In 2007, after Fox & Friends promoted a quickly debunked report that then-Sen. Barack Obama had gone to school at an extremist Islamic madrassa as a child, a top Fox News executive issued a truly startling internal memo to the network’s newsroom. “For the record,” then-Vice President of News John Moody wrote, “seeing an item on a website does not mean it is right. Nor does it mean it is ready for air on FNC.”
Thirteen years later, Facebook has reportedly named Jennifer Williams, who was a Fox & Friends senior producer at the time that memo was sent, to head video strategy for the social media giant’s forthcoming Facebook News, NBC News reported Tuesday. Facebook News will serve its billions of users with a dedicated tab including news content curated by a team of journalists from a list of publishers chosen by the company. As Facebook executives plan a shift in the way the nation consumes news that will almost certainly impact the 2020 presidential elections, they are staffing up with an 18-year veteran of the right-wing cable network that effectively serves as President Donald Trump’s personal mouthpiece.
Facebook’s massive audience and immense power have placed the company at the center of a political maelstrom over the last half decade. The 2016 decision by its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, to bow to a bogus right-wing pressure campaign and eliminate the human curators who managed its Trending Topics section helped turn the platform into a toxic fake news ecosystem riddled with foreign interference in the days leading up to Trump’s election.
That campaign’s success only emboldened the right, which has continued to offer flawed attacks on Facebook’s purported anti-conservative bias even as the platform has “become a hub for some of the most insidious conservative false talking points about immigration, abortion, climate change, and trans rights,” as my colleague Parker Molloy has noted. (Media Matters has published multiple studies demonstrating that conservatives are not censored on Facebook.) And while facing a left that threatens to aggressively regulate or even break up the company -- and the prospect of higher taxes for its top executives under a Democratic administration -- Facebook has repeatedly acted to bolster Trump and other conservatives.
The hiring of Williams, who spent 12 years at Fox’s insipid morning show and later served as executive producer for Gretchen Carlson and Bush administration press secretary Dana Perino, is simply the latest example of Facebook siding with the right. While Zuckerberg has been holding cozy dinners with right-wing media figures and meeting with Trump in the White House, his company has stocked its powerful Washington, D.C., office with Republican political operatives, hired a former Republican senator to produce a report on Facebook’s alleged liberal bias, encouraged its fact-checking consortium to partner with Tucker Carlson’s toxic Daily Caller website, commissioned research on opponents that was steeped in anti-Semitic tropes, and altered and selectively enforced its ad policies in ways that will likely benefit Trump’s reelection campaign. Just last week, Popular Information's Judd Legum reported that Facebook was allowing a major Trump super PAC to run ads featuring a lie that the platform's own fact-checking partners had debunked.
Facebook News poses a new challenge for the company, requiring it to make affirmative journalistic decisions rather than allowing its algorithm to determine what users see. Its executives will need to decide if they want to support a factual news environment, or cater to a right-wing media that often produces conspiracy theories and bigoted content.
Facebook hasn’t rolled out the news tab yet, but early indications suggest the company may plan to take the latter path. Campbell Brown, a former NBC News anchor who has been at Facebook since 2017, has been tapped to lead the program. Before joining Facebook, Brown served as editor-in-chief of The 74, an education policy news website that was funded by the family foundation of Betsy DeVos, who subsequently joined Trump’s cabinet, as Judd Legum has reported. And under Brown’s tenure, Facebook News has credentialed the noxious hate site Breitbart.com as one of the sites the tab will promote. Brown’s defense of that decision -- that Breitbart.com “meets our integrity standards for misinformation” -- suggests that those standards will be absurdly low for right-wing media.
Facebook’s efforts to mollify the right won’t reduce the criticism the company receives from conservative circles. Trump and his ilk will not be satisfied until all media outlets look like Fox News. But by hiring a longtime Fox employee to lead Facebook News’ video strategy, the platform is taking another step in that direction.
Update (1/29/20): Judd Legum interviewed a Facebook spokesperson about Williams’ hiring for the Wednesday edition of his Popular Information newsletter:
In response to an inquiry from Popular Information, Facebook defended hiring Williams. Williams' work with Fox & Friends, the spokesperson emphasized, occurred before Trump was president. More recently, Facebook stressed, Williams worked with Fox News' daytime talent, including Gretchen Carlson and Dana Perino.
This is an incoherent response that relies on people to have short memories. As Judd and I both detailed, during Williams’ tenure, Fox & Friends featured a mishmash of conspiracy theories and credulous recitations of reports from fringe websites, drawing criticisms from a top Fox executive and a federal judge for failing to vet stories before putting them on the air. And the later work that the spokesperson stressed was done for programs featuring a former Fox & Friends co-host and President George W. Bush’s former press secretary, each of whom have long records of promoting right-wing misinformation.
Legum goes on to dismantle the spokesperson’s suggestion that a Fox employee will provide balance for Facebook News:
Facebook told Popular Information that the Facebook News team also includes former employees from CNN, The New York Times, ABC News, BBC, and HuffPost. With the exception of HuffPost, none of these outlets is part of the progressive media ecosystem. And none plays anything close to the role of Fox News, which is effectively a propaganda arm for the Trump White House.