Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.
Fox News’ employees, reports CNN’s Oliver Darcy, are “perplexed” with the state of an ongoing internal investigation into their network’s since-retracted May reporting on the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. A lawsuit filed against the network by one of the report’s subjects thrust the story back into the news this week, and beset by a new wave of criticism, Fox’s journalists want their questions answered: Why Fox has not given a public accounting of why it published a report, based on shoddy evidence, indicating Rich was in contact with WikiLeaks shortly before he was killed? Why does Malia Zimmerman, the reporter who wrote the story, continue to publish pieces on FoxNews.com? Did a “top editor” review the story before its publication? And most of all, why has no one has been fired over the journalistic disaster nearly three months after it imploded?
The answer to all these questions is the same: That’s the way Fox operates.
Fox does not conduct internal investigations because the network’s executives want to get to the bottom of failures and hold people accountable. Fox conducts investigations when the heat is on and executives need to make it look like they are doing something about it. Their reviews are a public relations exercise that give them time to assess whether the level of criticism demands action, not an effort to maintain high ethical standards.
If Fox was actually serious about maintaining its journalistic integrity after descending into the sewer by promoting long-debunked Rich conspiracy theories, the network would have long since fired Zimmerman, the story’s editor, and Sean Hannity, the Fox host who kept promoting the story long after it fell apart.
CNN had a story about Anthony Scaramucci fall apart in late June. The network’s response to the situation was very different from Fox’s interminable Rich review. CNN’s piece was published, investigated, and retracted over the course of a weekend. By that Monday, the story’s reporter, editor, and the head of the investigations division — all highly credentialled veteran journalists — had resigned. On Fox’s airwaves, this was seen as a sign of weakness, evidence of CNN’s “major credibility crisis,” as Hannity put it. But that’s what real news outlets do when they screw up — figure out what went wrong as quickly and thoroughly as possible, and hold their journalists accountable.
That’s not how things work at Fox. The network killed its internal investigation into sexual harassment after firing CEO Roger Ailes last year, choosing to, as Vanity Fair put it, get “the revenue machine back on track” once the media firestorm died down rather than expanding its assessment to examine Fox’s broader culture. A similar investigation into Bill O’Reilly bought the network time to assess the blowback the reports that he had sexually harassed colleagues had caused; once it became clear that ongoing advertiser boycotts threatened the bottom line, the longtime star host was shown the door. Faced with a decades-long culture problem the network did as little as possible to stop the immediate criticism, using these internal reviews as a tool to manage the blowback.
The review Fox launched in the wake of its bogus Rich story focuses on the quality of the journalism the network produced, not the horrendous behavior of its employees. But the principle of the investigation remains the same: It was an effort to defuse widespread public criticism, not to get to the bottom of what happened and punish those responsible.
As CNN’s Darcy explains, it should have been extremely easy for Fox to have done a quick, comprehensive investigation into its Rich reporting, if that was what executives wanted to do. The network employs all the key players involved in producing the story, and presumably it has access to Zimmerman’s notes and communications. The simplest explanation for why the review yielded no result is that it was a sham. Perhaps the network went through the motions, looked into the claims a bit, then sat on its findings; perhaps Fox announced an investigation and simply never followed through. Either way, the point was to stall, to act like it was doing something and wait for the rest of the press to move on. That worked, until the lawsuit put the network’s reporting back under the spotlight. Maybe now the heat has risen high enough that Fox will actually have to act, though it’s certainly possible those in charge are hoping attention will shift again and they can continue to make no response.
It is extremely unusual for such a review to happen at Fox in the first place. When the network’s reporting is bogus and there is enough attention on the failure, Fox will usually issue an apology, as anchor Bret Baier did last year after his report that Hillary Clinton was on the verge of being indicted collapsed. In a more extreme case, as we saw with senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano’s nonsense claim that a British intelligence service had spied on Donald Trump on President Barack Obama’s behalf, the network might issue a brief suspension.
But that’s as far as accountability tends to go at Fox — as a senior network source explained to Darcy, “No one ever gets fired from Fox for publishing a story that isn’t true.” And the higher up in the network’s pantheon you are, the less chance you will be held to account. It seems significant that while Fox’s staffers are whispering to Darcy about how shameful it is that Zimmerman remains on the payroll, no one even bothers to suggest that there should be repercussions for Hannity, who melted down over the story, continuing to trumpet it after key details were called into question, and never admitted fault or apologized. If this investigation is serious, it should end with his termination.
“I think the lack of transparency is not that surprising,” the senior Fox News employee told Darcy. “But it really forces the question, how much journalistic integrity does Fox News really have?” Not much, pal. Welcome to the party.
Header image by Sarah Wasko / Media Matters