Lou Dobbs Tonight and Fox’s standards for anti-Semitic and bigoted commentary

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

During a Thursday night appearance on Fox Business, Judicial Watch’s Chris Farrell falsely accused the billionaire philanthropist George Soros of masterminding a caravan of migrants headed toward the U.S. border from Central America. Farrell’s remarks about Soros, whose donations to progressive organizations (including Media Matters) have long drawn the ire of right-wing news outlets, drew no controversy at the time. But on Sunday, Fox condemned Farrell’s “rhetoric” in a short statement and said he would no longer be hosted on Fox Business or its sister network, Fox News.

Why did Fox suddenly decide that Farrell’s comments were beyond the pale? Thursday’s episode of Lou Dobbs Tonight was rebroadcast on Saturday night, hours after a gunman murdered 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue. In that context, Farrell’s description of the caravan as funded by the “Soros-occupied State Department” caught the eye of Josh Marshall, editor and publisher of TPM, whose tweets generated a firestorm on Twitter when he noted its similarities to the “Zionist-occupied government” rhetoric common to neo-Nazi literature. Soros, a Hungarian-born Jewish financier, is the frequent target of conspiracy theories with anti-Semitic overtones.

That Fox waited until reporters contacted the network over the weekend rather than taking action after the segment ran on Thursday night -- or when Farrell made similar comments in May -- suggests that the network doesn’t have proactive standards for unacceptable rhetoric, but it merely reacts to limit the damage when bigoted commentary creates a PR crisis.

Fox’s statement is a brief and blanket condemnation of Farrell’s “rhetoric” that does not indicate how specifically he erred. This is likely not an accident. For the past 15 years, ever since Soros announced that he would donate to an advertising campaign opposing then-President George W. Bush’s re-election, Fox commentators and others in right-wing media have regularly attacked him. It is difficult to disaggregate Farrell’s comments from the broader pattern of Soros commentary that permeates the network’s programming.

Fox and others on the right have also long attacked progressive causes by linking them to Soros “in an attempt to argue that any organic protest or outcry on the left is really the work of one sinister, shadowy (foreign) billionaire,” as Vox.com’s Jane Coaston has noted. Then-Fox host Bill O’Reilly sought to undermine Media Matters’ criticism of the network by falsely tying us to Soros in this manner. Half a decade ago, the Soros conspiracy theories were regularly promoted on then-Fox host Glenn Beck’s program. His smears of Soros, whom he termed “the puppet master,” drew condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League in 2010.

But the Soros smears have taken on a new urgency and an international character in recent years. “For the far right, from Russia to central Europe and increasingly, America, Soros is the latest Jewish manipulator whose extreme wealth finances puppet groups and publications to drain the prosperity of the Herrenvolk,” The Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman reported after Trump lashed out at the progressive donor earlier this month. “The attack on Soros follows classic anti-Semitic templates, grimly recurrent throughout western history.”

If Fox explained what it found unacceptable about Farrell’s comment, the network would likely also have to explain why it wasn’t taking action against other Fox guests and its on-air talent who had made similar remarks.

Take Dobbs himself. Fox is now condemning Farrell’s remark, but Dobbs, Fox Business’ highest-rated host, did not push back on it at the time and hasn’t mentioned the incident on-air since. And why would he? As CNN’s Oliver Darcy noted, Dobbs has referred to Soros as an “evil SOB” and “insidious” on Twitter and “has also peddled various conspiracy theories” about him.

This year alone, on his Fox Business program, Dobbs has said that Soros is “spending tens of millions of dollars to pursue an election system that would be the envy of the KGB”; accused the “left wing globalist and billionaire” of “trying to subvert democracy in Europe to advance their open border agenda”; and said that Soros has been running a “global left-wing conspiracy on the taxpayer dime” with former President Barack Obama.

A host of other Fox personalities and guests have also floated the falsehood that Soros is behind the caravan, including Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo, Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro, Fox News senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano, and Republican congressmen Matt Gaetz of Florida and Louie Gohmert of Texas.

Will Fox take action against Dobbs in the wake of the network banning Farrell? Will it take action against its other personnel for pushing these conspiracy theories? Are Gaetz and Gohmert still welcome on its airwaves?

Farrell’s remarks were not an anomaly, but part of a campaign by the conservative organization Judicial Watch to “expose” Soros and his “schemes.” The federal government is currently investigating how one of its state-funded broadcasters used Judicial Watch research and aired a report attacking Soros as an insidious “multimillionaire Jew” who uses “his lethal influence to destroy democracies,” according to a Daily Beast report. “Deep State aligned with Soros & uses State Dept to push its radical agenda,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton, who regularly appears on Fox programs, wrote on Twitter earlier this month. “And your tax dollars for Soros abroad help free up resources for his activities here in the United States.”

The distance between Fitton’s statement and Farrell’s reference to the “Soros-occupied State Department” is vanishingly small. Will Fox extend its ban on Farrell to Fitton?

The answer to all of these questions is almost assuredly, “No.” Fox only acts when its hand is forced. The network has no real standards other than to limit bad publicity as much as possible to keep the money rolling in.