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Why journalism schools won’t quit Fox News

Fox News appears to have committed a gross breach of journalism ethics: intentionally lying to its audience about the 2020 election.

This appalls many people in America’s journalism schools. But interviews with three prominent journalism school deans and other news educators showed no interest in an outright ban on dealing with Fox News on internships, job opportunities and campus appearances.

Is this open-mindedness? Timidity? Or simply a combination of the high ideal of academic freedom and the practical necessity of helping students start their careers?

As Fox used to say: We report, you decide.

Fox has been sued by Dominion Voting Systems for falsely linking Dominion to election fraud. Communications among Fox executives and personalities, revealed in court filings, show they knew allegations of election fraud were baseless but spread them anyway to cater to Donald Trump’s supporters. The disinformation stoked right-wing outrage that led to the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

But in interviews for this story, the harshest position against Fox News among journalism deans seemed to be a sort of double-secret probation.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say out of hand that we would bar Fox News, but we would think very, very carefully before we would invite or allow someone from Fox News to speak on campus,” said Charles Whitaker, dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

That was tougher than the position of Battinto L. Batts, Jr., dean of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“We’re a public institution,” he said, “so we make ourselves available to anyone who wants to recruit students…We’re open to all news organizations.

Asked if he was concerned about Fox News’ conduct, Batts said: “I’m concerned about journalism overall. I’m concerned about facts in journalism and where we are and I’m concerned about the spread of misinformation and disinformation, whether that’s Fox, whether that’s any news outlet. That is a concern for me as the dean. I’m not going to just single out any one organization for that.”

Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland-College Park, said she has banned only one news outlet from recruiting her students. That’s RT, the Russian propaganda outfit. And while she is troubled by how Fox News operates, she won’t go as far as a ban.

“If I banned anyone from Fox from being on my campus or recruiting my students, it’s a political statement,” Dalglish said.

Fox News maintains a presence at universities. Its personalities speak at universityaffiliated events and are honored as “distinguished” or “notable” alumni. Columbia Journalism School in New York City sends invitations to its annual Career Expo to hundreds of potential employers, including Fox News. Daniel Rivero, chief of staff to the dean, said in an email that Fox News has attended in some past years but is not expected this year. A local Fox affiliate will attend.

“Each year, Fox News Media is proud to welcome over 150 college students from more than 80 universities across the country (this summer, the network has 70 slots and 12,000 applicants),” Fox spokesperson Irena Briganti said. “The Fox News Media College Associate Program offers opportunities for those passionate about the news industry to gain real-world experience and we are honored to provide students with the foundation they need to succeed in this competitive space.”

The Fox News Media associate program includes Fox News and some sister outlets such as Fox Business but does not include local Fox affiliates.

When Whitaker and Dalglish were asked about their websites’ references to opportunities at “Fox News,” they explained that the webpages referred to local Fox affiliates, not the main national channel. Both Northwestern and the University of Maryland then edited the webpages to remove the “Fox News” reference. Other prominent journalism schools, however, clearly promote the main Fox News in their website references.

Both Fox News Channel and local affiliates are part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, but the local outlets are “doing news and not punditry for the most part,” Dalglish said. Of course, any rejection of Fox Corp. overall would be quite challenging. For example, this year’s Super Bowl was on Fox’s entertainment channel.

Connections between journalism’s support system and Fox News have developed over many years. The White House Correspondents’ Association considers Fox News a member in good standing, with Fox News correspondent Jacqui Heinrich on the board. Last year, the Knight Foundation sponsored an event featuring Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who is accused of “defamatory falsehoods” in Dominion’s lawsuit. Another Fox News host cited in the Dominion suit, Maria Bartiromo, is on the board of trustees of New York University.

Some believe that the ideals of objectivity and free expression argue for allowing Fox News to have access to students.

“I would not ever, ever, ever tell my faculty members that they can’t invite someone who works for Fox,” Dalglish said. “I just wouldn’t do it. The university is the epitome of academic freedom, and journalism school more than anything.”

Of course, respect for facts is a value too. Medical schools are not required to give equal time to fighting Covid with vaccines and fighting Covid with ivermectin. But the issue of academic freedom is always subject to intense debate, and no matter where colleges come down, they are in a tricky position.

“I think J-schools are in a bit of a pickle, because they appropriately want to help their students get jobs,” said Dan Froomkin, a former Washington Post editor who teaches at NYU, in an email. “And while they shouldn’t encourage students to go work for Fox News, if a student decides that’s their best move, they shouldn’t stop them. Especially if you think of the greater Fox media establishment, which includes local TV stations that do a lot of good work.

“Journalism schools should certainly teach about Fox News — as an example of what not to do,” he added. “So I might not urge them to sever all ties. But they should definitely not ever invite Fox News people to appear as authorities on journalism.”

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls Fox News “the commercial arm of a right-wing political movement.” But Rosen, like Froomkin, isn’t fond of the idea of journalism schools banning Fox News.

“I’m not sure I would ban Fox News because I wouldn’t really want to ban any speakers in the university. I would start from the position of ‘This is a university — we don’t ban people from speaking their truth,’” Rosen said. “But I think any kind of invitation to Fox should be preceded by a period of profound reflection of what Fox is.”

The key, Rosen says, is to avoid normalizing Fox News.

“Treating Fox as a normal company, whether it’s in internships or public appearances, is definitely a problem,” he said. “If they treat Fox News as a regular news provider and play along with Fox’s own attempts to describe itself as a normal news company…that’s miseducating people.”

Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said in an email that the argument that Fox has “a news division dedicated to actual journalism” is increasingly difficult to make. Nevertheless, he said, “I wouldn’t ban Fox News from campus. Graduating students need jobs, and as long as they know what they’re getting into (and if they didn’t before, they do after taking my ethics class), then I don’t have a problem with it.”

Kennedy discussed the issue with two of his classes last week, and no student favored an outright ban on Fox. Among the reasons, according to his notes:

  • “We shouldn’t try to control where students work.”
  • “Would worsen polarization.”
  • “Universities shouldn’t be about banning.”
  • “Grads who work there might make it better.”
  • “Students need jobs.”

One student who was ambivalent suggested a temporary ban until the outcome of the lawsuit is known.

The issue of how colleges confer legitimacy on news organizations is broader than Fox. One America News Network, which like Fox is being sued by Dominion over its 2020 election coverage and which previously pushed the debunked Seth Rich conspiracy theoryand a debunked claim that California legislation would ban the Bible, gets positive attention on some college websites. Western Carolina University’s website features an upbeat story about a student internship at OAN, and and Catholic University of America’s site offers an interview with an ex-student who works at OAN.

Medill’s Whitaker said the Dominion case only confirms a reputation that Fox has already established. “What has come out in the lawsuit is of no surprise to anyone who watches Fox regularly,” he said.

Merrill’s Dalglish agreed. “Would I recommend that any of our students go to work for network Fox and its talking-head shows?…I would recommend they stay away from those people. But I would have done that before Dominion hit.”

That said, the Dominion case is a valuable teaching moment. “This is the best discussion case I have ever heard of,” Dalglish said. “There is not a single class in our building that has not talked about this case.”

And students aren’t the only ones learning from it. NYU’s Rosen thinks the Dominion lawsuit is affecting how Fox is viewed throughout the news industry.

“It’s not just journalism schools — the whole journalism profession in the U.S. has been involved in this make-believe game of Fox as a normal colleague,” he said. “And now it’s slowly beginning to question that.”

Mark Jacob is former metro editor of the Chicago Tribune and former website editor of the Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University.

Photo of the Fox News app by Focal Foto used under a Creative Commons license.

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