Media Matters: Fox News' ever-expanding ethics nightmare


Another week, another handful of ethical scandals that should permanently sink Fox's claim of being a legitimate news organization.

To recap: Last week, they gave us twin scandals starring Fox News stalwarts Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. "Furious" Fox News execs pulled Sean Hannity from his planned show filming/fundraiser for the Cincinnati Tea Party after numerous news veterans and watchdogs called foul.

O'Reilly spent last week reminding us of his willful ignorance by repeatedly falsely asserting that "no one" on Fox promoted the falsehood that "jail time" was a penalty for not buying insurance under the health care reform bill. He was outrageously wrong.

Though Howard Kurtz reported that Fox plans to "keep a tighter rein on Hannity and others" in the wake of the tea party scandal, we remain skeptical. Fox has a long history of promising change in the wake of damaging ethics scandals, then failing to deliver on those promises.

Indeed, despite cancelling Hannity's tea party event, Fox News has yet to cancel a planned appearance by Fox Business host John Stossel at a paid event for a nonprofit organization with very close ties to the energy industry. If history is any indicator, Fox will hold its breath and hope that everyone forgets about the Stossel fundraiser.

Of course, this being Fox News, Stossel's planned fundraiser wasn't even the cable channel's biggest ethics scandal this week.

While a great deal of attention has deservedly been given to Rupert Murdoch's statement that Fox News "shouldn't be promoting the tea party," the rest of his comment -- "or any other party" -- is equally notable. So, how's Fox's supposedly frowned-upon promotion of that "other party" -- the GOP -- going? In a word: lucratively.

As we detailed last week, Fox News hosts and contributors have raised millions of dollars for Republican candidates and causes using PACs, 527s, and 501(c)(4) organizations.

In a follow-up report this week, we detailed the massive scope of Fox's fundraising for the GOP:

In recent years, at least twenty Fox News personalities have endorsed, raised money, or campaigned for Republican candidates or causes, or against Democratic candidates or causes, in more than 300 instances and in at least 49 states. Republican parties and officials have routinely touted these personalities' affiliations with Fox News to sell and promote their events.

In their defense, they did miss Wyoming.

Were Fox an actual news organization that cared about journalistic standards, all of these ethics scandals would be excellent fodder for its weekly media criticism show, Fox News Watch. Unfortunately, as we noted last weekend, they ignored the O'Reilly and Hannity scandals in favor of such pressing stories as media coverage of the new Oprah bio. Forthcoming coverage of the Fox Newsers' fundraising seems unlikely.

Media Matters reporter and senior editor Joe Strupp pointed out that while Fox News Watch was once a source of legitimate media criticism, the show has increasingly transformed into yet another megaphone for GOP talking points. Strupp quoted former Fox News Watch host Eric Burns (no relation to Media Matters President Eric Burns) saying: "The show was getting to be more and more of a struggle to do fairly. There was a progression of interference to try to make the show more right-wing. I fought very hard against it."

As Media Matters President Eric Burns pointed out on MSNBC this week, "When you have a famed, well known Republican hitman -- Roger Ailes -- running a news network, this is what you're going to get."

Fox News has a slightly different take, however. As Fox News Watch put it in the promo for its segment on Ailes' new ratings high, "Fairness plus balance equals success."

Take note, CNN.

Other stories this week

If dishonesty won't derail financial reform, maybe denial will

Right-wing story time this week -- brought to you by Frank Luntz -- centered around the claim that financial reform legislation would encourage perpetual and permanent taxpayer bailouts. The genesis of this particular tall tale is Luntz's January memo that advised opponents of financial regulatory reform to tie the issue to big bank bailouts. Message received. Driving the clown car was Glenn Beck, who appeared on Fox & Friends to decry the "insane" idea of using $50 billion to save failing firms; Michelle Malkin claimed the bill would "institutionalize and make permanent financial bailouts"; Fox Business' Charles Gasparino said the bill contained a "slush fund" of "$50 billion to bail you out." Actually, the $50 billion fund would be paid for by the financial services industry and would cover the costs of the orderly liquidation of failing firms, quite clearly the opposite of a bailout. No worries. The Wall Street Journal's John Fund tried to argue that the bill was bad because it would bail out firms and because it let the government liquidate them. Rush Limbaugh complained that it was "a bailout bill, or a destroy 'em bill." Neat trick.

Not content to distort the bill to push their talking points, media conservatives also trumped up the completely baseless allegation that the Obama administration colluded with the Securities and Exchange Commission to sue Goldman Sachs over alleged fraud, all to create a villain in the financial reform narrative. Now that would be big -- bigger even than, say, allegedly failing to disclose to investors that the creator of a fund you were selling them is betting on its failure. And so it was, without a scintilla of evidence, that CNN contributor Erick Erickson claimed on his blog that the administration was "colluding to destroy Goldman Sachs." Big Government said Obama was "in need of a villain to serve as a political piñata," and Fox News aggressively pushed the baseless accusation, which SEC officials and the White House strongly denied.

Right-wing media figures also sweated to the oldies while attacking financial reform this week, dragging out a greatest hits collection of anti-progressive attacks to criticize yet another reform bill. Karl Rove and Fox News claimed health care financial reform meant the government would soon by spying on individual bank accounts with a research office actually charged with analyzing risk across the financial sector. Fox News figures tried to undermine support for the stimulus financial reform by aggressively pushing the canard that affordable housing initiatives caused the housing crisis. Limbaugh whined that "the same people that gave you the DMV" will "be running our health care financial system." (Sound familiar?)

Dishonesty, distortion, baseless allegations and yesterday's attacks. Wouldn't it be easier to just bury their heads in the sand and pretend there is no "real crisis" at all?

Fox News rallies for religious bigotry

In October 2001, evangelical preacher Franklin Graham delivered remarks while dedicating a chapel in North Carolina, during which he touched on the September 11 attacks and the newly spawned war on terrorism: "We're not attacking Islam but Islam has attacked us. The God of Islam is not the same God. He's not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It's a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion." Graham's stance on Islam has not softened over the years, and he told CNN's Campbell Brown just last December: "[T]rue Islam cannot be practiced in this country. You can't beat your wife. You cannot murder your children if you think they've committed adultery or something like that."

Smearing the world's second-largest faith as "very evil and wicked" and condemning that faith for the worst terrorist attack in American history is inflammatory and wildly offensive. So it should come as a surprise that Fox News rallied to Graham's defense when religious freedom organizations protested Graham's invitation to the Pentagon's National Day of Prayer ceremonies this year. It should come as a surprise because for most, defending Graham's religious bigotry would be unthinkable. But, unfortunately, Fox News does not operate under such standards of propriety, and has added yet another chapter to its long and undistinguished record of smearing the Islamic faith.

Fox's first stab at defending Graham backfired pretty badly, as the Fox & Friends crew invited Graham on to defend himself. He promptly counseled the Muslims that "they don't have to die in a car bomb, don't have to die in some holy war to be accepted by God."

Fox News personalities then turned to the role of apologists, and chief among them was legal analyst Peter Johnson Jr., who for two days running tried desperately to explain away Graham's "evil and wicked" comments, including this excuse: "After 9-11, a lot of folks were making those statements." He also offered this gem: "No one is out to make any excuses for the statements that Franklin Graham made. And they were made nine years ago, in the wake of 9-11. In the wake of 3,000 deaths. He doesn't need excuses."

Johnson certainly wasn't alone in the excuse-making department. Sean Hannity offered a full-throated defense of Graham, falsely claiming that he was only talking about "radical Islam" and going so far to accuse Graham's critics of being "afraid to take on radical Islam." After Graham was disinvited by the Pentagon from a National Prayer Day event, Fox News contributor Sarah Palin wrote: "Nation suffers ... as Mr. Graham is uninvited to speak." Fox News "Culture Warrior" Margaret Hoover felt that the Pentagon's decision was "unfortunate."

So what, if anything, have we learned from all this? We've learned that there's really no smear against Muslims or the Islamic faith that's too outrageous or offensive to find a home at Fox News.

This weekly wrap-up was compiled by Ben Dimiero, Jeremy Holden, and Simon Maloy.

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