Fox's Handling of the "Big Lie" was Cowardly, but Not UnusualRoundup
tags: Fox News, media, journalism, Donald Trump, 2020 Election
Kathryn J. McGarr is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of City of Newsmen: Public Lies and Professional Secrets in Cold War Washington.
Documents from a defamation lawsuit by Dominion, a manufacturer of voting machines, have laid bare that Fox News executives and hosts knew that claims of fraud and a stolen 2020 election were false but that they allowed allies of Donald Trump to push these claims on their airwaves anyway. The revelations have been shocking to many observers. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a moment like this, where a major news network has been exposed as deliberately deluding its viewers or readers,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told a Washington Post columnist. “This is a seminal moment in the history of mass media. And we need to treat it that way.”
While the exposure of the gap between what Fox personnel thought behind the scenes and what aired on their network has shown the network to be mercenary and uninterested in journalistic integrity, the situation of a news organization’s private memos betraying a certain amount of hypocrisy is less unusual than many like Murphy think. Fox executives and hosts were stuck grappling with a question that has plagued the media for a century or more: How should outlets cover false claims from political officials and their allies? After all, as the investigative reporter I.F. Stone famously quipped, “All governments lie.”
And while profit — Fox executives and hosts feared alienating their audience and hurting their stock price — rather than journalistic norms drove the decisions for Fox News, the network’s executives actually ended up adopting a common media practice. Journalists have long allowed officials to tell lies so long as they do it on the record. Media outlets adopted this policy to ensure that they appeared scrupulously objective and neutral, but it forces audiences to be the arbiters of truth and, as the Fox case illustrates, creates the opportunity for misinformation to flourish.
Beginning in the 1930s, journalism adopted the norm of objectivity. This policy dictated reportorial neutrality in “straight news” coverage. Journalists wouldn’t weigh in on one side of an issue or another, and wouldn’t tell readers, listeners and, later, viewers when politicians were lying or distorting the truth.
Almost since its inception, this norm created ethical and practical problems. Maybe most famously in the early 1950s, as journalists struggled with covering Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), who was discussing frankly behind the scenes that he was feeding lies to the public. The reporting did not cover McCarthy’s nonpublic comments. News scribes knew that McCarthy’s claims were often exaggerated, or even outright false, but felt they couldn’t say so in straight reporting without violating objectivity and tilting the scale in a major political debate.
And news organizations weren’t transparent about this gap, even as they tried to enforce some limits on what government lies they would print to lessen their complicity in deceiving the public.