"Fox & Friends" co-hosts, from left, Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt and Brian Kilmeade on their set in New York. (Richard Drew/AP)
Media columnist

There are ethical standards at Fox News, we’re told.

But just what they are, or how they’re enforced, is an enduring mystery.

When Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro appeared onstage with President Trump at a Missouri campaign rally, the network publicly acknowledged that this ran counter to its practices.

“Fox News does not condone any talent participating in campaign events,” the network said in a statement. “This was an unfortunate distraction and has been addressed.”

Or take what happened this week.

When the staff of “Fox & Friends” was found to have provided a pre-interview script for Scott Pruitt, then the Environmental Protection Agency head, the network frowned: “This is not standard practice whatsoever and the matter is being addressed internally with those involved.”

“Not standard practice” is putting it mildly, as the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani — who broke the story — noted, quoting David Hawkins, formerly of CBS News and CNN, who teaches journalism at Fordham University:

“Every American journalist knows that to provide scripts or articles to the government for review before publication or broadcast is a cardinal sin. It’s Journalism 101. This is worse than that. It would and should get you fired from any news organization with integrity.”

Some news organizations publish their standards and ethics guidelines for all to see.
In 2015, for example, BuzzFeed News published its policy with a note from a top editor, Shani O. Hilton, that said the purpose was “to provide context and support for BuzzFeed News staffers in making smart, responsible, and ethical choices” — and to keep staff accountable to readers.

The Washington Post and the New York Times make their policies readily available to the public, as does NPR. The idea — the right one — is that transparency and clarity are crucially important when it comes to enforcing ethics.

That concept is not universally accepted at media companies: As my colleague Erik Wemple wrote last spring, CNN not only doesn’t publish its guidelines but also has fought in court to keep them private. (And like every media organization, CNN has had its share of standards problems, most recently letting guests and commentators lie about climate scientists without disclosing their financial ties to the fossil-fuel industry, as Media Matters reported.)

The broadcast TV networks mostly have standards editors and written policies but don’t make them public.

As for Fox News, it’s hard to know what network standards have been breached, whether written rules exist, or who — if anyone — is in charge of that fraught subject.

On Wednesday, I asked two high-ranking Fox News executives about this: John Stack, senior vice president for news coverage, whom I had met at a recent gathering of standards editors and media ombudsmen, past and present; and Irena Briganti, executive vice president of corporate communications for Fox News and Fox Business.

Does Fox News have a written ethics policy, I asked.

If so, is it published anywhere?

Is there a Fox News standards editor, even if he or she doesn’t have that specific title?

What Fox News standard or practice, exactly, was breached in the way the Pruitt appearance was handled, and what is the nature of the disciplinary measures being taken?

Neither Stack nor Briganti responded at all.

That’s no surprise, really.

The network can’t seem to figure out whether it’s an arm of the Trump administration or a news network — or somehow, impossibly, both.

It boasts of its traditional journalists such as Shepard Smith, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier but never seems to come down hard on its blatant propagandists and bad actors. After Fox personality Laura Ingraham mocked 17-year-old David Hogg last spring, following the massacre at his high school in Parkland, Fla., the network backed her up, despite the public outcry and an advertiser boycott.

Alisyn Camerota, a former Fox News anchor now at CNN, said on air recently that members of Fox brass ‘‘know vaguely’’ that their high-profile employees aren’t supposed to be actively campaigning or helping the Trump administration with its agenda.

‘‘They’re having a schizophrenic moment over there trying to figure out what their role is going to be with the Trump presidency,’’ Boston.com quoted Camerota.

The Trump administration and Fox News are so deeply intertwined that it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins. At a Missouri rally early this month, the jubilant high-five between Hannity and his former Fox boss Bill Shine, now White House communications czar, said it all: Go, team!

As for adherence at Fox to traditional journalistic standards — which underlie the news media’s role in holding government accountable — vague lip service is as far as it seems to go.

And let stonewalling take care of the rest.

For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan