The media industry's Editor and Publisher magazine released its cover story Monday about the Fox News empire and their efforts to "deliver cheap, expedient, viscerally-agitating content instead of the journalism its viewers need and deserve."
The report began with Jim Small, an Arizona political reporter who has been on the beat for 20 years. Until recently he covered rallies at the Capitol and political events, but now he has to put his safety first. Someone decked out in extremist insignias came after one of his colleagues. "I know who you are, and I'm keeping my eye on you, and if you make a wrong move, you're going to get it," the man told the reporter. Law enforcement did nothing, how could they? Threats on reporters happen constantly in wake of Donald Trump's war on the media.
Fox is making this worse, the magazine explained, by aggregating news about the Arizona election that strips reports of context and uses it instead to push conspiracy theories or gin up fury.
“What ends up happening is you have a lot more to write about because these extreme candidates are in a forum where they feel safe and unguarded,” Small told E&P. “There are newsworthy things that come out of these shows because they’re saying things that are way outside the norm from what you’d expect a serious candidate for statewide office to be saying.”
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Then there's the culture war. Conservatives are going after LGBTQ rights and teaching things like slavery and the civil rights movement in schools. Fox News has responded by taking the term "critical race theory" and twisting it from the academic term used in laws schools to mean that white children are being taught they're racists by being forced to learn about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Fox took local stories and turned them into weapons that resulted in flooded school board meetings with conservatives explaining why they're not racist for not wanting their children to learn about Black history. Local Montrose Daily Press reporter Lynn Winfrey was covering the local Colorado school board when it began to get heated. Board meetings went from typical to outrage gatherings filled with "national conspiracy theories." Winfrey didn't want to waste her time.
“So, in my articles, I would write that the candidates spoke about critical race theory, but the superintendent said it wasn’t being taught there. I tried to emphasize the local impacts as much as possible," she explained.
It didn't matter. Fox News viewers saw the out-of-context reports and the rage machine was set to "madness." Media Matters, an anti-Fox advocacy group, found that there were over 3,900 mentions of "critical race theory" on the channel in 2021, whereas MSNBC and CNN combined only hit 1,854 mentions, and they were mostly debunking Fox.
“It’s not an accident that critical race theory is dominating local school board meetings,” University of Delaware Professor Dannagal Young told E&P. “If you ask those people where it came from, if you follow those breadcrumbs, it goes back to the conservative media ecosystem, which keeps its audience engaged and loyal through this reinforcement of identity threat.”
He noted that it's now trickling down to local communities.
Chris Stirewalt was the numbers guy at Fox News who called Arizona for Joe Biden before former President Donald Trump wanted. Stirewalt was correct, but it didn't matter. He enraged a president and was later fired. He has since written a book, Broken News: Why the Media Rage Machine Divides America and How to Fight Back. Promoting the book, Stirewalt explained that the tactics seen are part of the Fox business model.
“Culture wars news is easier; personalities and emotions are easier to do than hard news because hard news requires you to spend money. … You have a lot of stories that don’t pay off. It’s a real pain,” Stirewalt said. “What’s easy to do is have somebody do a piece that says, ‘We’re smart, and they’re dumb.’ … It scratches the news consumer’s itch.”
While "news" appears on the logo all throughout the 24 hours the shows air, there is a division at Fox News between anchors like Bill Hemmer and opinion entertainment from Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham.
“Oftentimes, the news shows take their cues from an interview or a monologue Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity has done,” said Washington Post columnist Erik Wemple. “So, they’re by no means this fair and balanced production.” He went on to explain that it has been part of the move CEO Roger Ailes made from day one.
The report also called out the news network for putting right-wing fringe activists on television to spew their conspiracies without identifying them. It isn't just on the opinion shows either. Bill Hemmer aired three activists raging about critical race theory in Virginia mere weeks ahead of the gubernatorial election. The person was described as nothing more than a "Fairfax County parent" when she was actually a surrogate for Republican Glenn Youngkin who was suing the school.
One of the first Fox hires in 1995 was Carl Cameron, who watched things change at the network when Barack Obama became the 2008 Democratic nominee and won in November.
“Glenn Beck took over the 5 p.m. newscast and for two years espoused Tea Party trash… straight-up Alex Jones bull, and the network did nothing about it,” Cameron said
Up until that point, every show had a Democrat and Republican on for balance. Even Sean Hannity had a counter-point to his rants. Beck changed everything and the show gave the right-wing a place to congregate without any pushback.
“I hated it. I told the truth, and Hannity often would cut me off. But more often, he would not even have anything to say after I reported. He’d say, ‘Thanks, Carl,’ and off I went,” Cameron told E&P. “So, his audience heard me tell them that a lot of what Sean had been saying for the previous 15 minutes was horseshit.”
After Ailes died and Suzanne Scott took over, nothing really changed. The major difference is that Bill O'Reilly was fired for a long career of sexual harassment that was costing the network millions in lawsuits.
E&P closed by noting that in Arizona, Small has tried to report using the "truth sandwich" promoted by linguist George Lakoff to help refocus lies in news.
"It basically consists of three steps: Start with the truth, indicate the lie without amplifying the specific language if possible, and return to the truth. Always repeat truths more than lies," E&P described.
Winfrey explained that she was never given any training on how to combat misinformation when reporting, but said that it's something that would help reporters of small outlets across the country. Wemple may be at one of the largest papers in the country, but he agrees that Fox's efforts to change reality must be stopped with a concerted effort to promote truth, even if it means more work.