A call for journalistic integrity

Credit%3A+Alexa+Druyanoff%2FChronicle

Credit: Alexa Druyanoff/Chronicle

Julian Andreone

As I left Zoom French class Jan. 6, I learned that rioters had stormed the United States Capitol building. Our cherished icon of American democracy suffered this intrusion from insurrectionists who pillaged and defiled it before murdering a brave police officer. On a day when our republic historically shines its brightest, participants in the preparatory rally heeded our then-president’s calls to “walk down to the Capitol” and “take back our country.”

I started watching interviews with the protesters-turned-rioters before and after the insurrection. They consistently echoed the same motive for the attack: they came to overturn a “stolen election.” After months of indoctrination, they stormed the Capitol chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” and “Tell Pelosi we’re coming.” They believed that stopping the electoral process would save the country. Who convinced them of this dangerous fallacy?

The stolen election story was widely promoted in conservative media, including Fox News. Although some Fox journalists accurately reported that there was no evidence of fraud, they were repeatedly contradicted by political commentators on more popular programming such as “The Sean Hannity Show” or “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” 

On these shows, anchors and guests perpetuate the narrative that conservatives are under attack. As recently as Jan. 21, Fox News commentator Sean Hannity hosted former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who claimed that Democrats are “methodically trying to destroy conservatism” using Biden as a “pleasant cover.” He also claimed that Democrats plan to “exterminate all Republicans.” These claims act as fuel on the fire, creating unnecessary political division in America. Of course, rousing an audience increases ratings, but at what cost?

Fox News has previously been sued for playing fast and loose with facts. On Nov. 24, 2020, Fox reached a multi-million dollar settlement in a defamation lawsuit filed by the family of Seth Rich, a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer. After Rich’s death, Fox News anchors emphatically echoed the false conspiracy theory that Rich was involved in Hillary Clinton’s email scandal until many viewers came to believe it. Fox News’s own defense team argued that Fox programming shifts from news to entertainment at night and that shows like Hannity’s are not news programs at all. However, socially responsible political commentary should not be based on fiction, particularly fiction mislabeled as fact. Perhaps the Federal Communications Commission should force the network to rebrand Fox News entirely.

This December, Fox News anchors faced another challenge: Dominion Voting, a company that manufactures vote-counting machines, warned Fox News hosts Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo that defamation lawsuits were imminent if they continued to claim that the machines were used to commit mass voter fraud in the 2020 election. For months leading up to Dominion’s warning, these anchors implicated Dominion machines in their false claims of voter fraud. After learning of the potential lawsuits, Fox backpedaled on its story.

With increasing polarization in politics, Americans often limit their consumption of news and commentary to networks that serve as echo chambers, reinforcing only their own world views. This trend only increases the need for news organizations to base their commentary on facts, not Kellyanne Conway’s coined term: “alternative facts.” James Murdoch, the younger brother of current Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch, sounded the warning after leaving the family corporation: “The sacking of the Capitol is proof positive that what we thought was dangerous is indeed very, very much so,” he said. “Those outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years.”

In his inauguration speech, President Biden called for unity and healing in America, promising to be a President for all Americans. As a young journalist who has only witnessed a polarized press, I would love to see what respectful disagreement looks like. However, if this goal is to become a reality, journalists and anchors must base their stories on credible and recognized facts, not rumors from social media posts that play only to a viewer’s biases. It is too easy to disregard opinions with which we disagree when they are based on demonstrably false premises. If journalism is to continue as a pillar of our democracy, we must defend its integrity.