2012 was a dismal year for Fox News. The PR arm of the GOP failed to fulfill its prime directive: advancing the interests of Mitt Romney and the Republican Party. It spent much of the year constructing an alternative reality that left millions of its flock in shock when President Obama won an overwhelming reelection. It refused to accept the facts on the ground and denigrated polls (even its own) when the results conflicted with the fictional narrative it was peddling. And perhaps most painful of all, Fox surrendered its ratings lead to MSNBC. Two-thirds of its primetime lineup (Hannity and Van Susteren) dropped to second place behind the competition on MSNBC (Maddow and O’Donnell). However, Fox’s travails did not occur for lack of effort. It was clearly operating at the top of its capacity to distort and deceive. In the process it unleashed some of the most feverishly biased reporting, even for Fox News. What follows are a few of the worst departures from ethical journalism by Fox in the last year.
The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward revealed that Fox News CEO Roger Ailes had dispatched a Fox News defense analyst, to Kabul, Afghanistan to recruit Gen. David Petraeus as a GOP candidate for president. The notion of a news network soliciting candidates for political office is a perversion of the role journalists play in society. In response, Ailes claimed that it was “a joke” and that he “thought the Republican [primary] field needed to be shaken up.” Where Ailes got the idea that it was his right and/or duty to shake up the GOP primaries is unexplained. News people are supposed to report the news, not make it. Woodward’s story affirms that Fox News is a rogue operation. Its intrusion into the political process debases journalism by breaching all standards of ethical conduct. And it debases democracy as well by exploiting its power and wealth to manipulate political outcomes.
Last May on Fox & Friends, the program’s hosts introduced a video that purported to examine “Four Years of Hope and Change.” What it was in reality was a four-plus minute campaign video that presented a variety of soundbites by President Obama accompanied by ominous graphics and eerie music that falsely implied his campaign promises were unkept. The video (which Media Matters thoroughly debunks here) could not have been a more pro-Romney, anti-Obama attack had it been produced by the Republican National Committee. Apparently Fox News also recognized the gross inappropriateness of its anti-Obama attack ad. Minutes after the video was posted online it was removed. Later, an edited version was re-posted, and then that too was removed. Eventually, Fox EVP Bill Shine issued a statement scapegoating an “associate producer” and concluding that the matter “has been addressed.” But it’s difficult for Fox to absolve itself of responsibility for this atrociously unethical affair. By now it is so obvious that Fox exists only to promote Republicans and bash Democrats that this video fits squarely within its mission.
In a discussion of the role of women in the military, Fox News contributor Liz Trotta expressed an opinion about new rules from the Pentagon that would permit women to serve closer to the front lines. Trotta’s take on this centered on the problems faced by servicewomen who are sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers whom she regards as whiners because they won’t shut up and accept the fact that if they work closely with men they should expect to be assaulted. And if that weren’t bad enough, Trotta went on to complain about the expensive military bureaucracy set up to “support women in the military who are now being raped too much.” I would really like to know precisely how much rape is acceptable before it crosses Trotta’s line. Is there any context in which she might have meant that that isn’t unfathomably repulsive?
Fox viewers are accustomed to stories about “illegals” swarming across the border to take up residency in the U.S. and sponge off of our prosperity. There is hardly a mention of immigrants on Fox that isn’t associated with crime, joblessness or drug cartels. Lately, however, someone at Fox News has recognized a major flaw in its strategy to demonize immigrants, particularly Latinos, who are a growing constituency of both consumers and citizens who can vote and are registering in record numbers. So how does Fox maintain its editorial animosity toward immigrants without alienating an increasingly important voter group? The answer appears to be by developing news content specifically for this demographic and sequestering it from the rest of its viewership. This has resulted in a flurry of disparaging articles on the Fox News flagship, while the same story is presented on the new Fox News Latino in a far less bigoted fashion. The pinnacle of this hypocrisy occurred during a Fox report on the election when it displayed video of illegal border crossers with a caption reading “The Hispanic Vote.”
This year Republicans in the state of Ohio sought to amend their early voting law so that only members of the military would be permitted to vote early in the three days prior to the election. Democrats objected to this as it discriminates against certain voters, and they filed suit to preserve the right of every Ohio citizen to vote early. Fox News picked up the story advancing the premise that Democrats were seeking to take something away from our military. Anchor Shannon Bream falsely declared that “If President Obama gets his way, the special voting rights of some of America’s finest will be eliminated.” The truth is that Democrats in Ohio were suing to ensure that nobody’s rights were eliminated. The Ohio GOP was deliberately attempting to suppress the votes of citizens they presumed would vote Democratic. And Fox News helped them in that mission by brazenly lying about the substance of the debate.
Coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting was handled by Fox News in a manner that is revealing and offensive. On the day that Florida law enforcement authorities planned to file charges against George Zimmerman, Fox ran a story featuring a photo of Zimmerman with a beaming smile alongside one of Martin that looked foreboding and was obviously darkened. The editors were demonstrating their overt hostility to both African Americans and journalistic ethics. Later in the day, a more impartial photo was inserted that was not as overtly disparaging of the victim. You think they got a few complaints about the previous photo? Fox had numerous pictures from which to choose of both Martin and Zimmerman, and it chose the most negative picture of Martin which it paired with the most positive picture of Zimmerman. This was not an accident. It was the result of deliberate editorial judgment. And it tells us everything we need to know about Fox’s editors.
Throughout the year Fox News led its audience on a roller coaster ride of propaganda and censorship as it shifted from celebrating what it regarded as positive electoral news to suppressing the negative. It persistently sought to cloister its audience in a bubble that filtered out any facts that might upset its viewers or political patrons. Fox was so determined to shut out anything that might challenge its narrative that it even failed to report its own Fox News polls if Obama was ahead. This was a part of a broader effort to deceive its audience by castigating or ignoring polls when it didn’t like the results and praising the same pollsters when their numbers were more favorable. They launched a campaign to demean professional pollsters and prop up disreputable charlatans with its "unskewed” versions. Not surprisingly, this led to the unprecedented post-election state of shock experienced by those who were foolish enough to rely on Fox for information.
The in-house Fox News psychiatrist, Keith Ablow, has offered his embarrassingly ridiculous diagnoses on a number of occasions. Without ever having examined (or even met) President Obama, Ablow has declared him to be contemptuous of the judiciary and devoid of all emotion. He further assessed that Obama has “got it in for this country” and doesn’t like Americans. These are the delusional ramblings of a quack who is more preoccupied with his own animosity for the president than with credible psychiatric analysis. During the GOP primary, Ablow chimed in on criticism of Newt Gingrich for his serial marriages that ended when his wives became ill or failed to serve his political purposes. Ablow’s astonishing diagnosis was that Gingrich as president would make America stronger specifically because of his multiple infidelities. Ablow actually thinks that three wives and two extramarital affairs (that we know about) enhances Gingrich’s qualifications to be president. His reasoning had something to do with the fact that multiple homewreckers found him to be marriageable material and that was a mark of character. This is what passes for family values in today’s GOP.
In the heart of the presidential campaign season, Sean Hannity’s program on Fox News devoted the full hour to a blatant infomercial promoting an anti-Obama movie by the people who brought us Citizens United. The program featured lengthy clips from the film as well as interviews with the film’s creators, David Bossie and Steve Bannon. Bossie is the head of Citizens United, the organization that prompted the abhorrent Supreme Court decision that made it possible for individuals and corporations to donate unlimited sums of cash to political candidates and causes. Bannon is chairman of Breitbart News and was the director of the monumental flop, Sarah Palin: Undefeated, a movie that managed to fail miserably despite millions of dollars in free publicity courtesy of Fox News. What’s particularly disturbing about this is that the producers freely admit that their purpose was not so much to promote the film, but to let their ads serve as disguised political messages aimed at disparaging the president and affecting the outcome of the election. The reason they chose October to release the film was so their advertising would appear during the campaign season and they could pretend it was merely marketing for the movie. This is not a conspiracy theory; it is something they specifically admit to and boast about. Fox News was merely the first stop on their media blitz.
The next time you hear the Fox News slogan “fair and balanced," be sure to remember that its rendering of fairness is to trot out covert conservatives and label them Democrats. A perfect illustration of this is alleged Democrat Kirsten Powers, who took to Fox News to attack President Obama in an article titled “President Obama, stop blaming the victim for Mideast violence.” Powers was addressing the violence at American facilities in Libya and Egypt when she wrote that respecting religious beliefs “is implicit sympathy for the claims of some of the attackers and rioters.” So Powers thinks that respect for the diversity of faith is tantamount to sympathizing with terrorists. She cannot comprehend that such respect is offered to the vast majority of peaceful Muslims who had nothing to do with the violence. And allowing her to spew that bile while posing as a Democratic analyst is part of how Fox distorts its presentation of fairness and balance.
Behaving entirely consistently with a network that harbors politcos who want to see President Obama fail, Fox News cavalierly dismissed the October unemployment report showing a drop from 8.1 to 7.8 percent. Heaven forbid anything good happens in this country while President Obama is in charge. Fox spent the whole morning trying to hatch skeptics. It brought in former General Electric CEO Jack Welch to explain his delusional Tweet: “Unbelievable jobs numbers...these Chicago guys will do anything...can’t debate so change numbers.” Fox’s Stuart Varney concurred along with Donald Trump and a bevy of correspondents and guests. None of them could explain why an independent agency of career economists, without a single Obama appointee, would fudge the numbers for a president to whom they owed nothing.
Fox was clearly operating at the top of its capacity to distort and deceive.
The most heartbreaking news of 2012 was surely the massacre in Newtown, CT, where 20 schoolchildren and six adults were senselessly murdered by a deranged gunman. The resultant outcry from concerned Americans about the easy access to weapons that are capable of such carnage was met by Fox News as an attack on the Second Amendment and free enterprise. Its response was to slaughter the First Amendment by prohibiting any discussion of gun safety on the network. Sources told Gabriel Sherman of New York Magazine that “David Clark, the executive producer in charge of Fox’s weekend coverage, gave producers instructions not to talk about gun-control policy on air.” It’s also worthwhile to note that while Fox banned all talk of gun control, it did not banish talk of other explanations for the atrocity in Connecticut. Fox had no problem with laying the blame on mental illness, movies or video games. Fox host Mike Huckabee was permitted to go on the air and blame the killings on the absence of God in the classroom (which does nothing to explain similar shootings that have taken place in churches).
While Fox News broadcasts flagrant distortions of reality on a daily basis, the examples above transcend the conventional dishonesty and bias that is its hallmark. These assaults on ethical journalism demonstrate how dangerous it is to permit a political enterprise to disguise itself as a news network in order to shape an extreme political agenda. It is evidence of social programming and manipulation at its worst. The sad part is that we can expect much more of this in 2013. Happy New Year!