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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.

 

On a cold November morning in 2010, Fox & Friends co-hosts Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade, and Gretchen Carlson have moved their set outside the network’s Manhattan headquarters. The trio are huddled in their winter coats on a fur-draped bench that appears to be made of ice, sitting around an open fire, talking to a bemused Chris Wallace, who is remote from Fox’s Washington, DC, studio. Then Doocy grabs a container of marshmallows from a producer and begins try to roast them over the fire with his bare hands.

As Wallace asks with a smirk if Doocy might be making a mistake, Kilmeade, armed with a plastic spoon, joins the effort.The pair continue their antics while a clearly exasperated Carlson tries to get the segment back on track, asking, “Chris, can I talk a little politics with you?” Wallace ignores her, clearly mesmerized by the footage of her co-hosts, before commenting, “I’m watching this and I’m thinking, well, I’m thinking what all of your viewers are thinking.” “Which is?” Kilmeade asks, while Doocy roasts the marshmallows with a stick. “What a bunch of dopes,” Wallace responds with a laugh.

Those were better days for Wallace’s relationship with his network’s outwardly conservative morning and prime-time hosts. With President Donald Trump’s election in November, the latter are ascendant. Trump watches their programs, calls them up for advice, praises them publicly, and gives them exclusive interviews; they provide sycophantic coverage that caters to their biggest fan. Wallace is reportedly displeased, particularly with the way his colleagues have joined the president’s attacks on the news media.

“I don’t like them bashing the media, because oftentimes what they’re bashing is stuff that we on the news side are doing,” he told The Associated Press in an interview published yesterday. “I don’t think they recognize that they have a role at Fox News and we have a role at Fox News. I don’t know what’s in their head. I just think it’s bad form.”

Wallace won’t name the colleagues he believes are crossing the line, but Sean Hannity is a good guess. So are the co-hosts of Fox & Friends, on whose show the AP says Wallace no longer appears.

Wallace’s comments seem well-intentioned. But they demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding of the business model of the network he’s worked at for more than a decade — and the way he’s benefited from his conservative colleagues’ attacks on the press.

Fox News was founded as a countervailing force to the rest of the press. Conservatives have attacked the press for decades, but what founder Roger Ailes realized was that he could feed that grievance as a way of amassing power. If conservatives could be convinced that other networks could not be trusted, they’d flock to Fox. And the more exclusive viewers he acquired the more support he could provide to the Republican Party.

And so the network’s longtime slogan of “Fair and Balanced” was born. For Ailes, a Republican operative who had worked for or on behalf of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, “balanced” had a very particular meaning: he imagined the network as balancing the mainstream press, which he considered biased against conservatives. And describing Fox as “fair” signaled that the rest of the press was not.

It worked. Fox became the most popular news network, riding the popularity of the network’s raft of conservative commentators and a steady drumbeat of right-wing news narratives and attacks on the rest of the press to greater heights. Meanwhile, Republican trust in the media plummeted.

Ailes also realized that Fox would be more effective if it wasn’t openly branded as a right-wing outlet. And so Fox executives have long sought to bolster the network’s credibility by saying that Fox is just like a newspaper, split between conservative “editorial” commentary programs like Fox & Friends and Hannity and the network’s objective “news” side, which includes Wallace’s Fox News Sunday and news anchor Shepard Smith.

The “news” side staff provide an “advantage” for the network’s leaders, according to media analyst Andrew Tyndall. “When people criticize Fox, Ailes can point to Shep as someone who is fair and balanced,” he told The Daily Beast in 2009. “The critics might be right 85 percent of the time, but Shep is the other 15 percent.”

Of course, the notion of a strict divide between the two sides has always been a farce. But the stylistic gap between the two creates friction, which at times leads to staffers from the “news” side criticizing the worst excesses of their “editorial” side colleagues, either in interviews with other outlets or on the Fox airwaves.

Wallace’s experience — he spent two decades at ABC and NBC before joining Fox in 2003 — and pedigree — his father was legendary newsman Mike Wallace — makes him perhaps the network’s most credible voice. And his comment to the AP is far from the first time he’s criticized his colleagues. But Wallace certainly understands Ailes’ strategy. “We’re the counterweight” to the rest of the press, he told Jon Stewart in 2011. “They have a liberal agenda, and we tell the other side of the story.” While Wallace is far from the worst offender at Fox, he obviously benefits from the image of the network — and its competitors — that the worst offenders create.

Think of Wallace as the Mitt Romney to Fox & Friends’ Trump. Romney, unlike Trump, seems like a personally decent sort, with real political values and some amount of personal character. But in order to gain the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, Romney was willing to seek out Trump’s support. At the time, Romney probably considered Trump a harmless showman whose endorsement could sew up conservative support, and so he looked past Trump’s championing of conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. But four years later, when Trump was no longer just a clown, but on the cusp of clinching the Republican nomination himself, Romney ripped into the businessman as a danger to the country.

Like Romney, Wallace was willing to laugh along with the Fox & Friends gang when he considered them relatively harmless “dopes.” But now that he realizes they’re in an actual position of power, he worries about the damage their ilk may be able to do to U.S. institutions.

 

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Rep. Bennie Thompson

Photo by Customs and Border Protection (Public domain)

Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) Friday afternoon announced the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack has issued subpoenas to 14 Republicans from seven states who submitted the forged and "bogus" Electoral College certificates falsely claiming Donald Trump and not Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election in their states.

The Chairman appeared to suggest the existence of a conspiracy as well, noting the "the planning and coordination of efforts," saying "these so-called alternate electors met," and may know "who was behind that scheme."

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Chris Cuomo

News Literacy Week 2022, an annual awareness event started by the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to making everyone “smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy” has closed out. From January 24 to 28, classes, webinars, and Twitter chats taught students and adults how to root out misinformation when consuming news media.
There’s no downplaying the importance of understanding what is accurate in the media. These days, news literacy is a survival tactic. One study estimated that at least 800 people died because they embraced a COVID falsehood — and that inquiry was conducted in the earliest months of the pandemic. About 67 percent of the unvaccinated believe at least one COVID-19 myth, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
It’s not that accurate information isn’t available; people are rejecting reports of vaccine efficacy and safety because they distrust the news media. A third of Americans polled by Gallup said they have no trust at all in mass media; another 27 percent don’t have much at all.
Getting people to believe information presented to them depends more on trust than it does on the actual data being shared. That is, improving trust isn’t an issue of improving reporting. It’s an issue of improving relationships with one’s audience.
And that’s the real news problem right now; some celebrity anchors at cable news outlets are doing little to strengthen their relationships with their audiences and a lot to strengthen their relationships with government officials.
The most obvious example is how CNN terminated Prime Time anchor Chris Cuomo last month for his failure to disclose the entirety of his role in advising his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on the sexual harassment accusation that unfolded in Albany, a scandal that eventually led to Andrew Cuomo’s resignation.
But there are others. Just this month, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol revealed that another anchor on another cable news network, Laura Ingraham of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, texted then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows last January, advising Meadows how Trump should react to reports of possible armed protests at state capitols around the country. This revelation followed the story that Sean Hannity, host of the eponymous news hour at Fox News, also texted Meadows with advice last year.
And while he didn't advise a government official, CNN anchor Don Lemon revealed information not available to the public when he texted embattled Empire actor Jussie Smollett to tip him off about the Chicago Police Department’s wavering faith in his story about an assault. That’s from Smollett’s own sworn testimony.
When English philosopher Edmund Burke joked about the press being the Fourth Estate — in addition to the First, Second and Third (the clergy, nobility and commoners, respectively) — his point was that, despite their influence on each other, these “estates” — bastions of power — are supposed to be separate.
The Fourth Estate will always be an essential counterweight to government. But, since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, we’ve been so focused on stopping an executive branch from pressing the press to support an administration's agenda — either by belittling journalists or threatening to arrest them for doing their jobs — that we’ve ignored the ways that it affects and influences other Estates, and not necessarily through its reporting.
That is, we have news personalities-cum-reporters who are influencing government policy — and not telling us about it until it’s too late.
The United States has fostered an incredible closeness between the Second Estate — which in 2021 and 2022 would be political leaders — and the Fourth Estate. About a year ago, an Axios reporter had to be reassigned because she was dating one of President Biden’s press secretaries. Last year, James Bennet, the former editorial page editor of the New York Times and brother of Colorado Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Michael Bennet, had to recuse himself publicly from the Gray Lady’s endorsement process. In 2013, the Washington Post reported at least eight marriages between Obama officials and established journalists.
To be clear, there aren’t any accusations that anyone just mentioned engaged in anything other than ethical behavior. But I, for one, don’t believe that James and Michael Bennet didn’t discuss Michael’s campaign. I don’t think the Axios reporter and her West Wing-employed boyfriend — or any journalists and their federally employed spouses, for that matter — didn’t share facts that the public will never know. Such is the nature of family and intimacy.
And as long as those conversations don’t affect the coverage of any news events, there’s nothing specifically, technically wrong with them. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t damaging.
As these stories show, when we don’t know about these advisor roles, at least not until someone other than the journalist in question exposes them, it causes a further erosion of trust in news media.
What’s foolish about the Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon improprieties is that they don't necessarily need to be the problem they’ve become. Cuomo’s show contained opinion content like 46 percent of CNN’s programming. An active debate rages on as to whether Fox News is all opinion and whether or not it can rightly even be called opinion journalism since its shows are so studded with inaccuracies and lies.
What that means is that Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon are allowed to take a stand as opinion journalists; Cuomo and Lemon never really worked under a mandate of objectivity and Ingraham and Hannity likely wouldn’t honor it if they did. Indeed, a certain subjectivity — and explaining how it developed for the journalist — is part of an opinion journalist’s craft. To me, little of these consulting roles would be problematic if any of these anchors had just disclosed them and the ways they advised the people they cover.
But they didn’t. Instead, the advice they dispensed to government employees and celebrities was disclosed by a third party and news of it contributes to the public’s distrust in the media. While personal PR advisory connections between journalists and politicians haven’t been pinpointed as a source of distrust, they may have an effect. Almost two-thirds of respondents in a Pew Research poll said they attributed what they deemed unfair coverage to a political agenda on the part of the news organization. No one has rigorously examined the ways in which individual journalists can swing institutional opinion so it may be part of the reason why consumers are suspicious of news.
Cleaning up ex post facto is both a violation of journalistic ethics and ineffective. Apologies and corrections after the fact don't always improve media trust. In other credibility contests, like courtroom battles, statements against one’s interests enhance a person’s believability. But that’s not necessarily true of news; a 2015 study found that corrections don’t automatically enhance a news outlet’s credibility.
It’s a new adage for the 21st century: It’s not the consulting; it’s the cover-up. Journalists need to disclose their connections to government officials — up front — to help maintain trust in news media. Lives depend on it.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.


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