The media topic of the week was the firing of Juan Williams by NPR over his remark that he gets “nervous” around “people who are in Muslim garb” on airplanes.
Williams' firing comes weeks after CNN canned Rick Sanchez for remarks about Jon Stewart and Jews in the media. In both cases, news organizations made personnel moves in response to perceived violations of their editorial standards.
Yet when it comes to cable ratings leader Fox News, it's hard to tell whether any editorial standards exist, and what - if anything - would get you reprimanded by the network.
Unlike other media outlets, Fox News has a pattern of failing to seriously discipline employees for on-air transgressions. And in positioning itself as an alternative to traditional news media, that's probably how Fox News likes it.
Take the case of Fox News contributor Liz Trotta. During a May 2008 segment on the Democratic presidential primaries, Trotta actually remarked that she wished somebody would “knock off” both Osama Bin Laden and then-candidate Barack Obama:
TROTTA: The vast right-wing conspiracy blame has been undermined by her [Clinton's] evasions, by her outright lies, if I may say, by her pandering, by her race-baiting, and now we have what some are reading as a suggestion that somebody knock off Osama - Obama - well, both if we could.
It bears repeating what Trotta did - she expressed her hope that someone assassinates Obama. The next day, Trotta appeared on Fox News to do damage control, telling Bill Hemmer that she is “so sorry about what happened yesterday and the lame attempt at humor. I fell all over myself, making it appear that I wished Barack Obama harm or any other candidate.”
The fallout? Nothing, apparently. Trotta is still a Fox News contributor, and appears in a weekly segment offering commentary.
More recently, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade made the clearly false claim - twice - that “all terrorists” are Muslim. Following outrage over his remarks, Bill Shine, Fox News' senior vice president of looking the other way, said Kilmeade would “clarify” his comments and claimed that Kilmeade actually meant to say that “all terrorists” involved in the 9-11 attacks were Muslim. Of course, this explanation was completely bogus, as Kilmeade referenced non-9-11 targets when he made the same comment on his Fox News Radio program later that day.
This wasn't the first time Kilmeade has gotten in trouble for remarks on race and religion. Kilmeade issued an apology over his remark that “we keep marrying other species and other ethnics and ... the Swedes have pure genes, because they marry other Swedes.” Kilmeade has also repeatedly made inflammatory remarks about Islam and Muslims.
Additionally, Kilmeade's Fox & Friends program was forced to retract the false assertion that Obama “was educated in a madrassa” - one part of the web of internet conspiracy theories claiming Obama is a secret Muslim with a fake birth certificate. In May 2008, Fox & Friends was forced to issue an apology after it repeated as fact an online parody news report of a school prank that included fabricated quotes.
And during a July 2008 show, Fox & Friends altered photos of New York Times reporters they disliked -- the journalists' teeth had been yellowed, their facial features exaggerated, and one journalist's hair was moved further back on his head.
The fallout? The hosts of Fox & Friends, Kilmeade included, are still standing. In response to the Times incident, Fox News' vice president of shrugging, John Moody, reportedly “said the incident will not result in any official standards adjustments.” Why? “Moody told the assembled press that the morning program is 'an entertainment show that does some news.'”
Media Matters documented this week that Fox News has a payola problem. Contributor Dick Morris again used his position as a Fox News “political analyst” to tout and solicit donations for the Republican-aligned group Americans for New Leadership weeks after they began paying him thousands of dollars. During his appearances, Morris did not disclose that he was receiving money from the group. To the contrary, Morris lied that he's been working for the Republican Party “without compensation.”
Morris has also suggested that violence against government officials could be justified. In early 2009, during a long conspiracy theory about a “super-national authority” that will oversee U.S. financial institutions, Morris asserted that President Obama's policies are “internationalist” and that "[t]hose crazies in Montana who say, 'We're going to kill ATF agents because the U.N.'s going to take over' -- well, they're beginning to have a case."
The fallout? Morris is one of the most frequent on-air commentators on Fox News.
Fox News strategic analyst Ralph Peters once asserted of Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban in June 2009 and appeared in Taliban propaganda videos: "[W]e know this private is a liar; we're not sure if he's a deserter." Peters added that if he is a deserter, “the Taliban can save us a lot of legal hassles and legal bills.” NBC's Jim Miklaszewski subsequently reported that the Pentagon said Peters' comments “could endanger” the captured soldier.
Peters still appears regularly on Fox News.
Fox News contributors Doug Schoen and Frank Luntz, meanwhile, have touted and defended the work of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce - without mentioning that the GOP-aligned group is their client.
Such behavior extends to Fox's “straight news” division. In February 2009, anchor Jon Scott essentially committed on-air plagiarism by trying to pass off a GOP press release as his own research (typo and all). When Scott was caught, he apologized - for the typo.
While students might have faced a suspension or expulsion, Scott suffered no apparent consequences -- to the contrary, he ironically hosts Fox News' media ethics program.
And we haven't even gotten to Glenn Beck. While over 100 advertisers have reportedly abandoned Beck's Fox News program, Fox News has stuck with Beck despite his history of violent rhetoric, bizarre conspiracy theories and promotion of anti-Semites. Rupert Murdoch even agreed with Beck's statement that Obama is a “racist,” causing MSNBC.com's First Read blog to write about Beck, “What's most amazing about this episode is that what Beck said isn't a fireable or even a SUSPENDABLE offense by his bosses. There was a time when outrageous rants like this would actually cost the ranters their jobs. But not anymore; if anything, it's now encouraged.”
Fox News has made noise about having editorial standards. Last year, it promised to implement a “zero tolerance” policy regarding errors - then appeared to throw the policy overboard when subsequent errors were found.
In another telling incident, Fox News executives yanked Sean Hannity from trying to tape his show at a Cincinnati Tea Party event which charged admission and had “all proceeds” benefiting the organization. Fox News execs were reportedly “furious,” but The Los Angeles Times noted that “it does not appear that [their concerns] have resulted in any serious disciplinary measures taken against any staffers involved” and a spokesperson told the Times and NY Magazine that it wouldn't discuss the matter any further.
Since April's tea party incident, Hannity has used his program as a non-stop fundraising and promotion tool for favored Republican candidates like Ohio's John Kasich and New York's John Gomez, among others.
For those keeping score about what won't result in serious disciplinary action when working at Fox News: wishing for Obama's assassination; appearing to legitimize physical threats against soldiers and law enforcement officers; failing to disclose that you're touting your business clients; trying to financially enrich conservative organizations and candidates; plagiarism of a partisan source; and fundraising on-air for a conservative group without disclosing that they've paid you thousands of dollars.
Why the lack of standards? Perhaps it's that Fox News has long defined itself by being the opposite of their competition.
The “mainstream media,” according to Fox News, is purportedly liberal. Fox's programming, therefore, has to be stacked with conservative hosts and commentators to “balance” out the competition. And other news organizations, apparently, are too focused on restrictions and standards. On Fox News, they don't care about you making “mistakes.”
“Here you have an ability to do stuff, and then they can always rein you in,” Kilmeade told the Los Angeles Times in October 2008. “But I know I'm not going to get reprimanded.”
“When we make a mistake reading the news headlines, whereas at a [broadcast] network you'd probably get fired, instead, we're like, 'Eh, we screwed up,' ” Fox & Friends' Gretchen Carlson similarly told the Times. “And I think that's disarming.”