After Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) dropped out of the race to be Speaker of the House, sending Republicans soul-searching, Fox News figures were quick to attribute the sudden turn-of-events to the powerful House Freedom Caucus and its Tea Party movement roots. What Fox News has chosen not to mention, however, is its own role in creating and fostering the movement that has caused such dysfunction in Washington.
From the September 28 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier:
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Fox News' John Roberts hyped Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina's "scorching response" to a question about Planned Parenthood at the CNN Republican primary debate without noting that her response contained a falsehood about the deceptively-edited videos.
During the September 21 edition of Fox News' Special Report, senior national correspondent John Roberts interviewed Fiorina in a pre-recorded segment regarding her debate performance and her personal background. During the segment, Roberts said the biggest moment of the debate for her was her "scorching response to a question on Planned Parenthood," where Fiorina claimed that smear videos by the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) showed "a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brains." Fiorina claimed in the interview that her debate answer was "about the character of our nation" and "most people who actually have the courage to watch those tapes know that instinctively as well":
JOHN ROBERTS: While she had many moments during the debate, the biggest was her scorching response to a question on Planned Parenthood. As we walked the streets of Mackinac Island, Michigan Saturday, she told me that moment was completely unscripted.
CARLY FIORINA: I wasn't delivering a line. I hadn't prepared that line, I didn't know that question was coming. I was just speaking from the heart. I feel so strongly about that. It is about the character of our nation. And I think most people who actually have the courage to watch those tapes know that instinctively as well. It really has nothing to do with pro-life or pro-choice.
Nowhere in the interview or aired segment does Roberts note that Fiorina's claim was false. As some in the media have noted, the CMP videos did not contain such footage, and the footage Fiorina claimed was filmed at Planned Parenthood was instead added by another anti-choice group. Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik on September 18 wrote that "[t]he news media haven't done enough to call out Fiorina's claims" about the videos.
From the September 17 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier:
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Many media outlets have already reported that the videos show no illegal behavior by, or on behalf of, Planned Parenthood. From the September 1 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier:
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From the September 1 edition of Fox News' Special Report With Bret Baier:
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Fox News tried to blame First Lady Michelle Obama's healthy school lunch program for reports of financial woes and layoffs at school districts, but it failed to disclose that the study it cited comes from a group supported in part by food industry companies that sell their product to schools, including PepsiCo, General Mills, and Domino's.
On the August 26 edition of Fox News' Special Report, host Bret Baier highlighted the findings of a new study from the School Nutrition Association (SNA) that claims implementation of the National School Lunch Program's healthier nutritional standards has led to school district worker layoffs and financial struggles. The standards were established after Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010, the centerpiece of First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative.
Baier told viewers, "School is back, or soon will be, and healthy school lunches are resulting in unhealthy school finances." He went on to cite the SNA study's claim that "56 percent of districts have lost lunch participants because of the new healthy standards championed by the first lady" and that "seven of 10 [school districts that responded] say the standards have hurt the financial situation of the local meals programs, with almost half choosing to reduce staffing."
But Baier failed to disclose that the School Nutrition Association, which describes itself as "a national, nonprofit professional organization representing more than 55,000 members who provide high-quality, low-cost meals to students across the country," has deep ties to the industry that sells food products to school districts. As Media Matters has previously written, the SNA lists Schwan's Food Service, a company that specializes in providing pizza to schools and restaurants, as a "major" donor. The association has also accepted funding from PepsiCo, General Mills, ConAgra, and Domino's Pizza. Schwan and PepsiCo also hold seats on the SNA's board of directors.
Schwan, ConAgra, and General Mills were also among major members of the food industry behind successful lobbying efforts to preserve pizza's classification as a vegetable for the purpose of school nutritional standards in 2011.
Conservative media are seizing on a flawed, and later revised, Associated Press report to claim the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will allow Iran to conduct investigations of its own nuclear sites, leaving out important context that explains the agreement does not compromise the long-term inspection regime agreed upon in the international Iran nuclear deal, nor the ability of inspectors to observe the rest of the country's nuclear facilities, and pertains only to past nuclear activity at the Parchin military site. In fact, the agreement still requires "confirmation that Iran is keeping promises" for the country to receive international sanctions relief.
Fox News suggested that Hillary Clinton must have known her emails were classified when she received them during her tenure as secretary of state because they contained satellite imagery and signal intelligence. But officials say that the emails don't include any form of "sensitive sourcing" and may not have been classified at the time she received them.
At the 2016 Republican primary debate last night, the Fox News moderators appeared reasonable, effective, and pointed in their questions to the candidates. And that was the point of the whole charade.
Fox did exactly what Media Matters predicted they would. Moderators Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace took advantage of the low expectations mainstream journalists and many Americans have of their network. They knew millions of people who don't watch Fox as obsessively as we do would be tuning in, many of them expecting to see the brand of Fox they've heard so much about, full of conservative bias and incoherent arguments. And they knew how much power rested in surprising those viewers -- in convincing even just a handful of mainstream journalists that Fox can be legitimate.
The strategy worked. Because the moderators managed to look like real journalists for a little over two hours, they're getting intense praise from mainstream media outlets, such as Politico (emphasis added):
For more than two hours, the trio that won widespread praise in 2012 for hard-hitting questions once again demonstrated that Fox News would offer no safe harbor for Republican candidates.
And the New York Times (emphasis added):
There was more than just good television at stake. For the journalists of Fox News, the debate offered a potentially defining moment in front of millions of people, during one of the most anticipated political events of the year. This was an opportunity to demonstrate that their network is not, as its critics have charged, a blindly loyal propaganda division of the Republican Party, that Fox journalists can be as unsparing toward conservatives as they are with liberals, and that they can eviscerate with equal opportunity if they choose.
But that last clause from the Times is crucial: "if they choose." Because the other 364 days a year, Fox News does not choose to hold Republicans accountable for their extreme and misinformed positions on women's rights or welfare or immigration; instead they do create that "safe harbor" for Republicans to come up with their wild misconceptions and hateful rhetoric -- the same misconceptions they "choose" to blast those same Republicans for last night.
Fox has two fundamental goals: make lots of money by broadcasting entertaining television, and bolster the Republican Party. Last night, they succeeded in doing both, even in the moments where it might have seemed like they had no patience for the Republican candidates' pandering.
Because Fox chief Roger Ailes knows that the best way for Fox to bolster the Republican Party in the long-term is for mainstream journalists to trust Fox -- for the "blindly loyal propaganda division" to appear, even just for one night, as credible. Propaganda doesn't work, after all, if you know it's propaganda.
So even if many of their questions actually did reinforce Republican orthodoxy (such as claiming that deceitful videos attacking Planned Parenthood shed "new light on abortion practices"), the Fox moderators made sure they spent most of their time looking like attack dogs ready to take on the Republican candidates.
But it's worth looking closely at how that played out, and what exactly mainstream media outlets are now praising. Getting the most attention is perhaps one of the biggest of the so-called "Megyn Moments" of the night, in which Kelly momentarily appears out-of-step with Fox rhetoric and calls out a bit of right-wing nonsense. Her tendency to do this every once in a while successfully distracts from her standard misinformation, and helps feed the exact narrative about Fox's potential for credibility that they were desperate to encourage last night.
"Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don't use a politician's filter," she began. "However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women. You've called women you don't like 'fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.'"
Quickly dismissing Trump's attempt to shrug these comments off with a crude joke, she beat on: "Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women's looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?"
To be clear, it is definitely remarkable to hear a Fox News host even mention the "war on women," something the network and the Republican Party have worked hard to minimize. And Trump deserves to be held accountable for these comments.
But it's not exactly an act of remarkable journalism to ask such a question -- pointing out Trump's raging sexism is something any competent journalist should be expected to do.
Moreover, Fox has had ample time to hold him accountable for these comments before. Trump has been winning the "Fox News Primary" for the last three months, appearing on the network more times than any other Republican candidate in the race.
Yet his sexism has certainly not been a regular topic of the fawning interviews he typically receives on the network. Instead, Fox has worked very, very hard to promote Trump, and the fact that he was standing at center stage last night due to his soaring poll numbers was certainly aided by the network.
While network figures have criticized Trump in the past, Fox's shift during the debate to fully acknowledging Trump's nasty side is notable. But it once again says more about Fox's calculus for the evening and our own low expectations than it does about Trump himself.
In his review of the evening, Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman explained that according to his sources, key to that calculus was Fox's fear that the winner of the night would be Trump, at the expense of the network's moderators:
During a meeting at Fox late last week, according to a source, senior Fox executives discussed a more worrisome scenario: What would happen if Trump won over the audience and moved the crowd to boo moderators Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, and Chris Wallace on live television? What if Trump was able to direct his base of supporters to stop watching Fox? To prevent that from happening, Ailes needed a way to keep the audience firmly on the side of his moderators.
The questions posed last night to all of the candidates were carefully considered, and key to the strategy behind those questions was keeping the audience on Fox's side, not on the side of the actual candidates running for president. That isn't a strategy for good journalism, or for aiding a thoughtful electoral process. That's a strategy of control.
Fox may have realized they can no longer control Trump; but they're definitely trying to maintain full control over the mainstream narrative about their "credibility," and thus the Republican primary.
From the August 6 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier:
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Beware the low expectations you have for Fox News.
Tonight, Fox News will host the first Republican 2016 presidential primary debate (as well as a forum at 5pm for candidates that Fox has deemed less deserving of the primetime spotlight). The debate will be moderated by Fox News' Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace.
At Media Matters, we spend considerable time steeped in Fox News' misinformation. As part of our larger media monitoring efforts, we watch Fox News every day from 6AM until 11PM. We're well versed in their chicanery and adept at combating their deceit with airtight research. It's why we often say of Media Matters, "We watch Fox News, so you don't have to."
But on nights like tonight, many people who don't usually watch Fox News will tune in. These viewers -- be they progressives, people who regularly get their news from other networks, or just casual political observers who engage only around big events -- have some impression of what Fox News' brand is. They tend to have a sense that Fox News is very conservative and that Fox News lies. And they probably initially associate Fox News with some of its legacy personalities like Bill O'Reilly, or even former ones like Glenn Beck.
These viewers tune in with the expectation that the Fox figures moderating the debate will align with their impression or sense of Fox News' brand of bloviating, bias, and bigotry. In effect, the bar is set -- and it's pretty low.
Here's a rough version of this that ends up playing out on nights like tonight: Fox puts its best foot forward. The Fox figures conduct themselves in a way that exceeds the low impression that these non-regular viewers have of Fox personalities. Many of these viewers think to themselves, "Hmm. Well, those moderators were pretty reasonable." Some may even pass remarks to this effect on social media or in their social circles.
Think back to your social media feeds from nights like this. I bet you saw some posts from friends or even some mainstream media figures either giving accolades to Fox or mentioning something along the lines of 'Fox News is conservative, but that news side moderator seems pretty okay.'
In reality, no, they weren't 'pretty okay' or 'reasonable' as some non-regular viewers might believe. It's just that the bar is really low.
Fox is well aware of this dynamic. They need nights like tonight.
A few years ago, the idea that Fox News is not news but rather more akin to a political operation finally broke through and became a widely-shared opinion in political and media circles. In late 2011, Roger Ailes, Fox News' Chairman & CEO, responded by conceding that Fox News needed a "course correction" and retreating to what the network claims is a separation between its commentary and hard news side.
Since then, Fox News has often touted its supposed "news side" to deflect criticism or to create a veneer of legitimacy. Nights like tonight are pivotal to this strategy.
In the lead up to tonight's debate, there were well choreographed pieces in Politico and The New York Times that emphasized the distinction between Fox News' commentary side and news side and advanced the narrative Fox wants told about how hard-hitting the anchors moderating tonight's debate are.
It's very likely that the Fox anchors moderating tonight's debate will exceed the low expectations that occasional viewers have of Fox News.
Don't be fooled though!
Just because the three people sitting at the moderators' table won't remind you of Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck, be wary of giving them too much credit.
When not performing for an audience of non-typical Fox viewers...
This is bigger than these three individuals. Kelly, Wallace and Baier are simply window dressing that Fox is putting on display tonight to advance the idea that Fox has a hard news side. But there isn't a meaningful difference between Fox News' supposed news side and its commentary side.
Look no further for evidence of this than Bill Sammon. Sammon is a right-wing ideologue and serves as an executive on Fox News' supposed news side. He won't be on stage tonight. But, according to Fox News' Digital Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt, Sammon helped lead the team that prepared the questions for tonight's debate. Several years ago, Media Matters obtained leaked communications from Sammon that showed him using his position to impose a right-wing slant on Fox News' supposed hard news reporting as well as instructing on-air reporters to refrain from accurately reporting on rising global temperatures caused by climate change.
So before you rush to give Fox News credit for exceeding low expectations, just keep in mind that many of the smears, ignorant remarks, and flat-out lies told by candidates tonight were either very likely promoted heavily or manufactured by Fox itself. The landscape has been seeded with Fox News' chicanery. Candidates are well aware of the audience that they're speaking to -- a fact reflected in the decision by some of them to appeal directly to Fox News' core audience with substantial ad buys in an attempt to increase their standings in the polls.
Fox News has consistently helped Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush run defense for many of his controversial remarks, including his assertions that he would have authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that Americans "need to work longer hours" to boost the economy, and that the federal government spends "too much" on women's health.
Fox News is helping Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush whitewash his suggestion that the federal government spends too much on health care services for women, which kicked off a firestorm as other media outlets, Democrats, and advocacy groups called him out for the remarks.
Fox News devoted 10 segments on seven separate programs in one day to hyping a deceptively edited video purporting to show Planned Parenthood "haggling" over the price of "baby parts, while mainstream media and fact checkers roundly discredited the video and its smears.