The information coming out of Fox News is often misleading or clearly incorrect. People ask me, “Spocko, is there anything we can do about this? Can’t the FCC do anything? What about the FTC and truth in advertising laws?”

How can Fox employees get away with calling themselves journalists when they are acting more like lobbyists or employees of a PR firm?

Are there every any negative consequences for people who intentionally lie while calling themselves journalists?  Can’t some groups who give credentials for being “the press” take them away? Why should Fox get a higher level of protection from libel than other corporations? Is having a tagline, “Fair and Balanced” and the word “News” in your logo all it takes? (If so I’m launching Spocko’s Brain News Network with the tagline, “Vulcans Never Bluff.”)

Why do they get all the benefits of being the press without any of the responsibilities?

I had some of these questions myself so when Fox News recently broadcast a chart that was clearly wrong (but wrong in a way that made Obama look bad) I decided to ask them of the SVP of media relations at Fox News.

Here is my letter.

Irena Briganti, Senior Vice President
Media Relations Fox News

Dear Ms. Briganti:

On Monday December 12, 2011, Fox News Network, L.L.C., broadcast a chart entitled Unemployment Rate Under President Obama. The source was listed as the 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics. Numerous writers have pointed out the visual errors in this chart (link) and called into question whether they were genuine mistakes or intentional efforts to mislead.

I would like to hear your official statement about this chart and its errors; and how it came to be created and broadcast. I would also like to know if there will be any consequences for the people who created and aired this chart.

Toward that end, I would direct your attention to an internal memo Fox News Corporation (FNC) management sent to its newsroom staff in November 2009 (emphasis is mine):

Effective immediately, there is zero tolerance for on-screen errors. Mistakes by any member of the show team that end up on air may result in immediate disciplinary action against those who played significant roles in the “mistake chain,” and those who supervise them. That may include warning letters to personnel files, suspensions, and other possible actions up to and including termination, and this will all obviously play a role in performance reviews. – source Media Bistro Fishbowl DC, Nov. 2009 by Matt Dornic

Clearly this is not the first time that this problem has cropped up within your organization. Were the sanctions listed in the FNC memo actually carried out against previous transgressors? If you won’t provide me with the names of people terminated, please share the job titles of the employees who received disciplinary action. I ask because understanding the levels of employees who did receive disciplinary action will indicate how seriously Fox holds all its employees, from graphic artists to management, accountable for their actions. (In the job openings category in the Fox News Career section I see that there are current openings for associate producers as well a Photoshop artist, are these positions available because people were fired for on-screen errors?)

There has been much discussion lately about what constitutes a journalist in an era of live webcasting and easy publishing of information via the Internet. One widely agreed-upon indicator of good journalism is a reporter’s commitment to verifying facts. An unaccountable Fox employee in the “mistake chain” who uses a visualization that doesn’t accurately represent the data is like a writer whose sentence doesn’t accurately represent the facts. Both expressions are lies: one, a visual lie; and the other, a written lie. This is a non-partisan, apolitical truth.

If there is a continued failure to correct errors or apply negative consequences to personnel who willfully misrepresent facts, that organization, by definition, no longer engages in journalism, and it cannot claim to be acting as “the press”. A more accurate classification for your limited liability corporation might be as a lobbying firm, a PR firm, a TV production company, or an advertising agency. Those classes of corporations may not, generally, avail themselves of the limited benefits open to bona fide members of the press, such as access to certain people and events, press passes issued by police, legally guaranteed protection of sources, and judgements classified under the higher standard of “actual malice” in libel lawsuits.

As a citizen, I do not, of course, have the power to revoke Fox’s self-classification of “the press”, though I do believe you should drop it based on the continued failure of your employees to accurately represent the facts. The government classification of FNC as a press entity that must serve the public trust applies only in regard to its broadcast properties and has very limited power over your cable content. So if there are no external entities that can force you to change your classification or change your actions to accurately represent the facts and serve the public trust, why should you care?

Because it is important to your Chairman and CEO.In the May 2011 Standards of Business Conduct section of your Corporate Governance document your parent company’s CEO, Rupert Murdoch, wrote this regarding the public trust:

“This public trust is our Company’s most valuable asset: one earned every day through our scrupulous adherence to the principles of integrity and fair dealing.”

On dealing with government entities and officials (such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics) he wrote:

“As a Company, we are at all times truthful and accurate when dealing with government entities or officials.”

and regarding whom these standards apply to:

“The Company intends that the spirit as well as the letter of those standards is followed by all Directors, officers and employees of the Company, its subsidiaries and divisions.”

Should FNC, News Corp’s subsidiary corporation, be able to wrap itself in the mantle of “the press” without integrity? Can it maintain truthfulness and integrity without accurate information in its words and graphics?

When employees at another News Corp subsidiary, News of the World, failed to uphold the integrity that Mr. Murdoch holds in the highest regard, people were fired. But that wasn’t enough to regain the public trust. That subsidiary was closed and former employees have lost legal coverage.

There are external journalism groups who may declare that because of your corporation’s continued failure of truthfulness and integrity, that it should no longer get the benefits of being the press. You may not care what they think, but FNC shouldn’t expect their support when it comes time to defend your desire to use the higher standard of “actual malice” in libel lawsuits. FNC employees might also not expect to get support from the courts: a recent ruling in Oregon has shown that calling yourself a journalist does not protect you from libel cases if you continually create a factually inaccurate alternate reality and the victims of those inaccuracies decide to sue.

I look forward to your reply on this matter. I have copied many of the people who have written on this topic in the last few days, since I’m sure many of them are also interested in your response.

Sincerely,

Michal Spocko

Spocko’s Brain

cc

Zachary Pleat, Media Matters, Today In Dishonest Fox News Charts

Betsy Rothstein, Media Bistro, Fishbowl DC, Fox News Management Fed Up by Mistakes

David Carr, New York Times, When Truth Survives Free Speech,

Nathan Yau, Flowing Data, Fox News still makes awesome charts

Jay Livingston, Ph.D., Sociological Images, Graphic Design the Fox News Way

Mark Frauenfelder, Boing Boing, Fox News decrees that 8.6% > 8.9%

Maggie Koerth-Baker, Boing Boing, Who is a journalist?

John Cook, Gawker, Fox News’ Graphics Department Run By Blind Monkeys

Kevin Z. Smith, Society of Professional Journalists, Ethics Committee chair, School of Media Arts and Design, James Madison University SPJ Code of Ethics

Torin Douglas, Media analyst, BBC

Nick Davies, Guardian, Phone hacker Glenn Mulcaire loses News International legal fees backing.

Matt Dornic, CNN, senior Director of Public Relations for CNN Worldwide

 

Cross posted at Spocko’s Brain