March 2018

Like many media outlets, Fox News is divided into news and opinion. Its wake-up show, Fox and Friends, and its nightly talking heads are unabashed promoters of whatever nonsense buoys Trump or sinks liberals. On the other hand, its news side does adhere to some standards of journalism. In other words, they don’t outright lie. But that doesn’t stop them from sailing close to the wind. It is the art of misdirection.

A classic of the type is a reference to “many people are saying”. It’s genius. It requires neither the identity nor the qualifications of the people speaking. It leaves in doubt how many there are — or even if they exist. It’s the journalistic equivalent of Jeff Sessions’ repeated claim that he “has no recollection”. Impossible to prove wrong.

There are other techniques Fox News uses. Let’s use this news piece to illustrate them:

“Documents suggest possible coordination between CIA, FBI, Obama WH and Dem officials early in Trump-Russia probe: investigators”  

The headline lays the groundwork for what’s to come. ‘Documents’ conveys a sense of weight. The next two words are equivocations: ‘suggest’ and ‘possible’. The usual suspects are introduced. The victim is presented. And it ends with the concrete but completely undefined ‘investigators’.

The writer then repeats the headline in the first paragraph of the story

Newly uncovered text messages between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page suggest a possible coordination between high-ranking officials at the Obama White House, CIA, FBI, Justice Department and former Senate Democratic leadership in the early stages of the investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, according to GOP congressional investigators on Wednesday.

‘Documents’ has been downgraded to ‘text messages’. ‘Suggest’ and ‘possible’ survive. As does the list of perpetrators — and the victim. However, we discover that the unidentified investigators of the headline are in fact ‘GOP congressional investigators’. Was the use of the anodyne ‘GOP’ instead of ‘Republican’ an attempt to play down the political element of the investigation?

The next paragraph develops the story

The investigators say the information provided to Fox News “strongly” suggests coordination between former President Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, then-Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, and CIA Director John Brennan — which they say would “contradict” the Obama administration’s public stance about its hand in the process.

Fox takes a hands-off approach and allows the investigators to characterize their information — which now “strongly” suggests — which is just a strong equivocation. They (still unnamed) say their information ‘would contradict’ (why don’t they say ‘does’ contradict?) the Obama’s administration’s public stance about its hand in the process.

Why is the language so convoluted? Why doesn’t Fox say what the administration’s stance is? They must want the reader to imagine whatever Obama deviousness the reader chooses to.

The story goes on to report some of the texts, none of which seem to say what Fox suggests they say. Here’s one:

Days later, on Aug. 8, 2016, Strzok texted Page: “Internal joint cyber cd intel piece for D, scenesetter for McDonough brief, Trainor [head of FBI cyber division] directed all cyber info be pulled. I’d let Bill and Jim hammer it out first, though it would be best for D to have it before the Wed WH session.”

Besides identifying D as James Comey, Fox offers no explanation for what this means. Or even why it supports the headline. Do they even know? It’s gibberish without context.

Next up is a conversation about a letter Harry Reid wrote in which he claimed to have evidence that the Russians were somehow connected to the Trump campaign. Fox’s shadowy investigators saw a nefarious purpose to Reid’s missive. Although it was again couched in watery language.

Congressional investigators suggested that the Reid letter possibly provided “cover” for the fact that the FBI and Justice Department had already begun investigating the Trump campaign in mid-July on what they called “questionable ethical and legal grounds.”

Fox is eager to cast the FBI and Justice Department as bad actors for doing their jobs. But lacking anything concrete it resorts to throwing stink bombs about “questionable ethical and legal grounds”.

Fox eventually admits the whole thing is at best a fishing expedition by anonymous sources. Even as the unnamed sources themselves confesses is no there, there.

The source told Fox News on Wednesday that investigators were neither “passing judgement” nor “claiming a smoking gun,” but suggested that the timeline was “incredibly concerning.”

“At some point, the amount of concerning information becomes enough for a special counsel to look into it.”

They are not making conclusions. There is no smoking gun. The timeline is ‘incredibly concerning’. But it doesn’t rise above ‘my gut tells me there is something wrong’. And that is not the stuff of robust investigative reporting.

The evidence is clear. This is a piece of wishful thinking masquerading as a news story.

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