Let me just get this out of the way — former CNN media critic Brian Stelter is a nice guy. I’ve met him in real life, and he’s even been professionally helpful to me. However, as someone who’s spent a significant portion of my career engaged in media criticism, I understand why a lot of people dislike him. I rarely agree with him and am often mystified by his analysis. But I think it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that I’m fairly confident he’s a decent family man and doesn’t wake up every morning trying to be intentionally deceitful.
Anyway, Stelter has a new book out about Fox News, called Network of Lies: The Epic Saga of Fox News, Donald Trump, and the Battle for American Democracy. Not exactly subtle. And though I haven’t read the book, Stelter’s been doing a lot of publicity, and I have to wonder whether he’s being remotely fair. Exhibit A is this interview he recently gave to another former CNN employee, Chris Cillizza:
Chris: Is it fair to call Fox a “news network” like CNN or MSNBC (or even ABC or CBS)? Why or why not?
Brian: No, because Fox doesn’t operate the way CNN or MSNBC or ABC or CBS do. The recent Niagara Falls debacle is a perfect example.
A young reporter at Fox rushed onto the air with claims that the tragic accident at a border crossing was an “attempted terrorist attack.” Fox ran with these anonymously-sourced claims for hours. The coverage spooked millions of people and had real-world impacts in Niagara Falls and Buffalo.
Once the claims fell apart, Fox basically blamed the young reporter; the reporter said her sources got it wrong; and the network tried to pretend like this terrible episode never happened.
At a proper news network, there are stringent processes for reporting sensitive and anonymously-sourced information. There are standards and practices departments. There are checks and balances. (You and I know this first-hand from our years at CNN!)
These systems exist in order to protect institutions and individual reporters. Of course the systems aren’t perfect; screwups still take place; that’s life. But the systems reflect a good faith effort to sort fact from fiction. Fox doesn’t have these systems. That’s why the “attempted terrorist attack” falsehood happened.
There are lots of other reasons why Fox is not in the same category as CNN or NBC. Fox spends less time reporting the news and more time complaining about what others are reporting. Its biggest shows are explicit about trying to elect Republicans and defeat Democrats. Its hosts regularly indulge conspiracy theories. Its coverage does a disservice to the viewers who trust it the most, and that’s a point I tried to hammer home in “Network of Lies” — if you think Fox is helping the conservative cause, think again.
So let me get this straight — during a major breaking news story, Fox rushed to air with a sensational piece of information that turned out to be wrong. And this is proof that Fox has no “good faith” editorial standards to prevent it from airing falsehoods? Because if that’s what you find objectionable, your beef is not with Fox, it is with cable news in general and the sensationalism encouraged by a 24-hour news cycle.
Case in point: In December of 2017, while Stelter was still employed at CNN, that network’s Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb reported that Donald Trump Jr. had been sent an email on Sept. 4, 2016, with a decryption key to a WikiLeaks trove of hacked emails from Clinton confidant and Democratic operative John Podesta. This was a bombshell report for two reasons. First, the date would indicate Trump Jr. received the email before the WikiLeaks information was released to the public, and two, WikiLeaks is widely presumed to act as a front for Russian intelligence. After CNN broke the story, MSNBC and CBS quickly came out with stories “independently” confirming CNN’s scoop.
Within hours, though, CNN’s report was discredited. Somebody misread the date on the email, which was sent on Sept. 14, after the hacked Podesta emails had been made publicly available. CNN later admitted it never saw the email it was reporting the contents of, and apparently neither did MSNBC and CBS.
In a crucial respect, the failure here is worse than Fox’s mistake, which at least related to imminent national security threats. There was no time-sensitive reason for CNN to rush out an explosive report supposedly confirming that the Trump family was colluding with Russian intelligence. In fact, the explosive nature of what was being reported was a good reason to slow things down and not rely on the mere description of a document from an anonymous source.
After the CNN report blew up in their faces, the likely source of the story was quickly uncovered. Rep. Adam Schiff’s office quickly issued a classic Washington non-denial denial “that neither he nor his staff leaked any ‘non-public information.’” Schiff, of course, was a constant source of disinformation on the fake Russia-collusion scandal, and even outlets such as The Washington Post couldn’t ignore the fact that he was a brazen liar.
So-called “proper news networks” CNN, MSNBC, and CBS all relied on the same anonymous source, which was in reality a mendacious partisan, and presented an untrue story as having been confirmed by three different news organizations. Incredibly, CNN’s story on the matter is still up, though the rewrite and correction make it an almost Dadaist exercise in reporting.
And if you thought this story is somehow unique, just days before CNN’s botched story, ABC News erroneously reported that Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had been directed to contact Russian officials by then-candidate Donald Trump during the presidential campaign. It turned out that rather than Trump enlisting Russia to help him treasonously subvert an election, Trump directed Flynn to contact Russian officials during the presidential transition to try to work together to fight ISIS in Syria. Which is a pretty normal thing for a national security advisor to do. Nonetheless, after the false ABC News report alleging collusion dropped, the stock market tumbled 300 points.
Anway, I could cite chapter and verse about this stuff, especially given the monumental media failures in the post-Trump era that continue to this day. This media malfeasance ranges from Russiagate — the most basic premises were false, and the years of nonstop sensational and inaccurate media coverage did major damage to “muh democracy!” by convincing a huge number of people Trump wasn’t legitimately elected — to Covid to Hunter Biden’s laptop and coverage of his father’s role in that corruption, a story the media censored and countered with outright propaganda to affect an election. And there are a million smaller examples of dishonest or botched media coverage with one commonality: They all further pro-government, pro-establishment, pro-Democrat Party narratives.
Frankly, I don’t get how anyone in the media orbit would look at this rolling fiasco and honestly say “there are stringent processes for reporting sensitive and anonymously-sourced information. There are standards and practices departments. There are checks and balances.” To the extent those processes and safeguards ever reliably existed in America’s newsrooms, they are well and truly broken.
I get that there is a lot of sturm and drang surrounding Fox News, and I am obliged to remind people that my wife is presently employed there. However, I don’t feel compelled to list the various problems, not because I’m indebted to the place or unwilling to acknowledge the problems, but because this stuff has already been obsessed over by the media to the point that there’s been not one, but two TV shows and a movie about the behind-the-scenes drama at the network, starring three Oscar-winners.
However, in this respect Fox isn’t unique; it’s also true that CNN was a hothouse of sex scandals, lawsuits, and grossly unprofessional behavior. But to a large extent, media accountability is reliant on scrutiny from other media organizations, and when the groupthink is so powerful they have all the same partisan instincts and are all wrong about the same things, there’s no incentive structure for them to do anything but pile on the one major media network that doesn’t push the same narratives.
Anyway, like I said, Brian Stelter is a nice guy, and that’s what ultimately concerns me. It’s much easier to expose nefarious people with bad motives. But I fear he believes Fox is uniquely bad and that it is a moral crusade to oppose the network, all while being blind to the fact that there are larger fatal problems undermining trust in American media across the board. I can’t explain this except to say that it’s some combination of willful and pathological, and Stelter hardly seems unique in his inability to see the comparative problems.
Almost no one in the so-called legacy media is interested in any accountability for all the errors that are clearly a result of partisanship and overtly one-sided political obsessions. You can single out Fox all you want, but unless voices such as Stelter get real about the depth of the errors, record levels of distrust, and resentment directed at the “proper news networks,” the entire corporate media establishment deserves to fail.