The dangerously anti-democratic behavior of former President Donald Trump and the slavish endorsement of it by Fox News the past five years has forced me to rethink several bedrock beliefs about journalism, media criticism and politics.
Remember in October of 2009 when President Barack Obama declared war on Fox with Anita Dunn, then White House director of communications, saying Fox News was not a legitimate news organization?
“We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent,” Ms. Dunn told the New York Times. “As they are undertaking a war against Barack Obama and the White House, we don’t need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave.”
When the words were backed up by action with Fox being excluded from on-camera interviews with a Treasury Department official, I was one of the first journalists to push back hard saying presidents don’t get to determine what is or isn’t a legitimate news organization. A constitutional scholar like Mr. Obama should know that if he did any reading of the founders, I added.
I was rock solid in that position, and I am still glad that I took it even in the face of blowback from those who thought I was defending Fox rather than the core principle of a free press.
But now comes Lachlan Murdoch, son of Rupert Murdoch and CEO of the Fox Corporation, telling investors last week that the role of his channel with Democrat Joe Biden in the White House is that of loyal opposition.
“The main beneficiary of the Trump administration from a ratings point of view was MSNBC,” Mr. Murdoch said pointing to a cable news network that features liberal show hosts in prime time like Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell. “And that’s because they were the loyal opposition. That’s what our job is now with the Biden administration, and you’ll see our ratings really improve from here.”
A spokesperson for NBCUniversal News Group, which includes NBC News and MSNBC, challenged the comparison, saying, “Our role, and the role of any legitimate news organization, whether it includes an ‘opinion section’ or not, is to hold power to account, regardless of party.”
That challenge is correct. Fox News is in no way equivalent to NBC News or MSNBC. The latter two adhere to the same mainstream journalistic values as The Baltimore Sun or the Washington Post. Fox, on the other hand, was conceived by the late Roger Ailes as a political tool of the right masquerading as a news organization with its “fair and balanced” mantra.
But now the mask is off with Mr. Murdoch’s admission to investors. No more pretending. Loyal opposition is a purely political term. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a minority party especially in a legislative body whose opposition to the party in power is constructive, responsible, and bounded by loyalty to fundamental interests and principles.”
There is nothing remotely journalistic about that definition. It’s political through and through.
So, why treat Fox News in any way like a journalistic organization? Why let Fox enjoy any of the journalistic prerogatives, like a place in the White House press room or a press seat on Air Force One? Would you invite a political organization that has opposed your rightful election, like, say, the Proud Boys, on your plane? In the words of Ms. Dunn, treat them the way you would “any opponent.”
Such a policy of exclusion seems especially righteous given the way Fox News has provided a platform for Mr. Trump to spread his big lie that he won the November election. In doing so, Fox News isn’t worthy of even calling itself the loyal opposition. What part of giving airtime to someone who instigated an insurrection aimed at shutting down Congress and the certification of Electoral College votes fits the dictionary definition that “opposition to the party in power is constructive, responsible, and bounded by loyalty to fundamental interests and principles”? Given that, would it not perhaps be more accurate to call Fox News the disloyal opposition?
Fox and the Murdochs have been far too destructive to democracy for too long. Beyond adopting the appearance of a journalistic operation on-air, there is little that is journalistic about the content Fox produces. It is much closer to propaganda than journalism. In 2009, I defended them on the principle of a free press, but they have consistently betrayed that value since.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik