The opinion hosts at Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network have always been good at tripping liberal sensibilities. In the last few days, however, some of them have drawn criticism from an even wider circle.
On Monday morning, “Fox & Friends” co-anchor Brian Kilmeade stirred up social-media reaction with some remarks about a caravan of migrants that has been making its way up through South America toward the United States and which has become a cause celebre in remarks from President Donald Trump and various Republicans. “What about diseases? There is a reason you can’t bring a kid to school unless he is inoculated,” said Kilmeade. “There are things that happen in this country. We already give 40 to 50% of our taxable income to the government for social programs is it too much to say we just can’t have country’s entire populations come in here without being looked at as hard-hearted.” Later on in the morning, conservative blogger Matt Drudge – not exactly a liberal-leaning snowflake – took to Twitter to denounce a segment of the Fox News Channel program “Outnumbered” during which co-hosts including Kennedy were spotted chatting about bringing the country together while an on-screen chyron alluded to this weekend’s shooting attack in Pittsburgh
“Kennedy made an unrelated quip at the end of the segment which was focused on unity – there was absolutely no joking or laughing about the events of this weekend and a screen grab of her smiling is hardly indicative of the entire segment,’ the network said in a statement. “The lower third should not have been up for the duration of this segment as it was not fully reflective of what the panelists were discussing.”
The incidents on Monday come just a day after executives at Fox Business Network condemned remarks made on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” that also spurred offense. On Thursday’s broadcast, Chris Farrell, a director of Judicial Watch, a conservative activist and watchdog group that investigates misconduct by government officials, suggested a caravan of migrants that has been traveling through South America to Mexico — and has been cited by President Donald Trump as a potential threat to the United States — was being funded by billionaire George Soros. Citations like that are typically meant to allude to Jews. The episode re-aired on Fox Business on Saturday, and was picked up by social media as people reacted to the Pittsburgh incident.
“We condemn the rhetoric by the guest on Lou Dobbs Tonight. This episode was a repeat which has now been pulled from all future airings,” said Gary Schreier, senior vice president of programming at the 21st Century Fox-owned network, in a statement. Farrell will no longer be booked as a guest on either Fox News or Fox Business.
The nation, already on edge during President Trump’s term in office, has only grown more so in the run-up to November’s midterm elections. There is good reason, with mail bombs sent to news outlets and prominent Democrats, and the Pittsburgh shooting incident. But Fox opinion hosts are largely staying true to a dynamic that has served them well in the past, said Nikki Usher, an associate professor at the College of Media at the University of Illinois.
“Fox is really good at getting other people to amplify,” she said. “The angrier Fox can make liberals, the better Fox does with people who support Fox, who watch Fox.” And they may also be working to talk up conservative policies, she added, in a bid to spur the networks’ base. A Fox News spokesperson refuted the characterization.
This isn’t the first time a Fox News opinion host has spurred outrage. Laura Ingraham suffered an advertiser defection earlier this year after making remarks on social media aimed at one of the survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The most recent incidents have not immediately prompted new talk among advertisers, said one media-buying executive, but more advertisers are asking to stay away from opinion programs of many types. The liberal advocacy group Media Matters this week renewed a call for an advertiser boycott of the network.
The tense times have put many different outlets under scrutiny. At NBC News, Megyn Kelly’s morning show was canceled in the wake of the host making comments about the propriety of dressing up in blackface or whiteface for Halloween. The remarks spurred instant backlash, and the host apologized, but NBC did not keep the program on the air. TV and advertising executives have in the last two years grown more wary of setting audiences off.”
Fox News may not have that luxury, suggested Ben Bogardus, an assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University. The network is the most-watched in cable news and its sister outlet, Fox Business has made great strides in audience in recent years. But growing an audience of conservatives can be challenging, the academic noted. Viewers have talk radio, satellite radio, niche cable-news outlets and online sources. Fox News “needs to have that same level of interest, excitement and outrage,” said Bogardus. “They are competing against so many other different types of media.”
The outrage comes even after producers and anchors at the two cable networks that make up the Fox News unit at 21st Century Fox have been under orders to be mindful of “protecting the talent, protecting the brand,”since June of 2018. At the time, Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott urged employees to clamp down on remarks and rhetoric that undermined the programming. Fox News has at times featured guests and hosts dismissing an account of a girl with Down’s Syndrome; taking aim at one of the high school students involved in the shooting tragedy in Parkland, Florida; and telling an African-American Democratic strategist that he was “out of his cotton-picking mind.”
Covering President Trump has established new benchmarks for cable-news outlets, said Bogardus, and those standards are decidedly different from what viewers of a different era had come to expect. Trump had a “history of controversial remarks and comments, even before he ran for president, he said. “It creates an environment where that is now the norm for news.”