Fox News draws renewed scrutiny—and outrage

A week ago, The New Yorker published a Jane Mayer story about the relationship between the White House and Fox News that was less a bombshell than a field of landmines. Though we already knew about (or suspected) many of them, different aspects of Mayer’s reporting fed a long media news cycle and exerted political impact. Congressional Democrats are looking into the president’s alleged meddling in the merger between AT&T and Time Warner, which owns CNN, which is a frequent Trump target. The Democratic National Committee cited the New Yorker article as it barred Fox from hosting or televising a 2020 presidential debate; some observers said this did not constitute impact as the DNC would have made the call anyway, though Mayer’s story at least provided a convenient pretext. And the piece drove a fresh round of thinking about the Trump–Fox nexus. Yesterday, Mayer and CNN’s Brian Stelter discussed whether Trump programs Fox or vice versa; “It goes both ways,” Mayer said. Responding on Twitter, Jay Rosen, a professor at NYU, proposed a different framing. “There’s been a merger,” he wrote. “Two objects have become one.”

On Friday, a key figure in that merger was spun off, or at least parked in a subsidiary. Bill Shine, the former Fox executive and noted pal of Sean Hannity, resigned as White House communications chief. (He’ll work instead for the president’s re-election campaign, though sources described the move, to The New York Times, as “a way to save face.”) Shine was a prominent character in Mayer’s piece: “Nothing has formalized the partnership between Fox and Trump more than [his] appointment,” she wrote. It’s not clear if this new scrutiny pushed Shine, or the White House, to a tipping point—the Times and the Post both called his resignation “abrupt”—though it had been clear for weeks that something was amiss. Trump reportedly grew tired of Shine, who failed to develop a strong relationship with, or sharp messaging strategy for, the president; according to the Post, Shine “was more interested in staging TV events that focused on Trump… more focused on lighting and staging than on content.” Either way, Trump’s distancing from Shine should not be read as a distancing from Fox. As the Times’s Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman wrote in January, Trump hardly needed Shine’s entrée to win favors from the network. In any case, Shine, an old ally of Roger Ailes, has “few remaining admirers” at Fox.

ICYMI: The mystery of Tucker Carlson

Over the weekend, Fox attracted negative headlines that had nothing to do with Mayer and The New Yorker, and a lot to do with the views of Fox’s on-air talent. On Saturday, Jeanine Pirro, on her show, launched into a loathsome monologue attacking Ilhan Omar, the freshman Democratic representative from Minnesota. “Think about it. Omar wears a hijab,” Pirro said as she addressed Omar’s recent comments on Israel. “Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to Sharia law, which, in itself, is antithetical to the United States Constitution?” The remarks drew widespread condemnation on social media, including from Hufsa Kamal, who works at Fox. “Can you stop spreading this false narrative that somehow Muslims hate America or women who wear a hijab aren’t American enough?” Kamal tweeted at Pirro. “You have Muslims working at the same network you do, including myself.”

Yesterday, another Fox controversy blew up. Media Matters for America dug up and published “numerous misogynistic and perverted comments” made by Tucker Carlson during past interviews on Bubba The Love Sponge’s eponymous radio show. In one clip—after The Love Sponge described underage girls at Carlson’s daughter’s boarding school sexually experimenting with each other—Carlson replied, “If it weren’t my daughter I would love that scenario.” In another, Carlson said that “arranging a marriage between a 16-year-old and a 27-year-old is not the same as pulling a stranger off the street and raping her.”

Last night, management at Fox put out a statement condemning Pirro’s remarks about Omar. Pirro did not apologize. Nor did Carlson: “Rather than express the usual ritual contrition,” he said, critics would have to watch his show to find out what he thought. That, the Post’s Erik Wemple noted, was a “classic, classic response: Instead of dealing with the substance of the matter, Carlson tries to parlay the up-and-coming scandal into higher ratings.” As I wrote last week, Mayer’s Trump–Fox analysis was so strong because it clearly centered ratings and revenue. As with the Trump end of the “merger,” outrage is often justified when it comes to Fox. But outrage is part of the agreement. It sells, both electorally and financially.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on Fox:

  • Stormy waters: Mayer wrote, in her story, that Ken LaCorte, a former senior editor at Fox, told Diana Falzone, who was then a reporter at the network, that her pre-election reporting on Stormy Daniels wouldn’t run because “Rupert [Murdoch] wants Donald Trump to win.” On Friday, LaCorte wrote for Mediaite that the story was killed because there wasn’t enough proof to publish. Nancy Erika Smith, Falzone’s lawyer, is demanding that Fox release Falzone from an NDA so she can tell her side of the story.
  • A JFK comparison: For Politico, John F. Harris jumps off Mayer’s story to examine Trump’s contradictory relationship with the press and its historical parallels. “Even as Trump wages almost daily attacks on individual reporters and news organizations, and often seems bent on undermining the very idea of independent news media, behind the scenes, he arguably has the most frequent, most informal, and most sustained personal interactions with reporters and commentators of any president since the days of Kennedy,” he writes.
  • No saint: Bloomberg’s Tim O’Brien writes that Shine’s White House comms job was impossible: “Trump, certainly no saint, wants hagiography. In the absence of that, the clock is ticking for anyone in charge of White House propagandizing.”
  • House of Mouse: The sale of Fox entertainment assets to Disney—which, unlike the AT&T/Time Warner deal, was approved by Trump’s regulators—could be finalized soon. “Is this the week that the mouse will finally swallow the fox?” asks CNN’s Stelter.


Other notable stories:

  • Last month, senior US officials blamed Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his supporters for setting alight a US aid truck at that country’s border with Colombia. In a detailed video analysis, The New York Times cast doubt on that conclusion, showing that protesters may have started the fire accidentally. “It’s true that Maduro has a horrific human rights record… but in this specific incident, our analysis shows US officials used unverified claims to spin their side of the story,” the Times reports. The fire is “a classic example of how misinformation spreads online. A rumor is made, it’s amplified by influential people, [and] mainstream media brings it to the masses.”
  • For CJR, Alex Pareene dissects the recent uptick in mainstream outlets publishing stories going behind their own stories. “Unfortunately, a lot of reporting is rather boring to witness, let alone hear recounted after the fact,” Pareene writes. “And of course, by necessity, these pieces… always leave out some of the most crucial elements a budding reporter would need to re-report the story, like a source’s known professional grudges, or the outlet’s institutional cachet.”
  • Chelsea Manning is back in jail. On Friday, she was held in contempt of court in Alexandria, Virginia, after refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks—Manning said she objects to the secrecy of the process, and has already revealed everything she knows. In November, Alexandria prosecutors accidentally revealed that they have laid charges against Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’s founder. At the time, CJR’s Mathew Ingram asked whether the indictment poses a threat to journalism.
  • The AP’s David Bauder and David A. Lieb report from Waynesville, Missouri, which became a “news desert” last year after its local newspaper, the Daily Guide, shut down. Now the only independent source of local information is Darrell Todd Maurina, a blogger who tracks official goings on, then writes them up on Facebook. For CJR’s latest print issue, we compiled data on what life in a news desert is like.
  • Last month, it was revealed, to widespread consternation, that Sarah Isgur Flores, a longtime GOP operative and former Justice Department spokesperson, was being hired into a senior editorial role at CNN. As concern about her influence grew both inside and outside of CNN, network bosses named coverage areas Isgur would not be touching, but declined to clarify what, exactly, her role would entail. On Friday, Isgur tweeted that she will now be joining the network only as an on-air and online analyst.
  • Also Friday, Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator for Massachusetts who is running for president, unveiled an aggressive new policy to break up tech monopolies. Warren announced the proposals—which would undo mergers sealed, in recent years, by Amazon, Google, and Facebook—in Long Island City, Queens, where Amazon recently scrapped plans to build part of a second headquarters amid worsening local blowback.
  • And a man threatened to sue the MIT Technology Review for using a stock photo of him to illustrate an article about all hipsters looking alike—then learned it wasn’t him in the photo after all.

ICYMI: Why the Left Can’t Stand The New York Times

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.