Members Only | March 7, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
It’s OK to Shun Fox News
Why? It uses our freedoms against us. Like Russia.
The Democratic National Committee chose not to have Fox News host any of its presidential primary debates, citing Jane Mayer’s explosive reporting.
Mayer revealed Monday, in The New Yorker, that Fox News killed an investigation into the president’s hush-money payments to actress Stormy Daniels. (An editor ordered the reporter, a woman, to “let it go.” “Rupert [Murdoch] wants Trump to win.”) She revealed that Donald Trump wanted the administration to interfere with AT&T’s takeover of Time Warner in order to hurt CNN, which the president hates, and help Fox, which competes with CNN. Mayer also exposed the fact that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, calls Rupert Murdoch “like, every day.” The result is real uncertainty about knowing where Fox stops and the presidency begins.
Did DNC Chair Tom Perez make the right call? Short answer: Ha! Are you kidding me? Still, there will be debate, lots of debate, some of it very constructive, most of it very insipid, but the most powerful critique, I think, comes from elite liberals and elite journalists, and sometimes elite liberal journalists, who argue that “declaring networks we don’t like as not [real] press seems like a bad and dangerous road to go down.”
Well, that precedent has been set. The Republican National Committee canceled its partnership with NBC in 2016. It feared the network could not be fair to Republican candidates. That fear stemmed from the fact that mainstream opinion had by then moved in favor of LGBT issues. Given that elite media tends to move in tandem with mainstream opinion while the GOP, re LGBT issues, moves in the opposite direction, the RNC was rightly concerned about NBC’s bias for equality for LGBT people.
Is that a good reason? Maybe, but bias isn’t the problem. Jonathan Bernstein is right: “Fox News, despite having plenty of quality journalists, is party-aligned pretty much all the time. … Some Democrats say they shouldn’t appear on Fox because it would validate behavior they find unacceptable. Others think they should so they can reach out to new voters. I don’t think either argument is convincing: They should avoid Fox News because it’s a Republican-aligned network, and therefore has a strong incentive to tilt coverage in a way that would help Republicans in the general election.”
There is a moral dimension, however. That’s what Susan Hennessey raises in her tweet. That’s what I’m raising, too. But while she believes it’s dangerous to say some news is legit and some news isn’t based on whether we like it or not, I disagree. It could be dangerous, but it might be necessary. The question isn’t whether we should make such decisions but why. If we don’t answer that question, we avoid hard choices, and we all suffer in one way or another as a result. In other words, there are two moral and legitimate views here that can be subsumed in the fray. They shouldn’t be.
Journalists make value judgments all the time
Most people understand the former view. A free society shouldn’t be in the business of telling news organizations what is and is not news. A free society requires a free press to tell the citizenry hard truths it must hear in spite of its preferences. For me, there’s no valid argument against this. It is self-evidently true. It’s also beside the point.
Fact is, we journalists make value judgments even as we comport ourselves according to a code of professional ethics that tries to squeeze as much value judgment out of our profession as possible. Facts are facts, we have a habit of saying. That’s what we say when people don’t like what we’re reporting. That’s what we say in self-defense.
But we do have a value system, a good one, one that’s worth championing for its own sake and for the profession’s: facts deserve everyone’s respect, deference, even reverence. They should transcend and supersede party loyalties, partisan identities, bias, prejudice and bigotry. Facts are facts is not only an empirical statement. It’s normative, too.
So when traditional liberals of the old 20-century type, the type that formed their ideological identities in opposition to murderous despots and authoritarians, when these liberals worry about a slippery slope toward an anti-democratic future that comes with “liking” or “disliking” this or that news outlets, that comes with saying this or that news outlet does or does not do “real news,” that, too, is beside the point.
These liberals want to believe, want us to believe, that they are taking the high moral ground. But what they are really doing is refusing to participate in a moral context that’s always already established. The question shouldn’t be whether or not to make value judgments. The question is which values do we want to defend, and why.
With her expose, Mayer implicitly suggests an answer to why. Any news outlet that’s in bed with a president, as Fox is, should be out of bounds. Yes, Fox employs real reporters. So do TMZ, Russia Today and the National Enquirer. But are we to grant the same access, rights and privilege to RT that we do NBC? No. The reason so obvious the burden of proof shouldn’t be on opponents of government-sanctioned propaganda.
But I’ll take this step further. Fox News and the Kremlin are, if not the same, damn near kissing cousins. Indeed, I think the Russians who sabotaged our last presidential election had a very fine teacher in Rupert Murdoch. Not only did the Australian billionaire enrich himself using the blessings of free speech, he weaponized free speech to undermine the democracies from which his power and fortune sprang. That’s what the Russians did. The difference is they didn’t get rich doing it.
It’s not enough for the DNC to say no to Fox. It’s not enough to say Fox doesn’t do real journalism. What’s required, morally, is for professional reporters who value their service to democratic principles to see Fox News for what it is—everything from government-sanctioned propaganda to handmaiden of an autocratic foreign state—and for those journalists to make the value judgments they make every day.
Facts deserve our respect and deference. They should transcend and supersede party loyalties, partisan agendas, bias, prejudice and bigotry. Fact is, Fox is Trump TV.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.