One of the corrupting influences in US journalism lies with people shifting back and forth between the roles of reporter, a talking head pundit, political advisor, and press spokesperson for a public figure or organization. Being a reporter is the hardest job involving having to do real work and research and yet it is likely the least remunerative and has the least visibility. So it should not be surprising that reporters can be lured into those other roles. While they may think that they can remain untainted, it is not easy to maintain the intellectual separation.
In some case, they do not even try that hard to maintain a separation between what they do when working for a media outlet and advising the people they are supposedly covering. A good example of this can be seen in the report released a few days ago that Fox News personalities were privately sending messages to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows during the January 6th riot expressing alarm at what was going on and calling on him to persuade Donald Trump to call off the mob.
Donald Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr and three hosts on the Fox News network begged then White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to persuade the former president to stop the 6 January insurrection despite their public efforts to downplay it, newly released text messages show.
Laura Ingraham, the host of The Ingraham Angle, wrote: “Hey Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home. This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy.”
Brian Kilmeade, co-host of the morning show Fox & Friends, on which Trump appeared regularly, wrote to the chief of staff on 6 January: “Please, get him on TV. Destroying everything you have accomplished.”
And Sean Hannity, a prime time host who once appeared onstage with Trump at a campaign rally, texted Meadows: “Can he make a statement? Ask people to leave the Capitol.”
If these people had used their platforms to say the same things they said privately in their tweets, that would have been fine. But on their media platforms, all three were downplaying the seriousness of the situation. Note that Ingraham writes that the riot “is hurting all of us“, explicitly acknowledging that she is on Team Trump.
That is what happens when you try to mix roles. The extensive socializing, schmoozing, and partying that goes on in Washington between media figures, lobbyists, and politicians adds to the blurring of the lines. We should not assume that Fox News personalities are the only ones guilty of such things. This practice is widespread. But Fox news provides the most blatant examples.
Legendary journalist I. F. Stone was so effective because he refused to be lured by the idea that just because journalistic work had such impact, they should try to use that to privately influence policymakers.
“It’s just wonderful to be a pariah. I really owe my success to being a pariah. It is so good not to be invited to respectable dinner parties. People used to say to me, ‘Izzy, why don’t you go down and see the Secretary of State and put him straight.’ Well, you know, you’re not supposed to see the Secretary of State. He won’t pay any attention to you anyway. He’ll hold your hand, he’ll commit you morally for listening. To be a pariah is to be left alone to see things your own way, as truthfully as you can. Not because you’re brighter than anybody else is — or your own truth so valuable. But because, like a painter or a writer or an artist, all you have to contribute is the purification of your own vision, and add that to the sum total of other visions. To be regarded as nonrespectable, to be a pariah, to be an outsider, this is really the way to do it. To sit in your tub and not want anything. As soon as you want something, they’ve got you!”
Sadly, there are few journalists today who have the clarity of vision that Stone had of what it takes to be a real journalist.