credulous viewers does not qualify as journalism.

So What’s a Journalist to Do?

Reporters writing about the Fox revelations need to contextualize them. They need to not just relate what’s new, but explain what that says about Fox in the past, present, and future.

They should explain how this shows Fox is not a news organization.

In the Daily Beast, for instance, Justin Baragona and Diana Falzone started off their report with a quote from a Fox News staffer: “I think no regular person could read this and look at Fox like a news organization at this point.”

What shouldn’t journalists do? Most of all, they need to stop giving Fox the benefit of the doubt. It deserves none, at this point.

That means not describing the revelations like Nicholas Confessore and Jim Rutenberg did in the New York Times, as “an unprecedented glimpse into network decision-making as its dual imperatives — to keep its base audience of conservatives satisfied and meet its promise to maintain journalistic standards of fairness and factuality — came into conflict as never before.”

What promise? What dual imperatives? This is fantasy.

Stephen Colbert summed it up pretty well on Wednesday night: “Fox News doesn’t believe a word they say ― and neither should you, and neither should the White House Correspondents’ Association.”

Reaching the Deluded

Should journalists, government officials, Democrats or any other members of the reality-based community appear on Fox? Or should they boycott it?

There is undeniable value in reaching Fox’s audience with facts and views they wouldn’t hear otherwise. But simply going on Fox and dutifully answering their questions is acquiescence. It’s validating.

My view is that anyone who wants to go on Fox and hoist the flag for reality should do so, but only live, and only after an opening statement.

Something like:

  • I am appearing here because I think your audience needs more exposure to verifiable facts.
  • I am appearing here despite the fact that Fox News is the propaganda arm of the Republican Party.
  • I am appearing here despite the fact that your network intentionally lies to its viewers.
  • I am appearing here despite the fact that your network treats its viewers like they’re stupid.

If they don’t invite you back, that’s on them.

Kick Them Out

I don’t think it’s appropriate for the government to decide who is news and who isn’t. But it’s essential for the journalism community to do so, very clearly and very visibly.

This is not a pipe dream. There is already movement in this direction Tara Palmeri reported for PuckNews on Thursday that “at least two networks, ABC and CBS, are having internal conversations about whether they should still be pooling their footage with Fox News.”

The most high-profile way in which the rest of the press corps grants Fox status as a top news provider by giving it a seat in the front row of the White House Briefing Room. That seating chart is set by the White House Correspondents Association, not by the White House.

And it is, at least within the press corps, hugely meaningful.  By tradition, the press secretary starts each briefing with the front row. So the White House Correspondents Association is effectively granting Fox enormous status, a megaphone, and an opportunity to disrupt the real purpose of the briefing, which should be information-seeking not grandstanding.

No journalist should tolerate Fox sitting alongside other journalists as an equal, and certainly not as a superior.

The WHCA board (which currently includes Fox correspondent Jacqui Heinrich) should meet immediately, should strip Heinrich of her board membership, and should take away Fox’s chair.

I asked WHCA president Tamara Keith when that was going to happen, and she replied: “We aren’t commenting. Thanks for reaching out.”

Republican political consultant Cheri Jacobus recently wrote in a New York Daily News opinion column that not only should Fox be stripped of its seat in the briefing room – “the chair once held by revered legendary Helen Thomas,” she noted – but should also have its credentials rescinded by the House and Senate Press Galleries.

The Senate Press Gallery ordinarily denies credentials to correspondents “engaged in any lobbying or paid advocacy, advertising, publicity or promotion work for any individual, political party, corporation, organization, or agency of the U.S. Government.”

Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told Politico’s Christopher Cadelago that Fox is “arguably the most important entity of the American right and the Republican Party.” And he said the Associated Press should include in its canonical Stylebook that Fox News is not a news organization.

And anyone who still works there? You should quit.

Make a Statement

My gut tells me that a lot of journalists are infuriated and disgusted by Fox’s conduct, and would welcome the opportunity to go on the record distinguishing between what they do and what Fox does. So I’d like to see an open letter saying something to the effect of:

We, the undersigned, are journalists and journalism educators going on the record to state that Fox News does not adhere to the most basic journalistic standards, including truth-seeking, verification, independence, and public service, and therefore should not be granted any of the considerations bestowed on journalists or the news media.

Why, at this point, should any journalist give Fox cover? There should be consequences.

The sad fact is that modern political journalism is incapable of holding any public figure accountable, no matter what they do. If that wasn’t entirely the case before Trump, it sure as hell is now.

But at the very least, the media should hold itself to account. And that means casting Fox out of the journalistic community.

If they don’t, the lack of public trust in the national media will be well-deserved.


  1. I am much more worried about the the intimidation of mainstream “liberal” media by the right leading to distortion in their coverage which misleads people who aren’t part of the Republicans’ extremist base. Michael Tomasky has an excellent article in the New Republic showing how mainstream media uses rightwing frames about Biden’s budget proposals, choosing terminology that emphasizes the right’s (faux) debt phobia rather than framing the proposals as investments in our future. The media also talks about the total cost but not the revenues that Biden has proposed because the media knows Republicans won’t pass tax increases on affluent people even though the public — even many Republicans — favor raising those taxes.

    “ How the Media’s Framing of the Budget Debate Favors the Right:
    They call it a $3.5 trillion spending bill. More accurately, it’s a $60 billion-a-year investment bill. Imagine how different the debate would be if the journalistic shorthand were that.”
    Some excerpts:
    “ The Democratic policy proposals are all, every single one, investments. Universal pre-kindergarten is an investment in children, mostly poor, who don’t have access to that now, and a jillion studies show it pays off. Paid family leave is an investment in families’ mental well-being. A national network of childcare facilities is an investment that will free many parents, especially the single mothers for whom life is rarely a breeze, to realize their earning potential.”

    “ The Democrats have put revenue on the table of $2.9 trillion. In other words, they are not “spending” $3.5 trillion—or technically they are, but most of it is paid for. So in terms of new money being laid out, the actual figure is $600 billion. Broken down over 10 years, that’s $60 billion. That’s less than 1 percent of the total federal budget. Still sound profligate?”

    Meanwhile over in the UK the BBC is refusing to air the last episode of David Attenborough’s new series “Wild Isles” because it looks at the destruction of nature in the UK and its causes. Clearly that will infuriate the right so that episodes will only be available on demand the BBC iPlayer. The BBC denies being afraid of intimidated by the right but doesn’t offer and alternative explanation. And that isn’t the only evidence that the BBC has been badly intimidated by the rightwingers. The BBC recently suspended a very popular sports broadcaster who criticized the Tory govenrment’s harsh immigration policy on Twitter.
    “BBC has undermined its credibility over Gary Lineker, says Greg Dyke:
    Ex-director general says decision to suspend presenter for criticising government’s asylum policies is mistaken”

    These are not isolated examples. From The Guardian:
    “ Rightwing thinktanks run this government. But first, they had to capture the BBC”


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