Last week primetime political television turned graphic: witnessed at a Fox News townhall with Democratic presidential candidate and mayor Pete Buttigieg was what can only be described as a castration. And Buttigieg wasn’t the one reduced to the status of eunuch.
Instead, that distinct dishonor went to Fox News—the host—when Buttigieg mentioned criticism he’d received from his fellow Democrats for participating in the townhall. “There’s a reason anybody has to swallow hard and think twice before participating in this media ecosystem,” Buttigieg said, “But I also believe that even though some of those hosts are not always there in good faith, I think a lot of people tune into this network who do it in good faith.”
What audacity! What impertinence! A candidate for president of the United States goes on the highest-rated political news television network in the country and insults that company to the applause of the audience. Considering Fox News provided the mayor of South Bend, Indiana a massive platform from which to pontificate, this disastrous episode might more accurately be referred to as a massive “self-own.”
Surely veteran Fox News host and journalist Chris Wallace—son of much-honored journalist Mike Wallace—discovered a vertebrae at that moment and rebuked the insolent mayor?
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. No such rebuke was forthcoming from the anchor during the townhall.
Brit Hume, another Fox News mainstay, even went so far as to praise Buttigieg on Twitter, writing in response to President Donald Trump’s complaints on Twitter over Fox News’ platforming Buttigieg, “Say this for Buttigieg. He’s willing to be questioned by Chris Wallace, something you’ve barely done since you’ve been president.” (This might strike us as a little odd, since Hume himself regularly appears on and praises exactly those Fox News hosts Buttigieg targeted—Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity.)
As it turns out, the “news side” of Fox News is more than happy to take a good Buttigieg headbutting—even on live television—not for the sake of ratings, but for the sake of “journalistic respectability,” an oxymoron if there ever was one.
In point of fact Buttigieg did nothing more than repeat the low opinion some Fox News daytime journalists have about the “opinion side” of their network; Shepherd Smith has often, though indirectly, swatted at his nighttime coworkers and the network in general, not to mention President Trump.
What we see then is the beginning of a real war within the network for the soul of Fox News—to be or not to be “respectable” in the eyes of the mainstream liberal media. It might seem strange that the political news giant would put its image with the press above its image with its audience, but the journalistic world plays by a very different set of rules.
In the world of journalism it matters what your fellow journalists think about you. How else are you going to get invited to all the coolest cocktail parties in Washington and New York? Who’s going to nominate you for some “prestigious” journalistic award or fellowship?
Please bear in mind, in the world of journalism, unlike the world of business, you are judged not by a jury of your consumers but a jury of your competitors. Because, as we all know, journalism is a sacred cow, a red heifer which can only be sacrificed by the journalistic priesthood. In journalism quality control is entirely in the hands of the people who have little incentive to point the finger at themselves.
Journalists, not the people who consume the news, determine what counts as real news and what counts as fake news. No further evidence of this incestuous, self-referential cycle of self-judgment need be adduced than CNN’s remarkably tone-deaf and triumphal ads, claiming an apple is an apple. (Yes, all of political journalism can be reduced to such a banal tautology.)
With no recourse to an impartial jury in determining what constitutes truth in political reporting, the American public is still at the mercy of journalists who rarely fess up to wrongdoing, and even more rarely self-convict and -punish.
But at least the liberal mainstream media continue to keep up the pretense of respectability—Fox News can’t even manage that. So long as some Fox News hosts and journalists continue to crave acceptance from their peers, they are more than willing to sell out half of their talent to third- and fourth-rate Democratic politicians while giving them a platform to bash their network.
Just as the American public simultaneously distrusts the mainstream media and continues to consume their content, so do these Fox News journalists continue to suck up to Democrats who hold them in the highest contempt.
In this respect, American politics isn’t just about relationships—it’s about dysfunctional and abusive ones. And until someone decides to break up with the other, we’ll continue to see absurd and dignity-stripping spectacles on live television.