A media column in The Washington Post says that Fox News will use the first Republican primary debate to help burnish the network’s image following its bevy of legal setbacks, and boy howdy, do journalists still not understand what Fox News is or how it operates.
Let's tear into this thing. The opening of the column is veeeery sketchy:
Months after a blockbuster defamation lawsuit raised questions about Fox News’s dedication to accuracy and fraught relationship with Donald Trump, two of its star anchors will have a chance to bolster the network’s image Wednesday night when they moderate the first Republican debate of the 2024 presidential cycle.
So the idea here is that Fox News will "bolster" the network's image by hosting a Republican lie-o-rama in which eight or so candidates will compete to say the most audience-pleasing lies while two moderators stare glassy-eyed at them? How's that gonna work?
The implication is that it’ll work because of the magical and unassailable reputation of the Fox News "news division," as opposed to its blatantly dishonest pundits that dominate the network’s primetime slots. Making the debate’s two hosts—Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum—available for Serious Journalism interviews suggests that Fox News itself is making the redemption pitch.
“I think that Fox has fantastic political reporters,” MacCallum said. “We have great war correspondents. We have a very strong news division, and I’m proud to be part of it, and I’m proud to be co-moderating this debate with Bret, and I’ve always felt really good about what we do.”
To be fair, the Post does include one of Baier's more awkward flubs, the one where an email revealed he had pressed Fox during 2020's election-night coverage to reverse their call that Joe Biden had won Arizona and “put it back in [Trump’s] column.” But the Post also accepts his answer that the email was "misread and mistyped," without challenging what he told them:
“It really wasn’t the case. So I think we’re past all of that. I think our work speaks for itself. The people who watch know that, and hopefully after the debate, they’ll know it even more.”
That's one way to cover Baier's supposed journalistic integrity. The other would be to measure it against the stuff Baier has actually done as a “news” anchor. In the run-up to Fox’s big debate night, a Media Matters report shows Baier to be pretty damn dishonest about his own role in election night coverage, among other things.
But instead of pressing him on his actions, the Post moves from Baier's defenses to its own assertion that:
The documents released in the Dominion case reflected somewhat better on the news side, showing that Fox’s journalists covered the story of the 2020 election accurately, though some faced internal blowback when they loudly rebutted some election lies.
That's quite the caveat, especially since that hyperlink leads to the Post's own coverage of Lachlan Murdoch and other network heads sternly warning reporters who pushed back on Trump's lies. It also skips over the bit where hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity plotted to get one of those network journalists fired for contradicting the hoax.
But on we go, this time for some comments from MacCallum on why she, coming from the “news division,” won't be pressing the Republican candidates for responses on either the party's violence-provoking election hoaxes or on the attempted erasure of an American election on Jan. 6, 2021.
“I think that people understand the facts of what happened,” she said. “What I don’t want is to spend the whole evening kind of rehashing that. I think people are looking forward, and I think they’re much more concerned with what’s happening in their own lives.”
To be sure, it would be an awkward moment if the debate moderators probed the candidates about whether or not fellow challenger Mike Pence ought to have been singled out to the Capitol rioters. Fortunately for Fox, Pence himself doesn’t seem too invested in whether he ought to have been assassinated on that day, so it might not come up. But it is certainly an editorial choice to downplay the seditious conspiracy that the leading Republican nominee—former President Donald Trump—is facing charges over.
Wouldn't want to rehash that, though. It's time to look forward, and Trump's indictment on racketeering charges—charges that may have him watching election night coverage from a prison cell if prosecutors get their preferred timeline for the case—is very five minutes ago. What the voters really care about is the economy, the war in Ukraine, and what Hunter Biden was doing back in 2014.
We're left, then, with the same question we started with: How will Fox News redeem itself by hosting a Republican debate network-crafted to avoid bringing up the sedition-premised lies that Fox itself helped promote? How is pretending that none of it happened a boost to the supposed journalism credentials of those involved?
That seems to be an aspirational claim—one made by the network, in an attempt to will it into being. Fox News hosts are preemptively spinning the debate night, and the Post bought it.
Of course, the dubiousness of Fox News' news-side "objectivity" has been clear for decades now; it neither started nor ended with the network's false claims against two voting-machine manufacturers. Since the beginning, the network has prodded its "news" anchors to stay in the bounds of what their Republican viewers want to hear, and it likes to imply that the mere existence of its "news side" offsets the outrageous and often thuddingly ridiculous hoaxes peddled by its Bill O'Reillys and Glenn Becks, despite research regularly showing the “news side” to be a useless appendage at best when it comes to actually informing their viewers.
At some point, writing credulous articles about whether the network can regain lost credibility begins to look like preternatural gullibility. Do we believe, for even a moment, that the network heads’ concern for credibility is not trumped by its fealty to its viewers? Were not the Dominion documents rife with insistence that not pissing off viewers was the more important goal?
I don't know about you, America's collected actual journalists. You worry me. On one hand, Democracy Dies in Darkness; on the other hand, can Fox News regain lost network mojo by hosting an event that will try its hardest to ignore the most monumental attack on American democracy since the Civil War? Does that sound to you, dear journalists, like the network is behaving in a journalistically appropriate fashion? Or is Fox lazily, cheaply, and dishonestly choosing the path that will best deflect attention from its own role?
The shadow looming over Wednesday's Republican debate
Fox News pivots to blaming Tropical Storm Hilary on President Biden
Pivotal moment as GOP lawmakers across country risk exposure in Trump’s 'criminal enterprise'
After Trump indicted for coup attempt, Fox News still begs him to show up for debate
American political parties might often seem stuck in their ways, but they can and in fact do change positions often. Joining us on this week's episode of "The Downballot" is political scientist David Karol, who tells us how and why both the Democratic and Republican parties have adjusted their views on a wide range of issues over the years. Karol offers three different models for how these transformations happen—and explains why voters often stick with their parties even after these shifts. He concludes by offering tips to activists seeking to push their parties when they're not changing fast enough.