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Fox News in the news

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

When NPR does a story on Fox News or its on-air personalities, we often hear complaints from audience members. Some people want NPR to be explicitly critical. Others don't want to hear about Fox News at all.

We fielded a few of these critiques in the run-up to the Dominion Voting Systems vs. Fox News defamation lawsuit, which was settled Tuesday with Fox agreeing to pay Dominion $787.5 million.

For weeks, NPR and other news outlets reported on the discovery documents and depositions filed in this case. One narrative that emerged: Fox News avoided airing important stories because it believed that its audience didn't want to hear the truth.

There's an irony here. When we talked to media correspondent David Folkenflik, he explained why he believed the NPR audience should learn about Fox News, and, in one specific story, its chief political anchor Bret Baier, even if they find the topic unpleasant. In other words, the exact opposite philosophy of Fox News when it comes to determining which stories to serve up to the audience.

Read on to hear more about Folkenflik's approach and our recommendations for ways that strategy can be more effective. We also spotlight a series of stories from the NPR Science Desk about ice loss.

FROM THE INBOX

Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

The news value in looking at Fox News and its anchors

Several comments last week criticized NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik's storyabout Fox News chief political anchor Bret Baier's attempts to pitch an hourlong special that would debunk election fraud myths. Baier's pitch was unanswered by network executives.

@FixMediaNow, a grassroots group that seeks to hold media responsible for accurate coverage, tweeted as part of a thread on April 10: This isn't a news piece. It's PR for Bret Baier, who proved himself to be unprincipled as a journalist.

Folkenflik has been covering Dominion Voting Systems' $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News, which the two sides settled this week as opening arguments were about to begin. We reached Folkenflik by phone before the settlement to discuss his story about Bret Baier, which came to light after Dominion lawyers filed materials into the court record. Folkenflik described his approach to covering Fox News.

"Sometimes it's media criticism, but it's going to be reported media criticism, and so it's going to be grounded in fact," he said. "And yet my analysis, I would argue, is pretty tough. ... We have been, I think, among the more aggressive institutions in holding Fox to account."

In pursuing the story about Baier's failed attempt to persuade his bosses to do a special show dedicated to debunking election misinformation, Folkenflik said his goal was to break news and create a greater understanding of the dynamics inside the network after election night 2020. That night, after Fox was the first network to project that Joe Biden would win Arizona, its audience revolted, along with some on-air personalities, creating a business crisis.

"I thought, in some ways, that looking at Baier was less about Baier and more a vehicle to explore: In this moment of crisis, how did Fox News look at the news? How did it value it? How did it privilege it?" Folkenflik said. "And so I saw this story as a vehicle of looking at what Fox valued and what it did not value, less than valorizing Bret Baier."

Folkenflik said Fox News is "one of the most important political actors in the country," and a prism through which "millions of Americans understand our society, for good or for ill."

"So part of what I do is cover this important institution, explain what it's doing, and hold it to account," he said. "The media is an industry and a business. It's also very much part of our constitutional and civic framework. When it works well, it helps people function as citizens and not simply as consumers. I think Fox has contributed to a degradation of understanding of how things function."

The Dominion lawsuit has made concrete what he and others covering the network have been documenting, he said, "which is that this is not fundamentally a news organization doing journalistic work, even as they have some journalists there. So I'm trying to provide our listeners not with clickbait, but with a clear and reported understanding" of Fox News.

Folkenflik said the Baier story seemed important to get on the record, but he understood that not all listeners will agree. "People are entitled to their own reactions," he said.

With Folkenflik's journalistic goals in mind, we can see how readers may interpret this approach as less about accountability and more explanatory than Fox or Baier deserve. Under the headline, "The loneliness of Bret Baier," the story portrays the Fox chief political anchor as fighting for journalistic standards amid less-dedicated colleagues, publishing stories that contradicted the big election fraud lie and challenging Fox executives.

The story quotes the Dominion lawyers praising Baier during his deposition. In the 11th paragraph, Folkenflik reveals the news nugget, writing "In one sign of his isolation, Baier repeatedly sought to devote an hourlong Sunday evening special following the 2020 elections to set out and debunk the leading myths bolstering Trump's baseless claims of fraud."

Skepticism about Baier doesn't appear until the lower third of the story. There, Folkenflik pointed out that Baier was among those who urged Fox to rescind the declaration that Arizona voted for Biden, and that some of his colleagues believed he, too, was indulging in election fraud conspiracies.

A long and complicated story like this deserved a better headline and a stronger nut graph, the key paragraph that appears near the top, summarizing where the story is going and why the reader should invest the time. Without that clarity, readers are left to deduce the journalistic purpose of the story on their own.

Covering Fox News is important and Folkenflik does it well. Telling the reader why the story is important is part of that job. It helps the reader absorb the essence of the reported facts.

"I see him as neither hero nor villain," Folkenflik said of Baier. "Rather, this is an episode that shows you Fox's disregard for the conventions of journalism."

That sentiment, about the episode being illustrative of a bigger problem, would have made for a great summary paragraph. — Kelly McBride and Amaris Castillo

SPOTLIGHT ON

The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

Melting ice

NPR's Science Desk has published informative and important stories for a new seriestitled "Beyond the Poles: The far-reaching dangers of melting ice." The series explores the threat of ice loss driven by climate change. A few stories included are a report on scientists connecting the movement of North Atlantic right whales to melting ice in Greenland, an exploration of why Texans need to know how fast Antarctica's ice is melting, and a piece about the danger of a melting glacier in Rolwaling Valley, Nepal. Kudos to the Science Desk for dedicating a series to ice loss, and helping NPR's audience understand the gravity of this problem. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Chair,
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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