Jennifer Griffin and the myth of Fox’s “straight news” side

Jennifer Griffin

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

Fox News’ “straight news” reporters typically produce scoops that incrementally advance the scandalmongering of their right-wing “opinion side” colleagues. But correspondent Jennifer Griffin produced something different on Friday: the rare Fox story that backed up a narrative damaging to President Donald Trump. How Fox treated her reporting -- downplaying it on the “news side,” while ignoring or dismissing it to rally around Trump on the “opinion side,” even as he called for Griffin’s firing -- provides a common example of how the network functions as a propaganda outlet for the president.

The Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg’s story that Trump denigrated U.S. service members who died in wars as “losers” and “suckers” has dominated the U.S. political news cycle since it was published Thursday night. Goldberg’s reporting largely tracked with Trump’s public statements, particularly regarding the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), but the details are fairly horrific and wrapped in the sort of anonymously derived hidden knowledge that political reporters tend to find irresistible. Journalists at other outlets quickly found their own anonymous sources to back up at least some aspects of the story, which drove news coverage through the weekend.

After Trump denounced what he termed the “fake story” from a “terrible magazine,” Fox’s propagandists swooped into action on Friday morning. On Fox & Friends, “opinion side” co-hosts Steve Doocy and Pete Hegseth painted the report as a politically motivated smear and criticized its anonymous sourcing. Hours later on America’s Newsroom, “news side” correspondent John Roberts produced his own anonymous sources to deny the article’s claims.

But a funny thing happened on Friday afternoon: Fox national security correspondent Griffin reported that her own sources were backing up what she described as “key details in The Atlantic article and the quotes attributed to the president.” 

Griffin’s reporting did not, however, significantly alter the trajectory of Fox’s handling of the story, as CNN’s Oliver Darcy and my colleague Madeline Peltz both pointed out. Instead, the network’s “opinion side” hosts ignored her reporting while denouncing The Atlantic’s story as a “hoax.” Meanwhile, the “news side” favored Roberts’ more Trump-friendly reporting, pushed back on guests who tried to cite Griffin’s story, and even allowed the Trump campaign to denounce The Atlantic without noting their own journalist had produced similar reporting. 

“An actual news organization would aggressively tout that it had matched much of the reporting at the center of the biggest news story of the day,” Darcy noted, but Fox instead “acted as if it were ashamed and inconvenienced by it.” 

Trump, meanwhile, was apparently enraged by it. On Friday night, the purported scourge of “cancel culture” tweeted that Fox should terminate Griffin for her reporting.

The president’s call for the firing of a reporter because he did not like her reporting brought a pathetic response from her employer, demonstrating just how unwilling the network is to get on Trump’s bad side. Fox declined to issue a statement standing by Griffin, demonstrating significantly less interest in defending its “news side” personalities from the president than the network does when the bigoted commentary of one of its “opinion side” hosts triggers an advertiser exodus. And while some of Griffin’s colleagues did speak out, praising her on Twitter as a “great” and “terrific reporter,” they stopped well short of actually criticizing Trump for calling for her removal.

The next morning, Trump, who had apparently been watching Fox & Friends Weekend, chimed in to comment on the coverage of the story he preferred to see, tweeting, “Great job @PeteHegseth, one of a kind!”

Hegseth, a sometime Trump adviser and fulltime sycophant, had spent the morning lauding the president’s love of the troops, denouncing Goldberg as a political partisan, and shouting down his co-host when she tried to point out that Griffin had confirmed aspects of the Atlantic story.

This pattern of the network’s “opinion” hosts looking past Griffin’s reporting to attack Goldberg, and the “news” anchors minimizing its importance, largely continued through the holiday weekend, even as the correspondent stood by her work. And Fox interviewers were extremely tentative in questioning Trump administration and campaign officials about the president’s call to fire their colleague.

Throughout Trump’s tenure, we’ve seen the network downplay the rare instances when its journalists produce reporting and interviews that reflect poorly on the president and his administration. When this happens, you are more likely to see it on CNN or read about it in The New York Times then you are to find out from Fox itself.   

The explanation for this bizarre phenomenon is quite simple: Fox is a propaganda outlet that weaponizes disinformation and bigotry to win ratings from a right-wing audience and help Republican politicians. People like Griffin may be trotted out by Fox’s executives, PR professionals, and ad sellers as evidence that the network operates like a normal news outlet. But the network’s treatment of her reporting proves that to be a lie.