Fox News can go on spreading disinformation. But everyone ought to see it for what it is: not a normal news organization with inevitable screw-ups, flaws and commercial interests but as a shameless propaganda outfit chipping away at truth, accountability and the rule of law.
Chris Wallace is an exceptional interviewer, and Shepard Smith and Bret Baier are reality-based news anchors.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the overall problem of Fox News, which started out with bad intentions in 1996 and has swiftly devolved into what often amounts to a propaganda network for a dishonest president and his allies.
The network, which attracts more viewers than its two major competitors, specializes in fearmongering and unrelenting alarmism. Remember “the caravan”?
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At crucial times, it does not observe basic standards of journalistic practice: as with its eventually retracted, false reporting in 2017 on Seth Rich, which fueled conspiracy theories that Hillary Clinton had the former Democratic National Committee staffer killed because he was a source of campaign leaks.
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Fox, you might recall, was a welcoming haven for “birtherism” — the racist lies about President Barack Obama’s birthplace. For years, it has constantly, unfairly and inaccurately bashed Hillary Clinton.
And its most high-profile personality, Sean Hannity, is not only a close confidant of President Donald Trump but appeared with him onstage at a campaign rally last year.
Anyone who was paying the slightest bit of attention knew all of this long before Jane Mayer’s 11,000-word investigation in the New Yorker magazine was published a few days ago.
But because Mayer is so highly respected, and the piece so thorough, it made an impact. Within days, DNC chairman Tom Perez announced that Fox wouldn’t be chosen as one of the hosts of the Democratic primary debates.
This was a mild, reasonable step that recognizes the reality that Fox News shouldn’t be treated as an honest broker of political news. It was not censorship as some bizarrely claimed, merely a decision not to enter into a business relationship.
Some of the reactions, though, missed the point spectacularly.
Here, for example, was NBC political reporter Jonathan Allen on Twitter, careful to say this was only opinion:
“There are plenty of quality journalists at Fox, some of whom have been excellent questioners at past presidential debates. And really, if you can’t answer questions — especially if they’re not the questions you want asked — maybe you don’t have good answers.”
Others took it a step further, saying that Democrats are running scared. And Trump, predictably, vowed retribution in an overheated tweet.
Given First Amendment protections, Fox News can do pretty much what it wants on the air. It can shrug at Hannity’s excesses. It can allow Tucker Carson’s misleading rants on immigrants and crime. It can constantly undermine special counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation of Trump.
But for mainstream journalists to suggest that there be no consequences or even recognition is willfully blind — and smacks of an unseemly inside-the-Beltway solidarity.
What Fox News has become is destructive. To state the obvious: Democracy, if it’s going to function, needs to be based on a shared set of facts, and the news media’s role is to seek out and deliver those facts.
Most news organizations take that seriously, though they may flounder badly at times. When they do, they generally try to correct themselves — that’s why you see editor’s notes, lengthy corrections, on-air acknowledgments, suspensions and even firings of errant news people.
Not at Fox News.
The rule at Fox is to stonewall outside inquiries, and to close ranks around its rainmakers.
And, of course, to double down on its mission, described aptly by my Washington Post colleague Greg Sargent: “Fox News is fundamentally in the business of spreading disinformation, as opposed to conservative reportage.” And that disinformation “is plainly about deceiving millions into believing that core functionings of our government — whether law enforcement or congressional oversight — no longer have any legitimacy.”
Sometimes, as with Hannity’s rally appearance or the Rich reporting, there will be a passing acknowledgment that standards haven’t been met.
But we never know what those standards might be. Unlike most news organizations, Fox News doesn’t seem to have a department in charge of ethics and standards, and it certainly doesn’t publish its guidelines as some do.
So, yes, Fox News can continue to function as something close to Trump TV. It can go on spreading disinformation.
But everyone ought to see it for what it is: not a normal news organization with inevitable screw-ups, flaws and commercial interests, which sometimes fail to serve the public interest.
Instead, it’s a shameless propaganda outfit, which makes billions of dollars a year as it chips away at the core democratic values we ought to hold dear: truth, accountability and the rule of law.
Despite the skills of a few journalists who should have long ago left the network in protest, Fox News has become an American plague.