Media Ethicists Urge Fox News To Suspend “Unethical” Huckabee

Veteran journalists and news ethicists are calling on Fox News to suspend Mike Huckabee's contract amid growing evidence that he is planning to run for president in 2016.

The Washington Post reported November 12 on Huckabee's various political activities as he prepares to mount a possible bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, including hiring staff, courting donors and activists, and scouting potential locations for a campaign headquarters. Post reporters Robert Costa and Tom Hamburger noted that Huckabee's team is doing its best to “finesse” the planning of a potential campaign while trying to avoid losing his Fox News platform. 

In response to the Post piece, Media Matters called on the network -- which recently cut ties with former contributor Ben Carson due to his possible 2016 run -- to suspend Huckabee. Fox News executive Bill Shine subsequently told CNN that the network is “taking a serious look at Governor Huckabee's recent activity in the political arena and are evaluating his current status.”

According to several media critics, ethicists, and reporters, it's definitely time for Fox News to part ways with Huckabee. 

“Clearly if someone is organizing to run for president, they should not be given a platform by any news organization where they are basically posing as disinterested or not self-interested commentators,” said Ken Auletta, media writer for The New Yorker. “What we believe in journalism is full disclosure and no hidden agendas. The viewer watching the former governor on Fox News doesn't know necessarily if he is using his position to promote his position.”

Tom Fiedler, dean of the College of Communication at Boston University and former editor of The Miami Herald, said the ethical question is easy.

“It's interesting to watch Huckabee try to find a loophole that would enable him to activate a campaign while holding on to his Fox gig,” he said. “The idea that he thinks he could get away with using a political non-profit to masquerade as a campaign without 'crossing the threshold' at Fox strikes me as not only unethical, but dishonest and merits investigation. To me, the simple test of this political non-profit will be, 'if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck ....'”

Ed Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed.

“It is unquestionably a problem to have somebody wearing those two hats to be privately or semi-publicly putting together a presidential campaign and positioning himself as a commentator who is applying his political judgments to disinterested subjects,” Wasserman said in a phone interview.

Wasserman pointed out that when viewers watch a commentator who is engaged in a political campaign they can assume his views are affected by that. But if Huckabee does not disclose such a connection, the viewer is misled.

“The problem is deception,” Wasserman said. “If you know that he is running, you can say that most of what he is saying is calibrated as the comments of a politician, not the comments of a political commentator, they do set themselves apart.”

David Folkenflik, media correspondent for NPR News, said, “Mike Huckabee being on Fox is not a conflict of interests it's a confluence of interests.”

“The question is how Fox News handles him,” Folkenflik added. “The clear decision is to not have him on the air as a paid contributor or as a host or anything else until he clarifies if he is going to be a candidate for president or any other position in 2016,” he said. “If they are separating themselves from Ben Carson it is hard to see how they can justify continuing with Huckabee given how actively he appears to be weighing a presidential run.”

Other critics noted that Fox News should keep Huckabee off the air until at least until he makes a final decision. 

“They should ask him what his plans are and if he says 'yes' he is running he comes off the air,” said Al Tompkins, a broadcast media instructor at The Poynter Institute. “If he says 'no' they report that. If he says 'maybe' he comes off until he decides.”

Alicia Shepard, a former NPR ombudsman, said the answer is simple: “Fox top execs should confront Huckabee with the Post story and simply ask him: 'Are you running for president?' And be out front about it. If he is, end of story ... It's wrong, though, for any network to let an employee use public airwaves to launch a campaign.”

For Gail Shister, the veteran TV critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Fox News' removal of Huckabee is a “no-brainer.” When asked about it, she emailed, “I'll take 'Remarkable Grasp of the Obvious' for 200, please, Alex.'”