It was fascinating to watch NPR's reaction to the James O'Keefe videos. After the (deceptively edited) tapes were released, NPR rapidly and forcefully distanced itself from the two fundraising executives in question, placing them both on administrative leave. CEO Vivian Schiller was forced out, and all the while NPR media reporter David Folkenflik reported on the turmoil at his own company as if he were tapping on the glass of a fishbowl.
The two executives captured on the videos had no say over NPR's news product or editorial direction, and regardless of whether you agree with the actions NPR's senior management took, those corrective moves were clearly intended to demonstrate a culture of accountability and preserve their credibility as a news outlet. After all, that's what reputations and, ultimately, success in journalism are staked on... right?
Perhaps, for news outlets that hew to traditional modes of journalistic practice. Fox News, however, has proven to be largely disinterested in accountability, even in the face of numerous fiascoes that, had they occurred at other news outfits, would likely have sent heads rolling.
Let's break down Fox's reaction to their latest credibility-killing debacle. Last week, Media Matters revealed that Washington managing editor Bill Sammon admitted to pushing on-air the idea that Barack Obama advocated “socialism” despite “privately” thinking the idea was “rather far-fetched.” Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast spoke with Sammon, who said that his comments were “inartful,” but by 2009 he was “astonished by how the needle had moved” -- a comment many interpreted as Sammon retroactively justifying a claim he believed to be false. He later spoke with NPR's Folkenflik and said he was simply characterizing conservative thought at the time: “I was, frankly, astonished that that was a serious topic of conversation in a presidential campaign.”
That's pretty much been it. Perhaps more revealing are the steps not taken. Have any Fox News reporters commented or reported on the situation as Folkenflik did during NPR's troubles? Nope. Has Sammon faced any public consequences? No. Have there been any reports of private reprimands? Also no. Has there been any indication whatsoever that Fox News has shown any contrition for -- or even awareness of -- the gaping ethical breach that their Washington managing editor has torn open? Crickets all around.
Special dishonor goes to Fox News Watch, the Fox News weekend program specifically tasked with covering the media, which ignored the story entirely. Host Jon Scott even proclaimed at one point during the April 2 show that the mission of his program was to “cover the coverage and uncover media bias” -- right before launching into a mocking report on an over-the-top pro-Qaddafi Libyan news anchor.
The Sammon non-fallout is in keeping with past Fox News scandals, in which the unprofessional and offensive on-air comments of employees (up to and including jokes about the president's assassination) have been met with neglect from the network. After Glenn Beck called Obama a “racist” with a “deep-seated hatred for white people,” NBC's First Read blog observed: “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.”
What Fox goes for instead is the appearance of accountability. Whenever one of these controversies pops up, the offender is typically on the “opinion” side of Fox News and the network's defenders are quick to claim that there exists a division at Fox News between “hard news” and “opinion.” The network promotes this supposed division as well; when Special Report anchor Bret Baier appeared on The Daily Show two weeks ago, he said “we respect the viewers' ability to discern the difference between the two.” The message is clear: Our news guys don't do, and wouldn't get away with, Glenn Beck-style hijinks.
However, the fact that a bona-fide ideologue like Sammon is a managing editor at Fox News suggests the exact opposite is true. And the fact that Sammon remains secure in his position suggests that the network executives want him to continue twisting the “hard news” coverage to echo the hard-line conservatism that saturates the “opinion” portion of Fox's programming.
It's not “news” in the traditional sense, and it's fundamentally dishonest. But Fox News' departure from traditional journalism necessitates a departure from established notions of accountability. After all, when you hire someone to be a liar, can you really fire him for doing his job?