Imagine the following scenario: in the first Democratic primary Presidential debate, Hillary Clinton is asked a series of unexpectedly blistering questions from debate moderator Wolf Blitzer. Imagine that Hillary walked in expecting a series of cakewalk questions and instead got peppered on Benghazi, her email server, her tenure at State, the racial overtones of her 2008 campaign, even the absurd lies she has told over the years (like being named after Sir Edmund Hillary).
Imagine, in this hypothetical scenario, that Hillary spent the next several days on the campaign trail lashing out at CNN, and Wolf Blitzer personally, including a series of increasingly personal and tasteless attacks on Blitzer – and vowing to never go on the network again. Imagine that after four days of this treatment, CNN President Jeff Zucker picked up the phone and called Hillary, and that both sides announced afterward that a “truce” had been reached. Then, following this, imagine that Hillary was given several primetime hours (covering two days) with Anderson Cooper in which she answered nothing but softball questions and was allowed to give her full uninterrupted policy vision for the country.
How do you suppose that conservative blogs would respond to CNN in this factual scenario?
I imagine that I could accurately say, without fear of serious contradiction, that every major right-leaning news outlet in the country would (fairly and correctly) blast CNN for weeks for a major lapse of journalistic ethics and for torching even the appearance of objectivity. The only real question would be which major blogger got the honor of penning the definitive think piece about the death of CNN as a serious news organization.
It should be obvious by this point what this post is driving at. Although there are somewhat conflicting accounts of what occurred between Donald Trump and Fox News President Roger Ailes, it is uncontroverted fact by this point that, after the Trump/Megyn Kelly post-debate blowup, Ailes called Trump to … well, say something about the network’s coverage of Trump. What that might have been, we aren’t 100% sure, but the fact that Trump has been given multiple hours of primetime airtime in the last 48 hours, with a softball interviewer, is pretty strong circumstantial evidence of what has been widely alleged in news reports about this matter (and by Trump himself on Twitter) – that Ailes promised to soften Fox News’ coverage of Trump’s campaign in exchange for at least a temporary ceasefire of some sorts.
For the most part on the right, this astonishing series of events has been met with almost complete radio silence.
Maybe it’s time to confront the 800 pound gorilla in this particular room – which is that right-leaning news outlets and blogs are no longer capable of or interested in keeping Fox News accountable in any sense of the word at all. Institutionally, it would at least seem that Fox News has successfully cowed virtually all major conservative outlets from criticizing it in any way.
In some cases, the reticence to criticize Fox News – even when such criticism is merited – reflects merely passive self-interest. Time was, if you were a conservative journalist of any kind, your chances of being on broadcast media were vanishingly small. However, the rise (and popularity) of Fox News has created a whole new host of opportunities for conservatives to find themselves on television – and who doesn’t like being on television? Fox News has done a great job of pulling from a broad spectrum of conservative authors, from major newspaper columnists all the way down to more standard-issue bloggers. They have done a great job of fostering an environment in which everyone with even moderate heft in the movement has a hope of appearing on the network at some point if a post gains sufficient traction. For this, Fox News deserves credit and has earned some level of cache on the right.
On the other hand, some stories have come to light over the years that suggest that Fox News isn’t just using the carrot to obtain silence from righty outlets, but might also use a fairly hefty stick. One such concerning story was the relatively recent resignation of Mickey Kaus from the Daily Caller in protest of flat editorial direction from Daily Caller head honcho Tucker Carlson not to criticize Fox News, due to Tucker’s relationship with the network.
Now, I don’t know Tucker Carlson and I don’t know what prompted him to order Kaus to stop criticizing Fox News. It’s possible that he just took it upon himself to issue such an order. But it’s also equally possible that he was ordered by the Fox News brass to cut the criticism of Fox News from his site – even if it didn’t appear under his own byline – which suggests an almost pathological sensitivity to criticism by the network, if true.
For whatever the reason, while some on the right (particularly Trump loyalists) have criticized some Fox News personalities (particularly Megyn Kelly herself for her role in this fracas), almost no one has criticized Fox News as an institution for what seems to be an obviously more egregious error, which is that they have at least given the appearance that they have kowtowed to a political figure they are ostensibly covering in an objective manner. If, in fact, such a conversation happened between Ailes and Trump in which a quid pro quo was offered – Fox News softens their coverage and Trump softens his criticism of the network – that should, on the merits, be fatal to any alleged news organization’s credibility.
That no one who is prominent in the online right seems interested in even asking the question is evidence of a troubling blind spot in our objectivity as a movement.