Seeing FOX for What It Is: News Corp donations mandate reevaluating the network’s role

By Zachary Roth

From Columbia Journalism Review

Will this week mark the beginning of a new phase in the way that Fox News is perceived by the rest of the media, and perhaps ultimately the public too? As surprising as that sounds, it seems plausible.

Politico’s Ben Smith reported yesterday that News Corporation, Fox’s parent company, had donated $1 million to the Chamber of Commerce, the business lobby that’s shaping up as the single most important outside backer of Republican candidates this election cycle. That news came on the heels of another $1 million contribution by News Corp., this one to the Republican Governors Association.

Until now, the rest of the media has largely treated Fox News as one of its own. When the issue of Fox’s ideological agenda has periodically come to the surface—generally when the Obama White House has decided to make an issue of it—other reporters, particularly those in the Washington press corps, have tended to come to Fox’s defense. They’ve pointed out that Major Garrett, until August the network’s White House correspondent, is fair, and that it’s unseemly and (the biggest dodge of all) politically unwise, for the White House to go after the press. And mainstream print outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press still can’t bring themselves to flatly refer to Fox’s ideological agenda, instead relying on versions of the tried-and-true “critics say,” formulation.

But in giving $2 million to GOP-affiliated groups this cycle, Fox has largely dropped the pretense (and yes, other companies, like GE, that own big media outlets have made political contributions before, but not on anything like this scale.)*

So will the rest of the media now feel emboldened to do the same?

The early indicators are encouraging. Even before news of the donation to the Chamber surfaced, the Los Angeles Times’s James Rainey—a columnist rather than a straight reporter, admittedly—wrote Wednesday of a “new order” in which “Fox’s supposed news personalities—not just its prime-time opinion makers—routinely pound away at conservative talking points.” And Politico’s Smith, pivoting off Rainey, called on reporters to cover Fox “as the political actors they often are,” adding: “reporters don’t have to take Fox at its word on its own ‘balance’ any more than we have to take a politician at his word.”

Whether the rest of the media follows Smith’s advice is perhaps the key question going forward. Wringing one’s hands at the decline of “objective” journalism misses the point, because Fox can and will continue to do what it wants. What’s important, if only for the sake of simple accuracy, is simply that Fox comes to be seen for what it is. And it’s at least possible that this week’s news will start to make that happen.

UPDATE, 2:20 PM: This sentence article originally suggested that Fox had given money directly to the Republican party. The text has been changed.