Fox conduct shows need to revive traditional goals

Perfectly objective journalism seems like the perfectly moral life—unattainable by ordinary humans. But recent experience has reaffirmed the importance of the classic journalistic virtues of open-minded fact-finding, and fair, accurate, and complete reporting.  

Today we have the most technically sophisticated data-rich information system ever.  But it hasn’t satisfied our need for what Walter Lippmann called “a picture of the world upon which men can act.”  Rather, the economics of the attention economy have given us non-professional, trivial, and unreliable social media; opinion-overloaded cable news; confirmation-bias-focused content; and torrents of deceitful misinformation.  We live in an immensely unsatisfying information stream, one that aggravates emotions and fails to feed the important path from information to knowledge to wisdom.

“Objectivity in Journalism Wordle” by spotreporting is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Maybe journalistic objectivity, as difficult and unattainable as it has always seemed, is one of the key answers for today’s troubled information system.  My thoughts have gone in that direction as I’ve contemplated the recent Fox-Dominion settlement, contrasted with the example of a giant of American journalism who I was privileged to work with.

The goal of journalistic objectivity grew to maturity in the early 20th century.  Shunning turn-of-the-century sensational “yellow journalism,” reformers like Lippmann wanted journalists to provide reliable civic information in an increasingly complex urban-industrial world.   

Journalistic professionalism required two steps.  First, journalists needed to be independent from financial influences.  Second, reporters needed to become diligent, honest, fair, and faithful information gatherers.  Mainstream post World War II journalism embodied these two principles.  The revenue source (advertising) was walled off from newsrooms, so financial considerations would not influence news columns.  And newsrooms began employing educated professionals trained in fairness and objectivity.

But both those principles have eroded, as the Fox-Dominion case highlights. 

The Fox cable network settled a libel case brought by Dominion Voting Systems, the voting machine company unfairly accused of manipulating election results, for the astonishing sum of $787.5 million.  In my career as a libel attorney, I’ve followed all of the major cases and record-setting verdicts; I remember the shock of the $9.2 million judgment against the Alton Telegraph in 1980, and $3 million against WBBM-TV in 1985.  Even in today’s inflated times, the Fox-Dominion settlement stands out as orders above anything past. 

Why?  Because the facts of its knowing malfeasance were overwhelming.  And that in turn was because Fox defied traditional journalistic norms.  

In theory, objectives like perfect objectivity are unattainable.  But these norms nonetheless lead journalists, step by step, to good even if not perfect results. 

Think again about the impossibility of perfect morality.  It doesn’t stop good people from trying to act morally.  Faced with the impossible goal of perfect morality, we break things down into smaller tasks: Act honestly.  Tell the truth.  Respect others.  Admit mistakes and ask forgiveness.  Avoid hurting others.  Follow your conscience.  If we try to follow these simple directives, even though we still make mistakes, we will live a morally honorable life.  

Journalistic objectivity is similar.  Seemingly unattainable as an overall goal, it breaks down into doable smaller tasks:  Focus on facts.  Look at your community with an open mind.  Ask questions, and listen to the answers.  Interview everyone with knowledge, on both (or many) “sides” of an issue.  Fairly present all the relevant facts, as much as possible.  Give the reader, viewer, or listener the context needed to understand those facts.  Don’t inject personal opinions.  Don’t let revenue considerations affect your news reporting.

A reporter who tries to follow these good-journalism rules will likely do a decent job.  He or she probably won’t face terrible libel claims, especially in the case of public figures, because in those cases our First Amendment protects good-faith journalism, including mistakes made unknowingly and unintentionally.  

 Fox set itself up for the Dominion case and settlement because it broke both rules. Its executives openly catered to its revenue source (which today is audience ratings, the figure that in turn determines both advertising and carriage and subscriber revenue).  And, shunning its own professional news staff, it pandered to its audience of Trump supporters even though it knew the election deniers were spewing falsehoods.  

Discovery in the case showed that Tucker Carlson wrote privately, “Sidney Powell is lying,” even while he hyped her theories.  Another anchor noted privately, “There is NO evidence of fraud,” while, on the air, Fox Cable made election fraud its 24/7 theme.  And Fox’s CEO told her staff not to tell the truth because it upset the audience which wanted to believe Trump’s claims.  “This has to stop now,” she wrote about Fox reporters’ fact-checking of Trump’s claims. “This is bad business and there is clearly a lack of understanding of what is happening in these shows. The audience is furious, and we are just feeding them material.”

Of course, some of the things Fox reported were technically correct, such as basic reporting on Trump’s election challenges.  But as all reporters know, context is everything, and a half-truth or isolated fact, reported out of context, often misleads. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanac, “Half the truth is often a great lie.” The discovery materials suggest that Fox executives and commentators interpreted Franklin’s aphorism not as a moral warming, but rather as a suggestion for a useful and effective method of deception.   

Only a few weeks after the Fox-Dominion settlement, I learned of the sad and untimely death of Mike Pride, a brilliant journalist who I had been lucky to work with and learn from many years ago, at the Clearwater Sun.  Mike went on to become editor of the Concord Monitor, a Pulitzer Prize juror and later administrator, and an insightful historian.  As I thought of Mike, I could not help but contrast his professionalism and journalistic principles with the Fox actions.  

Mike embodied classic ethical journalism: reporting without consideration of fear or favor, of ratings or advertising, or of fame or celebrity.  He delighted in open-minded fact-gathering, and in in-depth context-laden reporting. He tried to understand his readers and their communities, and inform and educate them.  He directed reporters to go into communities, and listen to people, including the unheard.  I vividly remember reporting at his direction on a neglected Black community near Largo, Florida; that story still resonates with me, as I hope it did with the news subjects and area residents.  In Concord, New Hampshire, Mike listened to World War II veterans, brought them together, encouraged them to share memories, and published a moving book of their recollections.  He had a gimlet eye for revealing perspectives; I remember him sending a reporter to Disney World’s “Main Street USA” on the night of President Nixon’s resignation.  Despite his own creative streak, and his love for literature and poetry, Mike cared about basic governmental news; he made me feel that my city hall and legislative stories mattered, encouraging me go the extra mile to get each one just right.  

I think Mike was as skeptical as anyone about the attainability of perfect objectivity.  But because of his professionalism, his newspapers, columns, and books were fresh, informative, reliable, and useful.  He and his reporters took those basic short steps that make all the difference. Mike’s career demonstrates how much classic journalistic virtues matter.

And if there is any doubt on that issue, Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder recently brought home the importance of old-fashioned true objectivity – not facile, simplistic, and misleading “both sides” reporting – in the life and death matter of the war in Ukraine.  

Using the example of the explosion of the Nova Kakhovka dam in occupied Ukraine, Snyder noted on Twitter how “bothsides” reporting would mislead readers and viewers on that issue.  Reporting both countries’ accusations against the other seems facially fair, but it would ignore the facts that Russia controlled the dam before the explosion, that the explosion helped Russia and harmed Ukraine, and that internal Russian communications were celebrating the explosion and claiming credit for it.  Many headlines and news shorts—about all most people ever get of news these days—did indeed take that simplistic and counterfactual “bothsides” approach.  Consumers of those news reports got a misleading view on one of the big issues in today’s world.

We too long disdained the goal of journalistic objectivity, because we knew it wasn’t fully attainable. But now that the Fox-Dominion discovery has showed us the mendacity and depravity of the other approach, it is time to re-elevate that goal, because of the difference it makes when journalists strive in the right direction.  

We still may never attain perfect objectivity, but when journalists work toward it, they will pound the pavements in fact-gathering rather than pontificate in studios.  They will fairly consider all the facts.  Reporters who try for objectivity will put the truth above any kind of revenue-generation, and thereby get back to telling more reliable stories.  Journalists who try to help their readers and viewers understand events will take extra steps to build context into their stories, thereby going beyond catchy headlines and simplistic soundbites.  

With these tiny steps, journalism can come closer to giving readers, viewers, and listeners, what really matters – not confirmation bias, not a dopamine jolt to prejudices and preconceptions, but a truly better understanding of our communities and lives. 

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Mark Sableman is a partner at Thompson Coburn LLP, and a frequent contributor to GJR.

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