About News

No Easy Way to Make Fox News Change Its Bad Behavior

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

No one is more responsible for the devastation to life and property at the U.S. Capitol than the criminals themselves, but retributions are under way against parts of the media environment that allowed it and even encouraged it.

Under public pressure, and perhaps stunned by events, major social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have temporarily or permanently suspended selected accounts, including the president’s, deemed to potentially incite violence. Amazon, Apple and Google essentially shut down Parler, a social media platform popular with conspiracy theorists.

It’s not as clear what to do about traditional news media, such as Fox News, that also stirred unfounded anger with repeated lies by opinion hosts, commentators and guests about the validity of the presidential election. Wednesday’s perpetrators drew their motivation to act largely from social media, but the politicians egging them on were looking for air time on Fox News and pandering to that audience. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan called the pro-Trump media’s role in Wednesday’s events, led by Fox News, “disgraceful.” “They own this,” she wrote.

Public shaming is warranted but ineffective. So is the idea to just stop watching, because the people outraged by Fox News weren’t watching it anyway. And even though Fox News’ opinion shows have misled their audience in a dangerous way on multiple subjects – the severity of COVID-19, the benefits of hydroxychloroquine – ratings make it clear those viewers aren’t going anywhere, maybe except for a temporary dalliance with One America News Network or Newsmax.

One possibility for trying to force change upon irresponsible media isn’t new: Consumer boycotts of the companies that advertise on offending shows. The idea is to affect the bottom line of corporate sponsors enough that they’ll bail out on the program in question. Fox News has prompted a long list of such actions in its history, usually the result of a hateful comment by a show host rather than a protest of bad journalism over time. Often, sponsors have fled immediately, aware of reputational injury from continued association.

Fox is sensitive about the dynamics here. The Daily Beast reported Saturday that Fox News ad reps have a pitch to reassure companies that advertising with the channel isn’t so bad because the “negative chatter” among consumers dies out quickly. But the pitch damns itself with faint praise: It says Fox advertisers don’t suffer the “real brand damage” that Boeing did from its plane crashes. Yeah, that’s a good standard.

Attempted boycotts often draw criticism themselves as attempts to squash free speech. That’s not so. They’re another form of free speech and fair game on the battlefield of ideas (formerly known as the marketplace of ideas).

The big hitch is, they’re often not effective. If an advertiser simply switches from one Fox show to another, the network doesn’t suffer. Protesters have to boycott everyone that buys network time, and good luck living your life without buying anything from, say, Procter & Gamble. Also, Fox News can insulate itself from downturns in advertising dollars because most of its revenue actually comes from fees paid by cable and satellite TV distributors. That’s why some Fox critics prefer to pressure pay-TV providers to remove Fox News from their programming bundles.

If not by boycott, a measure of accountability for Fox News may await in a courtroom. Last month, a demand letter (a possible precursor to litigation) from the voting software company Smartmatic spooked Fox News into airing a “fact checking” segment that backpedaled from false election fraud claims made on multiple Fox shows. A similar company subjected to similar treatment, Dominion Voting Systems, has sent pre-litigation letters to Fox, Newsmax and OAN.

Still, legal action is not a great way to bring change because it’s slow, expensive and valid for only particular circumstances. And Fox News has a really enlightening defense that helped it win a defamation case against host Tucker Carlson in September: No reasonable person would take a Fox opinion show seriously. (Sure, then how come a Fox News poll in December said 68% of Republicans believe Trump won?)

I haven’t even mentioned the radical notion that, in view of events, maybe Fox News and its cable brethren should find a conscience. Not just to quit fomenting angry grievance but to quit misrepresenting facts in general. I’m not optimistic, though. Even after last week’s destruction, Carlson, for one, pronounced to his viewers: “It is not your fault; it’s their fault.” Inherent in that: “It’s not Fox’ fault, either.”

These networks remain unconcerned about the consequences of their actions, immorally comforted by dollars and ratings points.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.