Even Fox News wants to distance itself from Fox News

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Fox News has a rebuttal for those who point out the network’s long history of bigoted commentary: That was all in the past.

“Fox News has repeatedly pushed anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, hosted numerous Islamophobic personalities and consistently weaved in blatant hate and bigotry in its coverage of Muslims,” writes HuffPost’s Rowaida Abdelaziz in a lengthy report documenting numerous examples from across the right-wing network’s programming. She provides this response from the network: “A Fox News representative told HuffPost that these instances occurred under old management.”

Fox’s public relations team would very much like to establish Suzanne Scott, who became the network's CEO in May of 2018, as a real break with its past. That’s a difficult undertaking in the best of circumstances because Scott was a key player in the “old management.” Scott has been with the network since it was founded in 1996, and before being promoted to the top slot she had supervised the network’s “daytime and primetime opinion shows” since August 2016.

In the year leading up to Scott’s appointment as CEO, volatile and bigoted commentary on Fox’s leading programs (which Scott had supervised) triggered advertiser boycotts.

After she became the network’s chief, Fox responded with a PR offensive that portrayed her as “crack[ing] down on inflammatory statements” by urging the network’s producers to “head off any inappropriate remarks.”

To the extent that such an effort was sincere, it has obviously failed, as unhinged and offensive comments continue to flow unabated throughout the network’s programming.

Part of the reason for this is that Fox enforces “standards” only when media attention forces its hand, and punishments are imposed based strictly on the network’s hierarchy. As The Washington Post noted, “Fox has apologized for a number of disparaging comments made by contributors and guests over the past year, though not for its prime-time lineup of stars.”

For low-level offenders who are caught saying horrific things, the network may suspend or cut ties. When middle-tier commentators are caught saying horrific things, they will sometimes be publicly chastised. And when members of its upper echelon of talent are caught saying horrific things, the network is unwavering in standing by them.

We know this because we are watching it happen right now.

Fox’s “new management” is standing by prime-time host Tucker Carlson as more advertisers flee his program after Media Matters unearthed audio clips of misogynistic and racist comments he previously made on a shock jock’s radio show.

And it was the “new management” that was responsible for the segment that prompted Abdelaziz’s HuffPost article.

That segment aired on Saturday night, when host Jeanine Pirro opened her show with a monologue in which she pointed out that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) wears a hijab and asked, “Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to Sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?” Pirro’s remarks, which were consistent with her record of anti-Muslim bigotry, triggered a firestorm of criticism.

As Abdelaziz explained, comments like Pirro's are not uncommon on Fox's airwaves -- but the network was pressured to take action given the massive attention Pirro's outburst garnered. Pirro is part of the middle tier of Fox’s hierarchy, hosting her own show but in a less prominent weekend slot than the prime-time offerings. Fox’s response clearly took that into account: the network issued a statement criticizing her, but Pirro did not apologize, and there’s been no indication of any further punishment. A Fox guest might have been banned from the network for such a comment, and a low-level contributor could have been fired, while a prime-time host would likely have escaped entirely unscathed.

The Post provides another hint at what’s behind the network’s unyielding support for its stars. Last year, prime-time host Laura Ingraham apologized after mocking David Hogg, the then-17-year-old gun violence prevention activist and survival of the Parkland massacre. Per the Post, “That apology apparently elicited an internal rebuke from Rupert Murdoch, Fox’s co-founder and chairman, who warned against the dangers of appearing weak in the face of negative public sentiment, according to people familiar with the episode.”

Murdoch is the oldest management of them all. And if he’s enforcing the standard that Fox can’t hold its stars accountable for their misdeeds, there’s nothing Scott or anyone else at the network can do about it. At that point, only the network’s advertisers can force Fox to change.