Despite all the complaints about Fox News throughout the years, it wasn’t always regarded with journalistic disdain, especially not during Barack Obama’s first year in office. When the Obama administration tried to exclude Fox News from interviews with executive-pay czar Kenneth Feinberg in 2009, even though reporters from the Big Three and CNN were invited, other journalists took to Fox’s defense and called out the administration for its mistreatment of Fox.
Jake Tapper, then at ABC News, called Fox “one of our sister organizations.” That felt like the right move at the time. I had massive disagreements with Fox News, especially its primetime hosts, but could always fall back on the idea that Fox primetime was akin to the opinion section of a newspaper while top-notch journalists such as Chris Wallace worked on the news side. I was proud of Tapper and the others for standing up for fellow journalists at Fox News against the White House.
But that was then.
What we know now is that Fox News isn’t a news organization in any true sense of the word. (We had an inkling in 2020 when Carlson was sued for slander, and Fox News lawyers argued in court that a reasonable person would understand that the host’s statements were “loose, figurative or hyperbolic.”) From top executives and well-paid primetime hosts to supposed objective news anchors, the Dominion lawsuit has exposed the network as an entertainment network masquerading as a news outlet.
In private, Fox News personalities like Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Carlson were expressing their disdain for former President Donald Trump and their belief that the 2020 presidential election wasn’t stolen. On air, they said the opposite.
What’s worse is that even as these revelations were being made, Carlson still felt comfortable calling the insurrectionists at the Capitol on Jan. 6 “sightseers” and highlighting video that painted a calmer, inaccurate picture of the violence that transpired that day. He received a strong assist from Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, who gave Carlson exclusive access to video from the Capitol Building. No one at Fox News told him not to downplay a violent insurrection fueled in part by lies about the 2020 election repeatedly broadcast by the station. Carlson’s ability to look into a camera and breezily spout propaganda to a few million people every night about the gravest issues this country faces is not just offensive, but dangerous.
We should not shy away from saying that.
We must not underappreciate what it means that even Fox “news” anchors were arguing in favor of broadcasting inaccurate results from Arizona in 2020 because their audience didn’t want to hear the truth, that young news staffers were threatened with firing for having the temerity to try to tell the truth, that top Fox personalities spoke truthfully off air but dared not repeat those truths on air for fear of losing viewers. Fox’s media reporter Howard Kurtz is a prime illustration of what Fox has become or has always been.
Initially, Kurtz announced that he couldn’t report on the Dominion lawsuit because network lawyers and his bosses said he couldn’t, even though he wanted to. Later, when he finally mentioned the lawsuit, he acted as though it was just a First Amendment issue rather than also about journalistic integrity and ethics, things he doesn’t mind delving into when critiquing other media outlets.
While at The Washington Post covering the Fox News-Obama spat in 2009, Kurtz cobbled together disparate voices that examined the issue from multiple angles and flatly stated “the White House has gone beyond pushing back and is trying to marginalize Fox.” Now he’s a media reporter who can’t tell us if a credible news outlet would continue allowing disinformation to be repeatedly broadcast on its airwaves.
I wouldn’t be surprised if journalists and others who are convinced Fox News is more “objective” than others balk at what I’ve written and declare it hyper-partisan. I can take the criticism. Speaking plainly about uncomfortable truths is better than tiptoeing into untruth.
But there’s another reason many journalists might reflexively say Fox must still be considered a news outlet, because they know none of us is perfect and many contributed to reporting that also led to great harm.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq began 20 years ago this month with “shock and awe.” U.S. media were instrumental in helping the Bush administration secure public support for that war through a series of damaging reports (that we now know were false) across major outlets. We did not do our jobs well. We failed spectacularly. We helped convince the American public that there were large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction hidden by a foreign adversary who might decide to attack us and was supposedly involved in the 9/11 plot.
None of that was true.
We featured war hawks much more frequently and prominently than we did protesters for peace. While we may now say the Bush administration misled Americans to justify its decision to invade a country that had not attacked us, that misinformation was effective because of the way we portrayed it. The New York Times had to painfully admit it was, in effect, a purveyor of misinformation about the war. The Washington Post apologized for underplaying the voices of those who were skeptical about the weapons of mass destruction claims. The New Republic, a left-leaning outlet, expressed regret for its pre-war support. Even Carlson, then at CNN, said this: “I am embarrassed that I supported the war in Iraq.”
That underscores the bankruptcy at Fox “News” today. Carlson knows firsthand the danger of broadcasting mis- or inaccurate information on exceedingly important topics, and yet he continues doing so with the blessing of Fox executives and the quiet acquiescence of other journalists at Fox, like Kurtz. There is a fundamental difference between the media’s pre-Iraq war coverage and what’s happening at Fox. The former was a result of sloppy journalism and a pervasive self-censorship inside newsrooms that meant not enough skeptical journalists were speaking up. The latter has been purposeful. Fox personalities and executives know they are spreading falsehoods but feel it necessary to keep their ratings high and pockets fat. But I’m not sure the broader public is interested in those distinctions, and that’s why Fox is likely to survive the Dominion revelations. It can easily point to the flaws and faults of other media organizations to deflect from the propaganda they are producing.