Veteran journalists and media ethicists say Fox News failed to adequately respond to contributor Dick Morris' attempt to auction off a tour of Fox studios at a Republican fundraiser, with several calling for his suspension.
Earlier this week, Media Matters reported that Morris had been paid to speak at an event for the Republican Party of Lake County, Florida, and had auctioned himself off for the group's benefit as a personal tour guide for a visit to Fox News in New York.
Bill Shine, the network's executive vice president of programming, subsequently reached out to TVNewser to state that Fox had “reprimanded” Morris and that the tour had been canceled.
But the network has apparently taken no further action against Morris, a paid Fox contributor who has a long history of conflicts of interest related to his Fox appearances. The day after Shine told TVNewser Morris had been reprimanded, he appeared on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor.
Fox's response drew criticism from news veterans and media critics, who argued that Morris' offense tarnished Fox's reputation and should have resulted in more severe punishment.
“What does it take to suspend Morris?” said David Zurawik, television critic for the Baltimore Sun. “To me, it is crazy that they don't either suspend him or kick him off the air for good. Is there anybody in the media you can think of who has less of an ethical compass? You have to ask yourself, why do they let him get away with this? He is really a sleazy operative.”
Zurawik, who teaches media ethics at Goucher College in Baltimore and has previously defended Fox News from criticism, also questioned the impact on the network's credibility to continue having Morris on the air.
“The larger issue is I really do think this hurts Fox in this regard. They like to present Bret Baier as the face of who they are. Morris, I really think, in many ways is the face of Fox,” Zurawik said. “He is a dirty political operative intensely partisan with a history of alliances that on a good day would be called sleazy. And yet they keep putting this guy on the network. I would urge people, don't think of Bret Baier, think of Dick Morris.”
Eric Deggans, media critic for the Tampa Bay Times, also expected stiffer punishment for Morris.
“It is kind of surprising that they haven't disciplined him more because, on its face, it seems like it is crossing a huge line,” he said. “As a news organization you would think they would be concerned about that.”
Marvin Kalb, a 30-year veteran broadcast journalist and former host of Meet The Press, also called for harsher punishment.
“A reprimand is one thing, a suspension another; and if Fox cares about its brand, then it should choose the latter to make its point,” Kalb wrote in an email. “I am not sure if Morris cares that much about hurting Fox, but Fox should care a lot about its reputation by making it clear that Morris is not above the ethical guidelines that generally govern a contributor's conduct on and off the air.”
Tom Fiedler, former executive editor of the Miami Herald and currently dean of the College of Communication at Boston University, also cited Fox News' lack of proper action in the incident.
"[I]f Fox News reprimanded Morris for not getting prior approval to auction off a tour of the New York headquarters, rather than for the underlying offense (at least for an alleged journalist) of headlining a GOP fundraiser, then it demonstrates anew Fox News' failure to grasp the fundamentals of journalistic ethics," Fiedler stated. “Journalists -- or those who claim to be practicing journalism -- simply don't appear in support of any political cause, much less auction off themselves as a tour guide to their employer's headquarters to raise money for a cause.”
Kevin Smith, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee, said most other news outlets would have at least suspended Morris.
“Fox views conflicts of interest under a different prism than most news outlets and most journalists. We are talking about a continuum of behavior that erodes their credibility,” Smith said.
Asked what would have happened if this incident had occurred at a CBS or NBC, Smith stated, “I think there would have been an apology and the individual would have been reprimanded and probably seen some suspension and reminded that this is exactly the kind of behavior that undermines the credibility and reliability of the news operation. It certainly would have been handled differently.
”If Bob Schieffer showed up at a Democratic or Republican rally and was there on behest of the political party, I think, even despite his longevity, I think CBS would suspend him."
Then there are those who say they no longer expect Fox News to act ethically in such situations, even if they should.
“This is a non-issue as far as I'm concerned. Morris is just part of Fox, which is part of the Republican Party. Period,” said Alex S. Jones, former media writer for The New York Times and currently director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. “It would only be window dressing to punish him. Why punish him? He is what he's always been, and to have him on the network as an authoritative voice means that they have decided his ethics don't matter.”
Tim McGuire, former editor of the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis and currently a top journalism professor at Arizona State University, agreed.
“You are trying to find some connection between the words Fox and ethics,” he wrote in an e-mail. “There is little evidence such a connection exists and I am quite convinced the Fox audience doesn't care. The 'cause' trumps ethics for Fox and its viewers.”