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Why can’t Fox apologize? It won’t back down even amid Pirro, Carlson controversies

Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi explains why Fox News sometimes embraces controversies caused by inflammatory comments from its hosts. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

Fox News has no regrets and no remorse. It isn’t sorry.

Faced with yet another uproar — actually, two of them within 24 hours — the cable network has blandly, mildly offered . . . well, very little in response. No apologies, no promises of reform, no retreat, no surrender.

The nonresponse appears almost to be a strategy, a resistance in the face of controversy that has helped Fox define itself as a different, defiantly polarizing brand. Its double-down approach seems parallel to that of President Trump, whose political career has been boosted for years by Fox.

The latest Fox uproar involves prime-time host Tucker Carlson, whose vulgar comments about women, girls and a polygamous cult leader on a syndicated radio program more than a decade ago spurred outrage when they were released Sunday by Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group and longtime Fox nemesis.

In response, Carlson issued a brief statement dismissing any controversy; he allowed that his comments were “naughty” and invited critics to come on his program to debate him — an attempt to turn lemons into Nielsen ratings.

Fox merely referred reporters to Carlson’s dismissive statement.

During the opening segment of his program on Monday, Carlson addressed the issue only obliquely and generally. Without mentioning specifics, he portrayed himself as a target of “the outrage machine” and a left-wing social media “mob” bent on stifling his free speech.

“First,” he said, “Fox News is behind us, as they have been since the very first day. Toughness is a rare quality in a TV network and we are grateful.

“Second, we have always apologized when we were wrong and we will continue to do that,” he said, offering no apology. “That’s what decent people do — they apologize. But we will never bow to a mob, ever, no matter what.”

Even as Carlson was defending himself, Media Matters released a new video with clips of racist comments by Carlson, 49, on the radio program.

The Carlson flap blew up almost concurrently with the bitter aftermath of Fox host Jeanine Pirro’s on-air comments about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Pirro said on her Saturday program that Omar, an observant Muslim, was effectively disloyal to the United States as a result of her religious beliefs. This prompted the network to come closer to the edge of contrition: It said it “strongly” condemned Pirro’s comments, while adding that they “do not reflect those of the network and we have addressed the matter with her directly.”

Yet Fox issued no apologies to Omar, Muslim Americans or anyone else who objected, including a Fox News producer who is Muslim. It declined to say how it addressed the matter with Pirro.

This tracks with other controversies involving Fox. It remained largely silent, for example, in the wake of promoting a discredited conspiracy theory involving Seth Rich, a young staffer at the Democratic National Committee who was killed in 2016.

After retracting a story from its website claiming that Rich’s death was payback for releasing thousands of hacked emails from the DNC’s servers, Fox promised to conduct an investigation into the report. If it has, it hasn’t released any findings. It also hasn’t said whether it disciplined any of the people involved in producing it or promoting it, including prime-time host Sean Hannity and the hosts of its “Fox and Friends” morning show. It hasn’t even said the story was inaccurate, though two lawsuits naming Fox have said that explicitly.

Fox, which remains the dominant cable-news network, had no public comment Monday about its approach to public comment.

A Fox News insider, however, sought to draw a distinction between the Pirro and Carlson incidents Monday. The Pirro matter involved something said on Fox itself, the Fox insider said. Carlson’s comments were made when he worked for MSNBC more than a decade ago, not in his capacity as a Fox personality.

Fox has apologized for a number of disparaging comments made by contributors and guests over the past year, though not for its prime-time lineup of stars. For example, it issued an apology to viewers after a guest, Anna Paulina of Turning Point USA, joked that “Hillary [Clinton] won’t go away. She’s like herpes,” and after Kid Rock called “The View’s” Joy Behar “that bitch” during “Fox and Friends.”

It also suspended a contributor, former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie, after he said an African American strategist was “out of his cotton-picking mind” during a debate about racism. And Fox Business Network apologized after a military analyst, Thomas McInerney, said John McCain divulged military secrets under torture in Vietnam, calling him “Songbird John.”

But Fox’s management, led by chief executive Suzanne Scott, may have learned a lesson in the limits of remorse last year after Laura Ingraham, another prime-time host, mocked David Hogg, the 17-year-old gun-control advocate and mass-shooting survivor, on Twitter. (Ingraham had said Hogg “whined” about not being accepted to several colleges.) Fox again took a pass, though Ingraham — facing an advertiser boycott — later apologized.

That apology apparently elicited an internal rebuke from Rupert Murdoch, Fox’s co-founder and chairman, who warned against the dangers of appearing weak in the face of negative public sentiment, according to people familiar with the episode.

Fox’s reluctance to back down — particularly when faced with each new campaign led by Media Matters — is potentially damaging for Fox, because it could inflame reactions on social media and thereby elevate the chance of advertiser boycotts. Carlson, Hannity and Ingraham — Fox’s three most popular attractions — have all faced such backlashes from sponsors. Amid pressure from Media Matters and other advocacy groups, Carlson and Ingraham’s programs have carried fewer advertisers than usual in recent months, although Fox’s president of ad sales, Marianne Gabelli, said in a recent interview that the softness was due primarily to seasonal factors, not the boycott.

Fox’s controversial talking heads are “presenting for the first time an existential threat for the network because the advertisers are feeling the pressure,” said Zac Petkanas, a former senior aide on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign who was a frequent guest on Fox News. “It’s partly because they have cultivated an audience that foams at the mouth” at outrageous statements from Pirro, Carlson and Ingraham.

Added Petkanas: “The proliferation of social media has made it easier to not only identify instances of bad behavior but share them. Sunlight is the worst thing that’s happened to Fox News.”

But Terry Sullivan, a Republican strategist who was Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) presidential campaign manager in 2016, believes the current controversies do nothing to damage Fox’s reputation among its loyal viewers. “They are still ranked number one and have amazing viewership,” he said. “The media is a business, and if it was hurting viewership and the bottom line, it would stop tomorrow.”

Fox, he said, remains “the most efficient and effective way for Republicans to communicate with Republican voters.”

Fox’s unapologetic stance is a change from the era when it was headed by Roger Ailes, its late co-founder and longtime chairman. Despite shaping Fox’s pugnacious tone, Ailes knew Fox could push the limits only so far; when the heat got too high, he’d occasionally step in to lower the temperature.

So, former Fox host E.D. Hill went on the air in 2008 to apologize for describing a campaign-trail gesture between then-Sen. Barack Obama and Michelle Obama as “a terrorist fist bump.” The same year, Fox apologized for an on-screen graphic accompanying a story about criticism of Michelle Obama that read, “Outraged Liberals: Stop Picking on Obama’s Baby Mama!”

And in 2010, Fox distanced itself from host Glenn Beck after he said President Obama had “a deep-seated hatred for white people. . . . This guy is, I believe, a racist.” On Ailes’s orders, Fox issued a statement saying that Beck “expressed a personal opinion, which represented his own views, not those of the Fox News Channel.”

Beck’s ratings remained strong, but an advocacy organization called Color of Change led an advertiser boycott of his show. Fox responded by saying it moved Beck’s advertisers to other programs and thus hadn’t lost any revenue as a result — the same thing it has said about an ongoing boycott of Carlson.

Beck’s advertisers never returned. And then neither did he: He left Fox a few months later.