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Fox News Bigotry Leaves Network Struggling For Advertisers

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

Madison Avenue advertising executives are scheduled to visit Fox News’ studio on Wednesday for an event unique in the right-wing network’s history: an emergency pitch to major media buyers that they should not abandon the network. It’s been a brutal few years for Fox’s advertiser relations, as numerous blue-chip companies have pulled their ads from the programs of star hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham in light of their bigoted and unhinged commentary. Fox’s executives have responded by trying to stem these losses with a public relations effort refocusing attention on the network’s “news” side anchors like Chris Wallace and Bret Baier, whom they argue are adept journalists. This week’s sit-down will make that case to the advertising industry, with Fox arguing that its controversies are behind it and media buyers shouldn’t be afraid to advertise on the network, particularly on Fox’s “news” programs.

This argument is deeply flawed. Fox’s business model is built around its vitriolic right-wing hosts, who use rage and fear to stir up their audience and keep them coming back for more. As long as that is the case, the network’s advertisers will find themselves in the center of a constant stream of controversies whenever the extremism and bigotry of Fox stars become apparent to anyone outside of their viewers. And Fox can’t cordon off its “news” side from its “opinion” stars — the former play a key role in bolstering the propaganda machine built around the latter.

Given that Fox is asking the advertising industry to kindly ignore the bile coming out of the mouths of the network’s most famous personalities, Fox’s executives were likely hoping for at least a quiet PR week leading into the meeting to help them make their case. It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, Fox has suffered the week from hell, with its propaganda and bigotry triggering an escalating series of brutal headlines that lay bare the rot at the heart of the network. And the network’s fumbling efforts to staunch its nightmarish, self-inflicted wounds only make the situation worse.

The week began with an 11,000-word reported piece in the nation’s pre-eminent news magazine by one of its most celebrated reporters detailing the network’s effective merger with President Donald Trump’s White House and its emergence as a “state TV” apparatus supporting his administration. Jane Mayer’s New Yorker piece wedded damning new details of journalistic malfeasance to first-rate storytelling, providing readers with a horrifying picture of Fox operations diametrically opposed to the one that the network’s executives try to paint.

Mayer’s story had legs. For several days, the story was a major topic of debate throughout the media. On Thursday, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez cited it in announcing that the party would not partner with Fox for a presidential primary debate, preventing Fox executives from being able to crow that its “news” side is considered as credible as any other, rather than an essential cog in a corrupt machine. By Saturday, CNN President Jeff Zucker was openly describing Fox as “propaganda” and arguing that its journalists “work at a place that has done tremendous damage to this country.”

In its effort to shape Mayer’s story and its response to criticism following the article’s publication, Fox’s PR team sought to focus attention on the efforts of its news side. After the DNC severely damaged that argument by rejecting the network’s pitch for a primary debate, some of those very same news-side personalities went on the attack, accusing critics of “Fox derangement syndrome.”

On Saturday night, Fox host Jeanine Pirro responded to the controversy surrounding Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) use of anti-Semitic tropes with a monologue steeped in unhinged Islamophobic bigotry. Pirro suggested that Omar’s comments were rooted in her identity as a practicing Muslim. “Think about it: Omar wears a hijab,” Pirro said. “Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to Sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?” Pirro’s remarks triggered an immediate outcry, with commentators on the right and left pointing out that they were disgraceful and un-American.

More than 24 hours later, Fox finally responded, issuing a statement with no name attached saying that the network “strongly condemn[s]” the comments and that “we have addressed the matter with [Pirro] directly.” The network has repeatedly used the “addressed the matter” construction over the years when trying to make problematic stories go away. Fox made no mention of any other sanctions against its host, and if she received any sort of stern talking-to, it obviously had no effect, as Fox’s release also included a statement from Pirro in which she did not apologize, express remorse, or say that it wouldn’t happen again.

By the time Fox’s PR team finally got around to acknowledging their Pirro problem, they were already fielding questions about an impending Carlson crisis. On Sunday night, Media Matters released a series of clips featuring the Fox host using sexist, misogynistic, and perverted language about women and young girls — including defenses of statutory rape — during regular appearances on a shock jock’s radio show between 2006 and 2011 (Fox hired Carlson in 2009). Carlson’s show hemorrhaged advertisers last year due to his frequent use of white nationalist rhetoric.

Carlson’s remarks are disgusting. But as The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple points out, Fox can’t express shock over them because they are also entirely consistent with Carlson’s commentary, before and after he joined Fox, on its airwaves and off of them.

And so far, Fox is publicly expressing … nothing. The network has not commented at all despite a burgeoning firestorm in response to Carlson’s remarks. So far, the network has let its host speak for himself, allowing Carlson to issue a statement on Sunday night in which he lied about what he did and sneered at the notion that he might “express the usual ritual contrition.” Then on Monday night, he devoted his opening monologue to lashing out at the “outrage machine” of his critics and declaring that “we will never bow to the mob.” Perhaps boxing in his employer, he also claimed that “Fox News is behind us” (Wemple subsequently confirmed with Fox PR that was the case). Minutes later, Media Matters released a second set of clips from Carlson’s shock jock interviews, these dealing with Carlson’s racist commentary, including references to Iraqis as “semiliterate primitive monkeys” who “don’t use toilet paper or forks.”

Those are just the major stories that have battered Fox over the last week. Then there are the ones that might cause a PR crisis somewhere else, but are sadly typical for the network: The host who mixes up two Black interviewers; the regular guest who calls for Trump to use the National Guard to break up protests on college campuses; the network personality’s report that she was sexually harassed by Fox founder Roger Ailes; our Fox-obsessed president tweeting misquotes from the network’s programming to burnish his economic record; a host using the language of white nationalists to criticize Democrats about immigration; a former network co-president, still drawing a salary from the network, forced to resign from his job overseeing Trump’s communications.

Some of these stories were shocking. But if you’ve been paying attention to Fox in recent years, none of them was surprising. Pro-Trump propaganda, anti-Muslim hate, and misogynistic commentary have all been not just tolerated but rewarded by the network for years. And that’s the danger for Fox advertisers and media buyers who recommend placing ads on the network — they have no plausible deniability whatsoever. A new round of headlines just as bad, about conduct just as deplorable, is always just around the corner.

What may prove particularly unnerving for advertisers is Fox’s unwillingness to take real action in response to these rolling PR crises. And this shows the connection between the three major stories that hit the network over the past week: Pirro and Carlson are effectively protected by Fox’s status as a pro-Trump propaganda outlet. Fox executives may issue an unsigned statement criticizing Pirro’s remarks, but it’s difficult to imagine them pushing for accountability from a close friend and sometime adviser to a president who watches her show each week. The same goes for Carlson, whose commentary Trump loves and whose show the president often tweets about. And again, this sort of unhinged and extreme rhetoric is what keeps Fox’s audience loyal.

Fox is desperately trying to shore up its relationships with advertisers precisely because of this dynamic. At any other news organization, one could expect this level of vitriol to trigger some type of accountability. But at Fox, with few exceptions that almost always feature low-profile commentators, this simply does not happen.

And with Fox unwilling to act, activists who hope to actually impact the network’s programming have little recourse except to the network’s advertisers, creating the blowback that Fox’s Wednesday meeting seeks to heal.

Bill Shine Departing White House Under Ethical Cloud

Bill Shine, the former president of Fox News, resigned from his position as White House communications director on Friday, the fifth person to leave that role under President Donald Trump. He will be joining the president’s re-election campaign, which is not an uncommon transition for a White House official to make mid-term.

But Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, pointed out that there’s an ominous cloud hanging over Shine’s White House tenure:

Indeed, New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer found in a bombshell article this week that Shine has been receiving a $7 million payout from Fox News while he’s been working at the White House. Some speculated it may even have been Mayer’s revelations that triggered Shine’s departure.

“In December, four Democratic senators sent a letter to the White House counsel’s office, demanding proof that Fox’s payments to Shine don’t violate federal ethics and conflict-of-interest statutes,” said Mayer.

“Because Bill Shine had Fox stock options, the criminal conflict of interest law required him to recuse from any ‘particular matter’ affecting Fox’s interests. A ‘particular matter’ includes a matter affecting an industry (news media) or parties (the outlets with WH credentials),” said Shaub Friday on Twitter.

The pulling of the press credentials, mentioned in the tweet above, refers an incident in which Trump’s White House pulled CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s pass in November 2018. CNN challenged the decision in court and won immediate relief, and the White House essentially backed down. But Shine had initially signed a letter revoking the pass, a decision Shaub now suggests he shouldn’t have been involved in.

“Shine received an authorization under an impartiality regulation to meet with Fox. But that authorization did not waive the conflict of interest law. I wonder if anyone can explain how the WH communications director meets with Fox without affecting its financial interests,” said Shaub. “I have no idea why Shine resigned, and I’m not implying these things caused his resignation. But these are things the media ought to be asking the WH about. Fox News could start by sharing information about any meetings it had with Bill Shine. Or does state media not do that?”

Shine’s highly dubious arrangement receiving pay from both the White House and Fox News at the same time, all the while making government decisions that affect Fox’s bottom line, raises serious concerns. But the fact that these highly irregular conflicts have gone largely under the radar also speaks to the fact that Trump’s administration is so wildly scandalous that many people may feel they’re able to get away with behavior that would not otherwise be tolerated.

Feinstein Urges Delay After New Sexual Misconduct Allegation Against Kavanaugh

The New Yorker reported on Sunday night that Senate Democrats are investigating a second accusation of sexual misconduct by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Reported by staff writers Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer, the story includes an extensive interview with Deborah Ramirez, 53, who says the incident occurred during their freshman year together at Yale University.

Ramirez agreed to be interviewed when the magazine contacted her. She said that she recalls a drunken dormitory party where Kavanaugh thrust his exposed penis in her face, and caused her to touch it without her consent as she pushed him away. Kavanaugh denied that the incident ever occurred, calling it a “smear” in a statement distributed by the White House.

According to the New Yorker, the story has spurred controversy among their Yale classmates, some of whom supported Ramirez’s  account while others backed Kavanaugh’s denial.

But as the Senate Judiciary Committee prepared to hear testimony this week from Kavanaugh’s first accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, at least one of its members asked Sunday night that any further action be postponed pending a full investigation of both charges.

“I am writing to request an immediate postponement of any further proceedings related to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh,” wrote Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on Judiciary, in a letter to Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the committee chair. “I also ask that the newest allegations of sexual misconduct be referred to the FBI for investigation….We need a fair, independent process that will gather all the facts, interview all the witnesses, and ensure that the Committee receives a full and impartial report.”

Kavanaugh is already under heavy scrutiny following Ford’s accusation that he assaulted her in an attempted rape during a drunken high school party when both were teenagers in suburban Maryland. He categorically denied ever attending the party described by Ford or participating in any such attack.

Unhappy Anniversary: How Anthony Kennedy Flooded Democracy With ‘Sewer Money’

On today’s anniversary of the Citizens United decision, which exposed American democracy to increasing domination by the country’s very richest and most reactionary figures – the modern heirs to those “malefactors of great wealth” condemned by the great Republican Theodore Roosevelt – it is worth recalling the false promise made by the justice who wrote the majority opinion in that case.

Justice Anthony Kennedy masterminded the Supreme Court’s January 21, 2010 decision to undo a century of public-interest regulation of campaign expenditures in the name of “free speech.” He had every reason to know how damaging to democratic values and public integrity that decision would prove to be.

Once billed as a “moderate conservative,” Kennedy is a libertarian former corporate lobbyist from Sacramento, who toiled in his father’s scandal-ridden lobbying law firm, “influencing” California legislators, before he ascended to the bench with the help of his friend Ronald Reagan.

While guiding Citizens United through the court on behalf of the Republican Party’s billionaire overseers, it was Kennedy who came up with a decorative fig leaf of justification:

With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.

 As Jane Mayer’s superb new book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right reveals in excruciating but fascinating detail, Kennedy’s assertion about the Internet insuring disclosure and accountability was nothing but a little heap of happy horse-shit. “Independent” expenditures from super-rich right-wing donors have overwhelmed the opponents of their chosen candidates, promoting a durable Republican takeover of Congress — often through the deployment of false advertising and false-flag organizations.

Late last year, Kennedy confessed that his vaunted “transparency” is “not working the way it should,” a feeble excuse since he had every reason to know from the beginning that his professed expectation of “prompt disclosure” of all political donations was absurdly unrealistic.

The Citizens United debacle led directly to the Republican takeover of the Senate as well as the House. Last week, the Brennan Center for Justice released a new study showing that “dark money” – that is, donations whose origin remains secret from news organizations and voters – has more than doubled in Senate races during the past six years, from $105 million to $226 million in 2014.

During the past three election cycles, outside groups spent about $1 billion total on Senate races, of which $485 million came from undisclosed sources. In the 11 most competitive Senate races in 2014, almost 60 percent of the spending by “independent” groups came from those murky places, and the winners of those races benefited from $171 million of such spending.

In elections gone by, when anonymous smear leaflets would appear in local races — funded by nobody knew whom — political operatives would shake their heads and mutter about “sewer money.”

Today we can thank Anthony Kennedy, who was either poorly informed or willfully ignorant, for turning American democracy into a stinking open sewer.

What a legacy.