Fox News “You Decide” promo.
“We report, you decide” isn’t merely a cute slogan. It’s mainstreaming corruption. There’s a big difference between “freedom of speech” and “freedom of the press.” We’ve all heard the old adage about shouting fire in a crowded theater. The analysis that is often left out of that example is that we do have the right to shout fire in a crowded theater if the theater is actually on fire. It’s not freedom of speech that gives us that right but freedom of the press. When we impart non-fiction information to each other, in any medium, in any circumstance, anywhere, it is protected by freedom of the press. When we lie, it’s protected by freedom of speech. Freedom of the press protects truth-tellers. Freedom of speech protects liars. Those are incredibly different and distinct rights enshrined in the Constitution, and blurring those lines is a corruption of the definitions of those freedoms.
“We report, you decide” turns the press/public relationship on its head. The press, by definition, is constitutionally required to be a truth-teller. It’s not just the right thing to do. It’s the legally required thing to do as codified in the Bill of Rights. Speech and press freedoms are separated in the U.S. Constitution because the press cannot be granted the right to lie, whereas people cannot be denied the right to lie, not least of which because it would be unenforceable on an individual level. However, the Founders did not see the inability to enforce “truth” among individuals as an impediment to enforcing veracity in the press, which is why they codified those rights separately. In a report for Congress dated January 20, 1800, James Madison wrote:
“Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of every thing; and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press. It has accordingly been decided, by the practice of the states, that it is better to leave a few of its noxious branches to their luxuriant growth, than, by pruning them away, to injure the vigor of those yielding the proper fruits.”
The founders knew full well what the “proper fruits” of journalism were — truth, context, relevance, integrity. So the press, by constitutional fiat, must be the entity that “decides,” not the audience. Editorial policy, by definition, is the process of “deciding” what to report and how. The audience is in the audience in our specialized society by virtue of their not being in the press, which, by definition, means they don’t have access to the same information and investigative research available to the press. When the press throws the entire plate of spaghetti at the wall and lets the audience decide what sticks, it is exercising more than press freedoms, it is exercising speech freedoms. By including information that they know to be false in the same context as information they know to be true, as Fox News has done repeatedly, they are abdicating their responsibility to impart non-fiction – they are, in effect, shouting fire in a crowded theater that is not on fire. Fox News takes that a step further, of course, by deliberately altering content for the purpose of maintaining a blanket accusation against all other media outlets of doing the precise manipulation of facts that they themselves are guilty of doing in the accusation itself.
Unlike his interviewer, Jon Stewart consistently displays an incisive grasp of the role of journalism in society.
Fox News is the Bernie Madoff of journalism — a false facade of integrity and professionalism built on a foundation of self-aggrandizing propaganda. But let’s assume that Fox News isn’t intentionally lying. Let’s assume they believe in their slogan and in their methodology. It’s still corrupt. Even if they never intentionally try to mislead their audience, it still corrupts the relationship. When there is no distinction between fact and fiction, the audience must do the research to verify the truth of what is said. If the audience has to confirm a story because it cannot trust that the information being imparted is true, the messenger cannot be considered “press.” And the problem with Fox News is that everything on that network airs under the banner of “news.” Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly are clearly not journalists and do not adhere to journalistic norms. Yet they appear on a network with “news” in its name. They rarely distinguish between fact and opinion, which means they simultaneously exercise freedom of the press right alongside freedom of speech. Blurring those lines corrupts the press/audience relationship, as we can see in the Fox News phenomenon.
A romantic view of what the press is supposed to look like.
Good journalists should make corrupt people and institutions tremble when they see them coming. The press is the heavy in the room, the wet blanket at the party, the one guy in town you really shouldn’t be loose-lipped around. If you have a scandal to conceal, the press should make you piss your pants. But Fox News is lovingly embraced by their loyal audience just as much as they are summarily dismissed by their detractors. The daily parade of paranoid propaganda on Fox News is laughable in the abstract. It’s caustic when it’s taken seriously by enough to tip the scales of an election. They engender blind faith in an audience that almost uniformly shares the same subset of political ideologies, while simultaneously destroying their own press credibility with everyone else.
We long ago passed the point-of-no-return for Fox and their viewers. The history of the world is different for them: it has never been proven that President Obama was born in Hawaii; “Obamacare” was “rammed through” Congress over the “intense objections” of the American people… all of the American people, apparently; there is such a thing as “liberal fascism” and today it’s called “progressivism;” and on and on. And those who disagree with them are pinheads, terrorist sympathizers or just guilty by association. They have the only audience they will ever have now. If they stop being cheerleaders for corruption, they’ll lose the loyalists they have without replacing them. Even if they turn over a new leaf and never allow another lie to go unchallenged on the air, who would care? They can’t win a new audience among the vast majority of people who know them to be propagandists so they can’t afford to lose the one they have. They can’t anger their audience, ergo, they are not press. You will never see anything like Edward R. Murrow’s coverage of the HUAC hearings or his special on migrant farm workers, “Harvest of Shame,” on Fox News.
Here’s a guy who wasn’t afraid to get under anyone’s skin.
“We report, you decide.” Decide what? Decide if it’s true? Decide if it’s worth reporting? Decide if it’s relevant to civic life? Aren’t those decisions the ones we expect the press to make truthfully by virtue of their press protections? Aren’t they the ones with the time, the resources, and the constitutional mandate to tell truth? Aren’t they abdicating their responsibility to edify us about those truths by ignoring their role in deciphering truth? Yes, if they’re press. No, if they’re entertainment.
Fox News has “news” in the name, which means they have a responsibility to exercise their press freedoms without blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Shouting fire in a crowded theater that is not on fire is protected speech if it’s part of the theatrical production, but not if it’s done to cause a stampede. And when the shout causes a stampede and gets people hurt or even killed, the shouter is liable. Imparting fiction as non-fiction is tantamount to shouting fire in a crowded theater that is not on fire. Fox News contributes to the creation of a stampede in American politics every day, and uses their slogan to indemnify themselves from liability. The very fabric of Fox News is a corruption of everything that journalism is and the slogan is a corruption of the responsibility the press has by virtue of its constitutional right to impart non-fiction. “We Report, You Decide,” coupled with accusations of partisan dishonesty against literally every other news outlet in the world, is a form of journalistic sabotage. You can find an agenda at almost every media outlet in America but none as transparently unprincipled as Fox News.