Earlier this week, this blog considered a question from a reader about whether Fox News could be categorized as an organ of the mainstream media. The answer: In terms of reach and impact, absolutely. In terms of standards, no way. The trouble is that Fox News, seizing on a convention of mainstream newspapering, has set up a stark division between news and opinion divisions — with programs like “Special Report” in the former and “Fox & Friends,” “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Hannity” in the latter.
Sensing greater freedom because of their designation as “opinion” purveyors, anchors in these divisions have trounced journalistic norms. Think of host Sean Hannity doing a video promotion for then-candidate Donald Trump or paying for Newt Gingrich to fly to a vice presidential interview. Or think of this more prosaic example, when Hannity used online polling during the 2016 campaign to buttress positive Trump coverage, despite guidance from Fox News’s standards-setters. Pressed on this discrepancy, Fox News said that Hannity is an opinion guy.
This unbridgeable gulf looms over the Fox News operation as the weekend approaches. From the White House briefing room podium Thursday, press secretary Sean Spicer quoted reporting by Fox News senior legal analyst Andrew Napolitano suggesting that former President Barack Obama got assistance from British intelligence (GCHQ) to surveil then-candidate Trump. Napolitano made the claim on the morning opinion show “Fox & Friends.”
A GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) spokesman blasted the whole notion: “Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”
Spicer has reportedly assured British officials that he won’t again cite Napolitano’s work on this subject.
Nor will the news side of Fox News, as it turns out. Friday on his afternoon program, host Shepard Smith said, “Fox News cannot confirm Judge Napolitano’s commentary. Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now president of the United States was surveilled at any time, in any way, full stop.”
Wild, huh? Fox News can’t confirm something that aired on Fox News. The statement from Smith is impeccable, save for one detail, in bold above: Though Napolitano may have presented his research on a show that Fox News considers commentary or opinion, he was debuting news reporting. Here’s precisely the words Napolitano used on “Fox & Friends” on Tuesday morning: “Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command. He didn’t use the NSA. He didn’t use the CIA. He didn’t use the FBI and he didn’t use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ. What the heck is GCHQ? That’s the initials for the British spying agency. They have 24-7 access to the NSA database.”
Bolding added to highlight the question — what Fox News viewer would be savvy enough to determine that this reporting didn’t have the full weight and confidence of the news side of Fox News? Perhaps just Howard Kurtz.
Newsworthy breaches of common journalistic standards — not to mention plain common sense — fall disproportionately on the opinion side of the operation. In January 2015, Jeanine Pirro, host of an opinion show at the network, apologized for allowing a guest to allege wide-ranging European “no-go zones”: “There are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in,” said the guest. Pirro corrected: “The guest asserted that the city of Birmingham, England, is totally Muslim and that it is a place where non-Muslims don’t go. Both are incorrect.”
Just weeks ago, Bill O’Reilly, another opinion anchor, invited a guest to spout off on the perils of immigration to Sweden. Though he was touted on the show as a “Swedish Defense and National Security Advisor,” the credentials of this fellow, Nils Bildt, were subsequently debunked by various in-the-know Swedes. O’Reilly himself later admitted that the “criticism is valid.”
How many other major U.S. allies can Fox News’s opinionators alienate?
Then there’s “Fox & Friends,” which appears to plan out all the ways in which it can embarrass the news side. It’s no wonder whatsoever that Napolitano’s massively challenged claim about GCHQ first saw the light of day on this program, which is easily the worst in all of televised news.
There’ll be no hysterics here about how Fox News cannot survive with this bifurcation between opinion and news. It has thrived with the split, ruling cable-news ratings. In fact, it’s a mistake to overstate the sturdiness of the wall between the sides. Sometimes news segments kick off by citing the commentary of one of their opinion folks, and it’s quite common that news anchors team up with conservative panelists against liberal panelists. Yet Smith’s statement Friday about the news side’s lack of confidence in Napolitano’s “commentary” is a clear message to its colleagues across the wall: Standards, please.