Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity does his show live from the floor of a campaign rally in Cape Girardeau, Mo. (File) (Jeff Roberson/AP)
Media critic

Glenn Beck left Fox News in 2011. He and his conspiracy theories, however, haven’t taken permanent leave from the No. 1 cable news channel. Last month, for instance, he joined fellow fantasist Sean Hannity for a chat about migrants heading through Mexico toward the U.S. border.

“The problem is actually coming from Chicago,” Beck told Hannity during an April 10 broadcast. “There is a group, a family that has a United Methodist Church, they are preachers, they are the ones that started the sanctuary city. They are directly getting money from George Soros and others.”

Another night on Fox News, another baseless slam against Soros, the billionaire philanthropist and funder of Democratic politicians. Was Soros really behind the migrant movement? “Absolutely not — not on any level whatsoever,” Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations, Soros’ philanthropic agency, tells the Erik Wemple Blog in an interview. Over the past month, Gaspard has attempted to petition Fox News for a correction. “How many times do these false statements need to be aired before you take action?” asked Gaspard in an April 11 letter.

Soros is a Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist who survived the Nazi occupation of 1944-45 and, by the time he fled to England in 1947, had lived under both Nazi and communist rule, as Nadine Epstein notes in a short biography. After his emigration to the United States in 1956, he made a bundle in finance, then focused that wealth on philanthropy, funding scholarships for black South African university students and Eastern European dissidents beginning in 1979. A profile in the New York Times Magazine notes that after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Soros “poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the former Soviet-bloc countries to promote civil society and liberal democracy. It was a one-man Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe, a private initiative without historical precedent. It was also a gamble that a part of the world that had mostly known tyranny would embrace ideas like government accountability and ethnic tolerance.” Soros’ Open Society Foundations (OSF) dishes out nearly $1 billion per year to organizations around the world that work on health care, education, government accountability and free elections, among others.

Soros’ identification with partisan U.S. politics took root during the administration of President George W. Bush, whose war on terror terrified Soros with its fervor. “I really became engaged in domestic politics in 2004, because I felt that the single most important thing I could do to make the world a better place is to help get President Bush out of the White House,” said Soros, during a 2006 interview with Fox News. “And, unfortunately, events since then have borne me out.” Among the beneficiaries of Soros’ largesse has been Media Matters for America, the nonprofit watchdog group that monitors the hateful and inaccurate eructations of Fox News — a big job.

Fox News and its guests have responded with pettiness, exaggeration and dishonesty. Typical of the reigning Fox News attitude toward Soros was a quip last week by Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who referred to him as a “socialist activist,” even though he made his fortune off of capitalism and started his philanthropic career fighting communism.

No one, however, outdoes Hannity, who presides over the most bilious rhetoric about the mighty Soros. “And according now tonight to foxnews.com, many protests like the one you saw . . . They are being organized, funded, actually, shockingly, by George Soros and a group that he is backing," said Hannity last October. "He’s an extremely wealthy liberal billionaire who wants to take away your Second Amendment rights and he has a different version of what America should be, obviously, oh, a global world. I believe in the United States of America.”

Following Beck’s April comments on “Hannity,” Gaspard sent his concerns to Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott. “Neither Mr. Soros nor Open Society pay people to migrate to the United States,” wrote Gaspard. “The only group Glenn Beck named was CASA, an organization that the Open Society Foundations has never funded. Perhaps he’s referring to Pueblos Sin Fronteras, which we do not nor have we ever funded. We do actually support the historic U.S. commitment — upheld by presidents of both political parties — to welcoming people fleeing oppression and violence in their homelands. Maybe FOX News’ journalists could do some accurate and responsible reporting on why people feel the need to flee those Central American countries?”

Gaspard wanted to hear what steps Fox News would take to ensure that Beck-style inaccuracies stopped.

No such steps emerged in Fox News’s April 23 reply, which came from Meade Cooper, the executive vice president of prime-time programming, and consisted of four sentences: “Thank you for your letter of April 11, 2019, to our Chief Executive Officer, Suzanne Scott. We appreciate the information you have shared with us about Mr. Soros and the Open Society Foundations. As you know, Mr. Hannity’s program features guest commentators who hold a wide array of opinions. We welcome your feedback or criticisms of their views, and we will respectfully take your comments into consideration.”

That response pretty well encapsulates the farce of the so-called opinion hosts on Fox News. They operate under a conceit established ages ago at newspapers, in which editorialists and news reporters worked in separate spheres. Except that Fox News has corrupted the split by empowering their opinion people to operate free of facts, to equate conspiracy theories with points of view. Which is to say there is no “view” or “opinion” about whether Soros funded the caravans.

As for Cooper’s reply to his concerns, Gaspard says it’s “barely above the level of a form letter.”

“Regrettably, Fox News has not responded as one would expect a legitimate news organization or a legitimate business to respond,” says Gaspard.

In a reply to Cooper, Gaspard wrote, “Your letter to me regarding Glenn Beck’s false and slanderous comments about George Soros is both nonresponsive and untruthful. Sean Hannity’s guests do not promote differing points of views and Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network generally push out offensive content about George Soros without any rebuttals or fact checking.” Gaspard is seeking a meeting with Fox News principals, though he has gotten no indication that the request will be granted.

The network’s curt and unaccountable response to Gaspard speaks to Hannity’s power. In recent years, as Hannity has harnessed the Trump demographic with his sycophantic monologues, the fast-talking host has faced no workplace consequences. Sharing a lawyer with the president of the United States? No problem. Flying a vice presidential candidate to meet with Trump? No problem. Providing frequent advice to a presidential candidate? No problem. Inviting a guest commentator to smear a liberal billionaire on national television? Apparently no problem.

There’s an element of muscle memory to the hateful rhetoric. In fall 2010, Beck famously rolled out his critique of the philanthropist, calling him a “puppet master” and tarring him with a number of anti-Semitic stereotypes. “This is George Soros’s money, handpicking secretary of states so they have them in his pocket,” he said during an October 2010 program. On his radio program, Beck tried another claim that has been clearly debunked: “Here’s a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps.” The Anti-Defamation League called the remarks “offensive” and “horrific.”

With that context in mind, consider this: On a ho-hum night in October 2018, guest Chris Farrell of Judicial Watch appeared with Lou Dobbs on Fox Business Network. Referring to the caravan of migrants then pushing northward, Farrell said, “A lot of these folks also have affiliates or are getting money from the Soros-occupied State Department and that is a great, great concern. We need to start cutting money — start cutting money there.”

Moneyed Jewish man controls the government — a poorly disguised bit of anti-Semitism.

When those comments first aired on Oct. 25, they stirred little notice. Two days later, a gunman killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The accused killer, as it turned out, had a specific, conspiratorial gripe: “Mr. Bowers frequently reposted anti-Semitic content that alleged Jews control the nation,” wrote the New York Times about the alleged gunman’s social media postings. “On a doctored image of the Auschwitz concentration camp, the gate read: ‘Lies Make Money.’ Another post said: ‘Open you Eyes! It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!’”

The Dobbs show re-aired the night after the killings, and a backlash erupted. Fox News took action, declaring that Farrell wouldn’t be booked again on Fox Business Network or Fox News. “We condemn the rhetoric by the guest on ‘Lou Dobbs Tonight,’ ” said Gary Schreier, Fox Business Network’s senior vice president of programming, in a statement. “This episode was a repeat which has now been pulled from all future airings.”

Another quick response issued from the network in December 2018, after Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) took it upon himself to unleash a rant against Soros during a segment with Fox Business Network host Stuart Varney. “George Soros is supposed to be Jewish, but you wouldn’t know it from the damage he’s inflicted on Israel, and the fact that he turned on fellow Jews and helped take the property that they own,” said Gohmert, among other things.

Perhaps blindsided by the riff amid talk of China trade policy, Varney let it go, but then issued a scolding later in the broadcast: “Congressman Louie Gohmert for some reason went out of his way to bring up George Soros and made unsubstantiated and false allegations against him. I want to make clear those views are not shared by me, this program or anyone at Fox Business.”

So there is some precedent for Fox News’s taking action against Soros-related slander. Says Gaspard: “That was a credit to Varney, and it represented for us progress until, of course, Mr. Beck appeared on ’Hannity’ last month and doubled down on his anti-Semitism and doubled down on irresponsible conspiracy theories that are polluting our politics.”

So we wondered: If Fox was willing to discontinue Farrell’s guest appearances and scold Gohmert, why not similarly correct the record from the Beck-Hannity hit job in April? Fox News declined to comment on the record for this story. Attempts to secure comment from Beck were unsuccessful.

Addressing the anti-Semitic flavor of the coverage, Gaspard says that there are plenty of philanthropists who work on justice, free press, health and education — yet Soros is the one who’s always getting the hateful references on Fox News. All the negative attention, says Gaspard, begets ugliness. Last year, Soros — along with Democratic politicians and CNN — received one of the mail bombs allegedly sent by Trump fan Cesar Sayoc.

“We think there’s a relationship between those kinds of threats we receive as an organization and Fox allowing distorters of the historical record, and those who are willing to traffic in anti-Semitic tropes to make these charges in a way that is not challenged whatsoever,” says Gaspard, who told CNN’s Brian Stelter last fall that Fox News had “refused” to allow his group on the air to rebut representations about Soros.

What will OSF do now?

“All options are on the table,” Gaspard says.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: Here’s why Fox News is No. 1

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

Dana Milbank: Of course it’s George Soros’s fault. It’s always George Soros’s fault.