Media critic

Fox News host Chris Wallace broke with a vaunted journalistic tradition on Sunday night while moderating a town hall event with Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. Addressing a controversy among Democrats about whether to appear on the conservative cable-news network, Buttigieg acknowledged that there’s a solid case for boycotting Wallace and his cohort:

“We’ve got to find people where they are,” said Buttigieg. “You know, a lot of folks in my party were critical of me for even doing this with Fox News.”

“I’ve heard that,” responded Wallace, with intentional understatement.

Then came this analysis from Buttigieg:

And I get where that’s coming from, especially when you see what goes on with some of the opinion hosts on this network. I mean, when you’ve got Tucker Carlson saying that immigrants make America dirty. When you’ve got Laura Ingraham comparing detention centers with children in cages to summer camps. Summer camps. Then there is a reason why anybody has to swallow hard and think twice before participating in this media ecosystem.

But I also believe that even though some of those hosts are not always there in good faith, I think a lot of people tune into this network who do it in good faith. And there are a lot of Americans who my party can’t blame if they are ignoring our message, 'cause they will never hear it if we don’t go on and talk about it. And so it’s why, whether it’s going into the viewership of Fox News or whether geographically it’s going into places where Democrats haven’t been seen much, I think we got to find people where they are — not change our values, but update our vocabulary so that we’re truly connecting with Americans from coast to coast.

It was at this moment that Wallace — who, along with folks such as Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, works on the news side of Fox News — might have complied with an unspoken code in news organizations: Don’t let your guest dump on your colleagues. I am sorry, but I can’t let this comment about the work of Fox News go uncontested, he could have said.

Instead, Wallace said: “All right, mayor, we’ve got to take a break here.”

The reason Wallace didn’t defend his opinion-side colleagues is that their words are indefensible. Buttigieg’s summary was on target. In December, Carlson was ripping U.S. leadership and strung together these words: “We have a moral obligation to admit the world’s poor, they tell us, even if it makes our own country poor and dirtier and more divided.” And amid the child-separation crisis at the southern border nearly a year ago, Ingraham said, “As more illegal immigrants are rushing the border, more kids are being separated from their parents and temporarily housed at what are essentially summer camps.”

It makes sense that the two comments that Buttigieg flagged related to immigration, a core issue promoted over and over by the opinion hosts at Fox News. On this issue, the hateful words of people such as Carlson and Ingraham tend to cluster.

Fox News thrives on what it brands as a firewall separation between news and opinion, in the tradition of long-standing U.S. news organizations. “We serve different masters. We work for different reporting chains, we have different rules,” said news-side Fox News host Shepard Smith last year. The news side of Fox News pushed for a partnership with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to hold a primary debate on the network, though DNC boss Tom Perez rejected the proposal on the grounds that Fox News and the Trump administration have gotten too cozy. Divisions between the two sides of Fox News burst on the airwaves earlier this month, following reports that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — in a March 27 letter — had expressed misgivings about the way that Attorney General William P. Barr had characterized his report. “I know there are some people who don’t think this March 27 letter is a big deal,” Wallace said. “And some opinion people, some opinion people who appear on this network, who may be pushing a political agenda.”

That said, in an extensive report last week, Media Matters for America cautioned against accepting the hype about the sanctity of the network’s newsies. “We looked at Fox News and Fox Business programming for the first four months of 2019, and we found examples of the ‘news’ division spreading misinformation on air every single day between January 1 and April 30,” noted the investigation.

The distortions on the “news” side of Fox News were pronounced during the presidency of Barack Obama, when these supposedly fair-and-balanced presentations never stopped hyping Benghazi or any other stray scandalito on which producers could hang a chyron. That’s a dynamic for which Buttigieg would develop a fresh appreciation if he were to make it all the way to the White House.

The unenviable job of shoring up the pride of Fox News opinionators fell on Monday morning to the country’s most woeful information program. “Don’t hop on our channel and continue to put down the other hosts on the channel, or the channel,” said Brian Kilmeade, co-host of the abominable “Fox & Friends.” “If you feel that negative about it, don’t come. Because for him to go out there and take shots at our prime-time lineup without going on our prime-time lineup shows, to me, absolutely no courage.” Maybe Kilmeade should take up his gripe with Wallace.

Prepare for more this stuff: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), another Democratic presidential hopeful, is scheduled for a June 2 Fox News town hall. She, too, may feel compelled to clarify why she’s appearing on a network the promotes and coddles Trump at every turn.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: How Fox News distorts the news: A Mueller case study

Erik Wemple: Warren gives Fox News a debate it didn’t ask for

Jennifer Rubin: Pete Buttigieg creates another media moment

Erik Wemple: Fox News host to Dems: Don’t criticize Fox News on Fox News

Helaine Olen: How Fox News accidentally revealed the truth about support for Medicare-for-all