The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fox News’s handling of election lies was extreme but far from unusual

News organizations air lies from political figures more often than you might think, but for very different reasons than Fox News

Fox News studios in New York in 2018. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
7 min

Documents from a defamation lawsuit by Dominion, a manufacturer of voting machines, have laid bare that Fox News executives and hosts knew that claims of fraud and a stolen 2020 election were false but that they allowed allies of Donald Trump to push these claims on their airwaves anyway. The revelations have been shocking to many observers. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a moment like this, where a major news network has been exposed as deliberately deluding its viewers or readers,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told a Washington Post columnist. “This is a seminal moment in the history of mass media. And we need to treat it that way.”

While the exposure of the gap between what Fox personnel thought behind the scenes and what aired on their network has shown the network to be mercenary and uninterested in journalistic integrity, the situation of a news organization’s private memos betraying a certain amount of hypocrisy is less unusual than many like Murphy think. Fox executives and hosts were stuck grappling with a question that has plagued the media for a century or more: How should outlets cover false claims from political officials and their allies? After all, as the investigative reporter I.F. Stone famously quipped, “All governments lie.”

And while profit — Fox executives and hosts feared alienating their audience and hurting their stock price — rather than journalistic norms drove the decisions for Fox News, the network’s executives actually ended up adopting a common media practice. Journalists have long allowed officials to tell lies so long as they do it on the record. Media outlets adopted this policy to ensure that they appeared scrupulously objective and neutral, but it forces audiences to be the arbiters of truth and, as the Fox case illustrates, creates the opportunity for misinformation to flourish.

Beginning in the 1930s, journalism adopted the norm of objectivity. This policy dictated reportorial neutrality in “straight news” coverage. Journalists wouldn’t weigh in on one side of an issue or another, and wouldn’t tell readers, listeners and, later, viewers when politicians were lying or distorting the truth.

Almost since its inception, this norm created ethical and practical problems. Maybe most famously in the early 1950s, as journalists struggled with covering Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), who was discussing frankly behind the scenes that he was feeding lies to the public. The reporting did not cover McCarthy’s nonpublic comments. News scribes knew that McCarthy’s claims were often exaggerated, or even outright false, but felt they couldn’t say so in straight reporting without violating objectivity and tilting the scale in a major political debate.

And news organizations weren’t transparent about this gap, even as they tried to enforce some limits on what government lies they would print to lessen their complicity in deceiving the public.

In 1954, for example, prominent West German counterintelligence chief Otto John defected to East Germany. The CIA and the U.S. State Department — at the time, run by brothers Allen and John Foster Dulles — worked quickly to convince reporters that John had not defected but rather had been lured to East Germany or kidnapped. Most reporters in Washington knew that the CIA “was trying to sell us a bill of goods,” as a New York Times editor complained. Yet some, including the influential syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop, repeated the claims.

In correspondence with his paper’s top editors, James “Scotty” Reston, the New York Times’s Washington bureau chief, acknowledged that, in the past, the Times had repeated government claims that it knew were untrue. The paper had even “left out a great deal of what we knew about U.S. intervention in Guatemala and in a variety of other cases involving the capture of some of our agents and the shooting down of some of our planes over Communist territory.”

But Reston drew a distinction between those cases and what the government was trying to do in the John case. In the previous situations, government officials “were willing to take responsibility for what was published and we published what they said as official statements.”

Reston saw running quotes that included falsehoods or outright lies as part of a responsible newspaper’s job. After all, journalists were informing readers of the perspective provided by a prominent newsmaker — even if behind the scenes, reporters knew it wasn’t truthful.

But he drew the line at conveying what he called “premises [that] may or not be … correct” without attribution. Those were fundamentally different. Knowingly printing an unattributed falsehood would mean the newspaper itself was lying. It would be the paper’s fault for misleading readers, rather than the government’s fault.

Times publisher Arthur H. Sulzberger agreed with Reston, responding in his typically colorful fashion. The Times could not knowingly “pull chestnuts out of the fire even for our own Government” if reporters and editors knew “that the chestnuts are no good.”

But like his Washington bureau chief, Sulzberger saw a distinction between that sort of deception and on-the-record claims. His paper would print “any statement made by the Administration if they will permit themselves to be quoted” and would do so “whether we believe them or not.”

To both men, recording what public officials said was the job of a newspaper whether it was true or false.

Reston did try to provide a bit of transparency for his readers. In a weekly column on the John case shortly after the exchange of memos with Sulzberger, he acknowledged that the press was complicit in spreading official lies or omitting information at the behest of the government. But he also expressed consternation that government officials were increasingly pushing reporters to go further and “not only to leave things out of the papers but to put things in which may be advantageous to some particular agency but which are not true.” Not all readers would have seen this follow-up, though, and correcting a reader’s impression days later and in a column would not have been a very effective method of exposing either Dulles brother as a liar.

The John case illustrates how news organizations operate by internal norms that audiences rarely glimpse. And while journalism has evolved since the 1950s, and despite the rise of independent political fact-checking organizations, it is still difficult for mainstream news outlets to call out lies by the government or by leading politicians and their allies.

The revelations from the Dominion lawsuit demonstrate that a totally different set of calculations motivated Fox News executives and personnel compared to what drove reporters like Reston decades ago. Theirs was not a journalistic struggle of ethics and conscience, nor does most of Fox operate in accordance with journalistic best practices or the norms of objectivity. Instead, like so many profit-motivated outlets, the network gives its audience the content it wants. This reality was underscored by the way Fox executives reprimanded journalists who tried to expose and fact-check the falsehoods being shared by Trump and his allies.

Yet, while Fox News’s disingenuous handling of these lies may have had dire repercussions, the gap between what Fox executives and hosts knew behind the scenes and what made it onto the air isn’t actually that unusual. The pressure to appear “objective” means even responsible reporters cannot always say in public what they know — in private — to be true. This norm especially made covering Trump difficult, given his willingness to routinely say things that were blatantly false.

Yet while many considered this to be a Trump problem, it wasn’t. It’s a problem with the conception of objectivity — one with major ramifications. The gap between what journalists know and what they report leaves the audience to determine the truthfulness of statements, and as we’ve seen vividly over the past decade, readers, listeners and viewers cannot always distinguish truth from lies.