“Is this my reality? And is this really happening?”
Fox News producers, like all TV news staffers, need to take a good, hard look at who they trust as guests on the air.
This week’s soundtrack: King Woman - “Utopia”
I apologize for taking last week off, but things in my life got a little out of hand, thus I couldn’t find the time for the newsletter. I’m back this week. Thanks for hanging with me.
About a month ago, I was on a date and we were – as is the case in the dating world – talking about our jobs. She was taken aback by my explanation of the gatekeeping aspect of journalism, probably because I was not explaining it particularly well. I don’t imagine she reads this newsletter, but if she does, I want to make some distinctions between what I consider responsible gatekeeping and what’s going on at Fox News with regards to the Dominion Voter Systems lawsuit.
Dominion, you may remember, is suing Fox for defamation in connection to the various personalities within the Fox universe of platforms who continued to elevate claims that Dominion was part of an effort to “steal” the 2020 election. People like Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Lou Dobbs, Janine Pierro and Maria Bartiromo all brought on guests that said – I’m paraphrasing – Dominion's technology was bad or corrupt or was the culprit behind Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election. This culminated in some pretty out-there claims, such as that somehow the ghost of Hugo Chávez was haunting the machines (I’m exaggerating only a little bit on that one).
Trickling out within the phases of the lawsuit have been correspondence between Fox personalities, executives and journalists. The gossipy bits have been fun to parse – Carlson and Murdoch being, at least, disingenuous about their adoration for Trump and company is the world’s least-surprising development – but I don’t think there’s substance much to that side of it. Yes, Fox News personalities and executives are disingenuous, but there has been little to suggest that Fox’s audience – certainly its hardcore audience – cares about such hypocrisy.
That said, Fox’s presence within the media ecosystem cannot be ignored. It remains the driving force within the conservative media movement; as much as OAN and the atomized web-based personalities (Ben Shapiro, The Blaze, Daily Caller, etc.) are more extreme, they take their cues from Fox. To ignore Fox’s presence is foolish.
So, it also should be noted what kind of weight the ratings-getters have at Fox. I’ve written about this before, but the business side of journalism is a deeply corrosive aspect of the industry. It’s one thing to care about an audience’s wants; I’ve been in the business long enough to understand the push and pull of the proverbial vegetables and candy. But, the job is to separate and balance those two things. In this case, Fox executives, news producers and personalities let the audience dictate seemingly everything about their coverage of the election; if the audience wanted the network to spout lies – and Fox knew about this when the ratings ticked up when Mike Lindell said some shit about Dominion – then the network kept doing it. It’s the proverbial rat pushing the lever to get the treat, except that the treat contributed to an environment that obfuscated the truth about the election.
This comes through in so many of the texts/emails/etc. that have come out. The trusted news anchors – not the Carlsons or Grahams – were pressing the polling team to not call Arizona, despite the polling team’s (accurate) ascertainment that Biden won Arizona. Martha MacCallum wrote that “In a Trump environment, the game is just very, very different.” Brett Baier wanted the polling team to “pull” the call because the Trump campaign was angry.
I don’t think either example passes muster – you hire your polling team to do its job and not interfere – but I can squint and sort of follow the logic on the second more than the first. Access journalism is access journalism and Fox, in particular, knows the value of that. It goes decidedly against my own values, but access journalism is a thing that exists and has existed since the dawn of the business. Baier is a clown for suggesting it, especially after a call was made.
The former is more what I talk about when I talk about the audience dictating coverage. If the Kovach and Rosensteil line holds – “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth” – then the audience has to face uncomfortable truths. There are complicated truths and uncomplicated truths in our world and in our political system. Vote counts are not complicated. Fox, for all of its faults, has had a solid elections team projecting winners in our bonkers-ass presidential election system, so, for Baier and MacCallum – and Sean Hannity and Carlson and on and on – to question it is to question an uncomplicated set of numbers.
Ultimately, the conversations between Fox producers, journalists and management after the election do speak to interesting – albeit sometimes wildly misguided – introspection, the seeming deference to the audience’s whims are dispiriting and a real mark against Fox as a serious news organization.
And that’s before Fox’s signature victimization narrative takes hold, in the form of thinking other networks were holding on to their calls just to screw over Fox.
Tom Lowell, the managing editor for news, said Fox had been left “as the canary in this nasty coal mine,” suggesting other networks had deliberately delayed calls out of malice. “I think some outlets willfully held back calls that they probably could have made to watch us twist in the wind,” he said.
The other thing that’s stood out about the coverage of the lawsuit and the texts/emails/etc. that have come out is more connected to the conversation I was having on that date last month. Our conversation was partially about how the GovExec Daily sausage is made. As the driving force, I have most of the editorial control and I don’t generally try to book guests who I think are unserious or have nothing productive to add to the conversation. I have been pitched people who believe in bizarre bible theories and people who are experts in things we don’t cover and people who are really out there. I’m not about to put a kook on the show because I need to fill time.
Where this fits within the Fox/Dominion lawsuit is that the gatekeeping aspect of journalism was lost and even the people at Fox knew that. Sidney Powell comes to mind immediately, both because she was unmoored from the truth completely and because the Fox personalities knew it… and still put her on the air.
Authority does not mean “correct”. This is hard because it means we, journalists, more concretely mediate things in a way that many viewers/readers/etc. don’t like. Inertia is very easy and skepticism can be a dangerous path. But, ultimately, if someone in or adjacent to power is clearly a clown, there is no reason to give that person a megaphone. No one is forcing Fox to cover Powell, no one is forcing Fox to have Trump call into Fox and Friends. Mike Lindell’s celebrity – such as it is – does not make him a credible person on voter fraud and said celebrity does not make him good journalism. Entertainment? Maybe. Information? No.
Howard Kurtz has not been allowed by his bosses at Fox to cover the lawsuit, but has since said that the lawsuit could have a – I’m paraphrasing – chilling effect on the first amendment. His argument might be a sound legal one, as I am not a lawyer, I cannot speak to that. But, from a journalism practice standpoint, his reasoning speaks directly to what I’m talking about. He claims that the interest in a president not accepting the result of an election is news, which is true, but only broadcasting the statements from that president is a major problem for journalism itself. Platforming a kook gives that kookery authority by nature of it being on TV.
For all of the skepticism this country exhibits, the U.S. remains a country that trusts authority (especially when that authority is their preferred party and is telling them what they want to hear). TV infers authority, whether that person has it or not. TV reaches the most people, still. When the current president goes on 60 Minutes and says “the pandemic is over,” the public throws off their masks. When the former president went on TV in 2015 and started talking about a “deep state,” people believed it.
Powell, Rudy Giuliani and the like all had (and still have, in some corners of the world) a proximity to power that confers power upon them. Putting them on TV only multiplies that power. In the context of outright falsehoods, the right thing is to keep them off the air. The right thing– even if the audience doesn’t want to hear it – is to tell the damned truth.
I have a certain amount of cynicism about any White House’s budget release. The budget is a political priorities document and it’s a negotiating starting point, but Congress really has the power of the purse. That said, we recorded live again on LinkedIn on Thursday, covering the Biden budget release. You can watch the video here or just get GovExec Daily in the usual places.
A couple of years ago, Lulu had surgery on one of her knees to replace a torn ligament. She’s always revving at one million RPM, so this was barely a barrier to her continuing to be crazy, but her repaired knee – especially at her now-advanced age of seven – can give her trouble sometimes. Today is one of those days, so she’s spent most of the day lazing around.
A Recommendation: Buying Cookies From Girl Scouts Troop 6000
It’s a little tired to recommend the Girl Scouts as a group, but it is worth being reminded that their cookies, while flawed, are delicious and the organization has managed to stay away from the mess that the Boy Scouts continually find themselves in.
I imagine I have some coworkers/friends/etc. with children who sell Girl Scout Cookies, but I am also exquisitely lazy and used to buying my cookies from the same troop each year: Troop 6000. It’s a troop "designed to serve families living in temporary housing in the New York City shelter system." Living in the shelter system can be chaotic and unmooring, so I’m glad Troop 6000 is able to bring some amount of regularity, friendship and community to these kids.
Also, I like cookies a lot.