Fox News: The Transition From Unfair and Unbalanced to Dangerous
Let’s begin with the obvious misnomers: first, since its inception, most of Fox News’ airtime has had little to do with news. Yes, most definitely, it covers news but that is hardly the majority of what it does. Most of what it does is distort coverage of national and world events by presenting right-wing opinion as if it is news. Second, for years its self-description was an ironic lie. It called itself “Fair and Balanced,” despite hosting a raft of anchors who routinely twist facts and blend them with remarkably unbalanced political opinion. Not a day goes by in which Fox News is fair and balanced.
At the time when Fox News was firing its Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, and its mega-star Bill O’Reilly, for sexual harassment, Fox suddenly dropped the “fair and balanced” line from its self-description. Show representatives said the motto was too closely tied to Ailes. Yet Fox News has not needed Ailes to be both unfair and unbalanced. In fact, the programming has recently begun to morph in a direction of undercutting our country and its judicial system. It should re-captioned itself: “Fox News, Dangerously Unfair.”
How is Fox News dangerous? Robert Mueller was appointed by the Trump Department of Justice as Special Counsel following the unprecedented firing of FBI Director James Comey. Mueller is among the most remarkably gifted and respected prosecutors in the nation, according to nearly all experts who spoke out after his hiring, and similarly, according to conservative and liberal news reports alike, Fox News very much included. Recently, however, Fox News has dramatically changed its tune. The reason is easy to understand: Mueller has begun to gather evidence and obtain indictments and convictions of high-ranking former Trump officials, with the evidence beginning to close in on Trump and his family. In response, Fox has begun a full assault on Mueller, with claims that are preposterous, but unrelenting. The allegations are manifestly intended to foment public support for the President firing Mueller before the full truth comes out. Fox News is about conservative power, not the truth, and most certainly not about Country above Party. Fox’s Sean Hannity, in particular, is leading us toward a potential constitutional crisis by urging the President to fire Mueller.
In the face of these attacks, Americans should profitably remind themselves: is Robert Mueller someone with extraordinary credentials who Americans have reason to consider a well-qualified, highly professional, and unbiased person? The briefest of refreshers: Mueller is a life-long, registered Republican, so he certainly has no liberal political leanings or indicia of bias favoring Democrats. He is highly intelligent, graduating from Princeton University. He is patriotic, volunteering to serve in the military in Viet Nam. He is brave, having received the Bronze Star with a Combat “V” for heroism, and a Purple Heart after he was shot in combat. He has earned the respect of leaders of both parties; three Presidents appointed him to high roles in law enforcement. President Bush appointed him as FBI Director, and he did his job so impressively that President Obama asked him to stay on in that role even though he is a Republican. Mueller became our nation’s second-longest serving FBI Director. He has abundant prosecutorial experience, serving as, in ascending order of authority, an Assistant U.S. Attorney (gaining him substantial trial experience), U.S. Attorney (in charge of an entire office of prosecutors), Chief of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division (in charge of the nation’s federal prosecutorial force), and finally, Deputy Attorney General. In short, Robert Mueller is extraordinarily well qualified, has spent his adult life in the service of his country, and has earned glowing accolades for his professionalism.
In discussing Fox New’s allegations against Mueller, first bear in mind that their mere mention furthers Fox’s objective of continuing the regurgitation of their talking points, however bizarre. Fox alleges Mueller has a conflict of interest because Trump had considered him as a replacement for fired FBI Director, James Comey. This is a non-sequitur, an absurdity that undercuts, not supports, Fox’s premise. The fact that Trump was considering Mueller for FBI Director reinforces, not diminishes, the notion that this is a person to whom the President approved, not someone “out to get him.” Moreover, being considered for the highest position in the FBI lends no support to the notion that he is conflicted in later being appointed to both a temporary and a lower position, that of Special Counsel.
Fox suggests Mueller must be fired as Special Counsel because he had a friendly working relationship with Comey when the former was the Deputy Attorney General and the latter served under him as FBI Director. The existence of a cordial professional relationship is hardly disqualifying. They were never social friends, merely colleagues whose job required that they work well together. Given that their prior working relationship was well known, the legal experts at the Trump Justice Department were certainly more qualified then Sean Hannity to recognize a legal conflict. They saw none because none exists. Moreover, bear in mind that the essence of the inquiry is into Trump’s conduct, and that of members of his Administration, not into former FBI Director Comey who is no longer involved in the investigation.
Fox’s broadsides also include the fact that an FBI agent on Mueller’s team was swiftly fired – by Mueller – for private tweets to a friend that could be interpreted as critical of the President. Mueller’s action in firing the agent is grounds to applaud him, not call for the Special Counsel’s firing. Recall that everyone from law enforcement officials, to TV news anchors, to private citizen, are all entitled to vote, and to express private opinions about events of the day; in other words, to be human. However, those involved in this investigation must be both unbiased, and maintain the appearance of being so. Thus, if an agent shows potential bias, the appropriate step is to remove him from the case. Bear in mind, the vast majority of FBI agents are quite conservative by nature. Fox News never complains about that. Are conservative leanings evidence of bias in favor of the President such that Democrats should complain the FBI cannot investigate Trump? Certainly not. They can, and are expected to perform their duties without regard to favoritism.
Finally, Fox complains that the FBI needs to be investigated for sundry imagined improprieties (which did not occur during Mueller’s tenure there), and that since he worked previously for the FBI, he cannot now be Special Counsel. At times Fox’s claims are breathtakingly absurd, and no response is needed.
Since “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” is often far from “fair or balanced,” ask yourself how Sean Hannity might feel if critics pointed out that he is not qualified to be a TV anchor and comment on a distinguished, highly educated person like Mueller because Hannity never even graduated from either of the two colleges he attended, nor chose to serve in the military. Thus, the unfair and unbalanced allegation would be that he is too uneducated and too unpatriotic to criticize a person of Robert Mueller’s stature. Ridiculous and unfair, you say? Of course, it is. That does not, however, render Hannity’s arguments any less unjustified. When tactical advantage rather than truth is the objective of a major television news station – as it clearly is now with Fox News – and our President has become the station’s “First Viewer-in-Chief,” our nation is in danger. If Trump fires Mueller, we will face a constitutional crisis at least equal to the Saturday Night Massacre of Archibald Cox in the Watergate Affair, and far greater if Republicans allow the firing to stand.
(Craig Benedict, a retired federal prosecutor, wrote this article.)