The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When once-respected journalists move to the fringe

Lara Logan is shown during “Fox News Primetime” on Nov. 29, 2021. (Fox News)

In the abstract, there is nothing surprising about a guest on a prime-time Fox News opinion show offering a wild comparison between government officials battling the coronavirus and a notorious Nazi doctor who experimented on Jewish prisoners in concentration camps. This sort of rhetoric isn’t common on the network, but such extreme assertions are regular enough that, for example, the show’s fill-in host, Pete Hegseth, didn’t visibly react to the comment, much less reject it.

What is more remarkable about the claim was the guest who was offering it: Lara Logan, once a star reporter at CBS News, until an entirely debunked report about the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 tarnished her reputation. Now she mostly generates headlines not for her reporting but for her opinions, as was the case with her appearance on “Fox News Primetime” on Monday night.

“What is happening over time is that the entire response to covid and everything that we were told about it from the beginning is being exposed and it’s falling apart,” Logan said. “The lies are coming apart, and really now there’s no justification for putting people out of their jobs or forcing vaccine mandates for a disease that ultimately is very treatable.”

After falsely claiming that the death rate for covid-19 was comparable to that of seasonal flu (it is not), she targeted the country’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci.

“What you see on Dr. Fauci, this is what people say to me, is that he doesn’t represent science to them,” she continued. “He represents Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who did experiments on Jews during the Second World War and in the concentration camps. And I am talking about people all across the world are saying this. Because the response from covid, what it has done to countries everywhere. What it has done to civil liberties. The suicide rates. The poverty. It has obliterated economies. The level of suffering that has been created because of this disease is now being seen in the cold light of day.”

You will notice that this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Fauci is Mengele because the virus damaged economies and lives? (Quick aside: Notice how, to Logan, suicide rates are an unacceptable side effect of the virus — but deaths from the virus itself earn a shrug.) It’s just a pastiche of smears aimed at the right’s preferred target on coronavirus issues, presumably in an effort to leverage claims that Fauci somehow was responsible for the virus itself. Smears that, of course, draw perhaps the most toxic possible comparison in modern rhetoric.

Logan — touted on-screen as the host of the ironically named “Lara Logan Has No Agenda” on Fox’s streaming service — has recently drawn attention for credulously regurgitating obviously untrue claims about left-wing activists, comparing immigrants to a virus and claiming that supporters of Donald Trump or those who question the pandemic response are “classified as a domestic terrorist.” Fox News, of course, has few qualms about airing such claims. For all of the consternation and friction that Logan’s false report about Benghazi stirred up at CBS, Logan’s current employer gives her a far longer leash.

There’s an irony here, too. Fox News hosts and guests spend a lot of time disparaging the rest of the mainstream media as leftist shills, but the network is not shy about leveraging the credibility of other news outlets to bolster its offerings. When Logan joined Fox last year, the network repeatedly identified her as a “former CBS News correspondent.” Other networks use similar credentials, of course, but they aren’t also in the habit of trying to tear down those other organizations.

The best example here is Fox News’s use of the descriptor “former New York Times.” Since 2017, the network has used that phrase on air 155 times, compared with about 20 times each for MSNBC and CNN. Often, it’s used to describe Alex Berenson, a former reporter for the paper whose wild and untrue claims about the coronavirus earned him a welcome home at the network.

Berenson, like Logan, parlayed his credentials into a gig with far fewer constraints. They aren’t the only ones. Sharyl Attkisson, also a former CBS News star, now hosts a show for the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group. Her career went off track after she claimed that the government had hacked her computer and deleted her work; the probable culprit was a stuck backspace key. But Attkisson later wrote a book criticizing CBS’s coverage of Barack Obama — and was embraced by the right.

I am not an unbiased observer on the following point, but I still believe it to be true: There is value in organizational constraints that enforce accountability and caution. No media outlet is perfect, but good ones try to self-correct, even when painful, and even when that self-correction is used as a point of attack. CBS was roundly criticized for its handling of Logan’s report on Benghazi, but it handled it, offering multiple on-air corrections and apologies.

A good example of how a lack of such institutional constraints can affect reporting comes from the emerging world of Substack newsletters. There, writers and reporters have been offered healthy paychecks to opine on their areas of specialty or interest — but success has often been a function of generating controversy on social media. (“The only way a Substack grows is through tweets,” Casey Newton wrote in evaluating his own participation earlier this year.)

Combine a reward system often centered on winding people up and an employer who doesn’t care how you do it and you get a sort of microcosmic Fox News — down to leveraging people’s past gigs as credentials. There’s a reason that, when editors at the Intercept took issue with a piece Glenn Greenwald submitted, he decamped to Substack. Berenson is there now, too.

It seems likely that Logan’s political views have not shifted much since her time at CBS. (After her Benghazi report was debunked, new attention was paid to comments she previously made about the attacks.) What has changed is that she now is unencumbered by considerations like perhaps one should be cautious in drawing Nazi analogies or comparing migrants to viruses. Editors make reporters better in general, but also because they can subtly nudge them away from comparing government doctors to Josef Mengele.

Not that Logan hasn’t figured out a viable career path at Fox News. It’s one that other once-esteemed journalists have walked before.