The sentiments expressed weren’t especially unusual for CPAC, a kind of Burning Man festival for the conservative faithful. What was unusual — and disturbing to some experts in journalistic ethics — was the Republican conference’s conspicuous affiliation with Fox, an ostensibly nonpartisan news network.
Only a few months ago, Fox cracked down on appearances by its hosts and journalists at partisan events, deeming them a breach of the line distinguishing a news organization from a political-advocacy outfit.
But Fox not only permitted Bongino and Hegseth to address CPAC this week — the network was directly involved in financing the conference. The network spent $250,000 through its Fox Nation streaming service to become a leading CPAC sponsor, according to the Daily Beast. (Fox contributed to CPAC’s organizer last year as well, but at a much lower rate: $28,000 in sponsorship fees.)
“This is far from the first time that Fox News has crossed ethical lines. But following its obvious conflicts at CPAC, viewers of Fox News may have a difficult time differentiating what’s news and what’s paid political propaganda,” said Danielle McLean, the ethics committee chair for the Society of Professional Journalists. It “creates an obvious conflict of interest for its reporters and anchors who are assigned [to cover] the Republican Party, or for that matter, U.S. politics.”
The group’s ethics code urges journalists to “act independently” and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality. Most mainstream news organizations follow that advice and avoid direct financial involvement with political groups. The Washington Post, the New York Times, NPR, CNN, the Associated Press and ABC News all say their employees are prohibited from speaking to or fundraising on behalf of political organizations. Some newsrooms even warn their journalists not to attend political marches or put candidate bumper stickers on their cars.
Fox itself has acknowledged the boundaries before. The network disciplined two of its biggest stars, Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro, after they appeared onstage at a rally for President Donald Trump in 2018 — although it didn’t say what their punishment was. While Hannity and Pirro have never made any pretense about their support for Trump on the air, Fox said at the time that it “does not condone any talent participating in campaign events.” It called Pirro and Hannity’s participation “an unfortunate distraction.”
In 2019, when Republican and conservative organizations booked appearances by Pirro, Hegseth, his “Fox & Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade and news anchor Shannon Bream, the network stepped in to cancel them.
Reach on Monday, a Fox spokesperson declined to comment about Hegseth and Bongino’s speeches at CPAC, or its sponsorship of the event.
Fox isn’t the only news organization whose personalities have crossed into questionable ethical territory.
A CNN spokeswoman said strict rules for CNN’s employees don’t always apply to the network’s contributors, who are paid to comment on air but aren’t considered journalists.
MSNBC appeared to make no such distinction when it parted ways in November with one of its contributors, journalist and historian Jon Meacham, after the disclosure that he had contributed to President Biden’s campaign speeches. Meacham, who also spoke at the Democratic National Convention last year, had praised Biden’s speeches on the network without mentioning he works on them.
A Washington Post reporter, Janell Ross, was put on leave in 2018 for participating in private strategy sessions and panels attended by Democratic lawmakers and liberal activists. Ross has not returned to the newspaper.
Hegseth, by contrast, was back on “Fox & Friends” Monday morning to share what he’d seen and said at CPAC.