One thing that has become crystal clear during this pandemic is how incredibly vital our news sources are. And with that clarity comes the confirmation that one news organization routinely trades in misinformation: the American network Fox News.
As many industry critics and journalists have noted for some time, Fox News is a news organization in name only, a network launched specifically with the goal of strengthening the fortunes of the Republican party and moving public discourse to the right. But Fox News's role has now taken on fatal proportions, as many of the network's pundits were echoing President Trump's downplaying the threat COVID-19 posed, in particular Sean Hannity, who referred to the virus as "a hoax." A recent study confirms what many predicted: that such pronouncements, made on a platform that reaches millions of Americans, would impact how they thought about the health crisis and how they would respond. Many didn't heed warnings about social distancing, and they are facing infection as a result.
So egregious was Fox News's coverage that it prompted 74 journalism professors and working journalists to sign an open letter to members of the Murdoch family (the billionaires who bankroll the network), accusing Fox of wilfully spreading dangerous misinformation. The case against Fox News is now so potent, they face an actual lawsuit over misleading coverage of the COVID-19 crisis.
While touting itself as a patriotic, all-American institution, Fox News has a prominent Canadian connection: John Roberts, who now serves as their White House correspondent. Roberts cut his teeth in Canadian TV news in the '80s before leaving for the U.S. Once seen as the obvious replacement for Dan Rather, when the legendary newsman was stepping down as host of the CBS Evening News, Roberts didn't get that job, but instead moved to CNN and then Fox.
In 2009, Roberts was inducted into the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame. I would argue his years at Fox indicate clearly that he is no longer worthy of this honor, and that it should be revoked.
At first read, these words may sound harsh. After all, Roberts worked for many other news organizations, and has done some solid reporting. And many would argue that he joins a small group of other journalists at Fox (among them Chris Wallace) who do not simply spew emotional outbursts, but rather offer up real news.
But one could argue that makes Roberts even more culpable in the Fox News formula. By hiring a few token sane people, it lends the other talking heads cover, and gives the network a veneer of credibility. It mixes up hot-headed opinions with facts, conflating the two. It's a big part of what paved the way for White House spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway to refer to "alternative facts" as a defence of the Trump administration's brazen dishonesty. Roberts appears like a mild-mannered, Clark Kentesque reporter next to the louder voices in the room, like Hannity, Lou Dobbs or Tucker Carlson. But he's the proverbial spoonful of sugar that is helping a huge number of Americans swallow toxic Kool-Aid. And with COVID-19, the media virus of misinformation has met up with an actual virus: this is literally a matter of life and death.
Launched in 1982, the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame recognizes Canadians who have "achieved outstanding success in helping raise industry standards from a material or humanitarian standpoint." As a representative of Fox News, Roberts represents the opposite of this statement. At the very moment when audiences need reliable information, he gives credence to an organization renowned for spreading misinformation. At the very moment that the institution of journalism itself is under attack, both financially and politically, and faces an existential crisis, Roberts contributes to cynicism about the crucial role a news network performs. And when America, and the world, is facing down a deadly pandemic, Roberts represents a network that dispensed with desperately needed facts.
If the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame really stands by its principles, it must revoke the honor it bestowed upon Roberts, immediately.
Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based journalist who teaches courses in media studies at Marianopolis College and Concordia University.
Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr
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