Here’s a disconcerting reality: The fate of truth in American public discourse could end up resting with Rupert Murdoch.
Over the weekend, the new administration spouted one lie after another. Speaking at the CIA headquarters on Saturday, President Donald Trump said his inauguration crowd on Friday “looked honestly like a million and a half people.” Later in the day, his White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said the president drew “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe.” And on Sunday’s Meet the Press, Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer, saying her colleague offered “alternative facts” about the crowd size.
“Alternative facts are not facts,” host Chuck Todd replied. “They’re falsehoods!”
His outraged reaction mirrored that of the mainstream media. But notably, two of Murdoch’s conservative outlets also held the Trump administration accountable for its falsehoods. One Wall Street Journal news story was headlined, “White House Disputes Inauguration Attendance Estimates, Despite Evidence to Contrary.” Another began thus (emphasis mine):
Defending a series of false statements by the official White House spokesman, a senior Trump administration adviser on Sunday suggested the official had been invoking “alternative facts” rather than untruths.
Meanwhile, Chris Wallace did his duty on Fox News Sunday. “You talk about honesty, and say that this was about honesty,” he told White House chief of staff Reince Priebus. “Well, there’s another issue, though, Reince, and that’s the president’s honesty, because two things that he said yesterday were just flat wrong.” Wallace showed photos comparing Trump’s inaugural crowd to Barack Obama’s in 2009, clearly proving that the latter was bigger.
That both the Journal and Fox News were willing to call out the administration’s disinformation campaign is not only heartening, but vital. (They’ve done it before, but this weekend suggested the scrutiny will continue.) Trump, like conservatives more broadly, has convinced many Americans that mainstream outlets like The New York Times and CNN are effectively extensions of the Democratic Party. Yet, the Journal and Fox News, longtime conservative outlets overseen by Murdoch, are immune to such criticism, making them uniquely positioned to upholding truth under Trump. That’s why they deserve the support, not only of the media establishment, but liberals too.
Fox News was rightly criticized under President George W. Bush for being anything but “fair and balanced.” This criticism became a cottage industry on the left, producing Robert Greenwald’s documentary Outfoxed, Keith Olbermann’s scathing “special comments” on MSNBC, and Al Franken’s brilliant book Lies (and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them): A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. (The Minnesota senator’s takedowns of Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter in his days as a satirist make his grilling of President Donald Trump’s education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos look positively tame.)
Fox News hasn’t gotten better since the Bush years. They otherized President Barack Obama, lionized the Tea Party, and largely promoted Donald Trump’s candidacy (notwithstanding the occasional challenge from Megyn Kelly, Shepard Smith, and Chris Wallace). But these journalistic sins, and those of the Journal (mostly in its opinion section), pale in comparison to the daily output of Breitbart and the fringe pro-Trump, post-truth media outlets that have sprouted over the past year. As the biggest power players in conservative media, Fox News and the Journal can respond to this market challenge in one of two ways: Move away from reality to appeal to Breitbart’s audience, or defend broadly accepted facts and evidence—that is, to defend journalism itself against an administration that’s hostile to it.
At a time when only about 40 percent of Americans have a positive opinion of Trump—and most have an actively negative view, according to Fox News’s own polling—many right-of-center news consumers will be receptive to fact-checks of the president, especially from these two outlets they’ve long trusted. Viewers and readers might believe critical reporting of Trump from these sources that they’d otherwise reject from the Times or CNN. Plus, Fox News was the most-watched basic cable channel last year, averaging 2.4 million primetime viewers, and Fox News’s digital audience was 74,000 unique visitors in December, according to ComScore. The Journal reported 948,000 digital-only subscribers as of last August, and a print circulation of 1.3 million.
There’s a mountain of instances, collected over two decades, where Fox News has distorted truth or evaded it. Many of its pundits, like O’Reilly and Sean Hannity (one of Trump’s leading non-Breitbart boosters), continue to do so. But Fox’s news operation, like the Journal’s, is fundamentally committed to the truth. Both outlets’ reporters deal in facts. They issue corrections. They challenge misinformation. (And for the record, the Journal is far superior to Fox News in this regard.)
But adherence to facts only goes so far; these outlets’ opinion-makers matter, too. Hannity is a lost cause, but we can hope that O’Reilly and perhaps even Tucker Carlson are willing to take on the White House when the moment calls for it. The same is true for the Journal’s editorial board, which has already done so with a Sunday editorial criticizing Trump’s CIA speech. “This was not a presidential performance,” they wrote. “Such defensiveness about his victory and media coverage makes Mr. Trump look small and insecure.”
Business pressures incentivize deference to Trump, but responsible journalism demands the opposite. This is the moment for Murdoch’s outlets to challenge every liberal stereotype about them. Fox News and the Journal are mainstream media, whether they like it or not, and they should stand up for the values that all mainstream outlets share. There’s no better moment to be truly fair and balanced.