Comment: What’s changed for Fox News to lose sense of shame?

A Fox host in 2008 lost her job over the Obamas’ ‘terrorist fist jab.’ Now, comparing Fauci to a Nazi meets silence.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

It wasn’t so very long ago that Fox News had some standards for what was unacceptable.

In 2008, a Fox host named E.D. Hill suggested that a playful fist bump between Barack and Michelle Obama looked like a “terrorist fist jab.” Soon afterward, she opened her show with an elaborate apology:

“I mentioned various ways the Obamas’ fist bump in St. Paul had been characterized in the media,” she began. “I apologize because unfortunately some thought I, personally, had characterized it inappropriately. I regret that. It was not my intention. I certainly didn’t mean to associate the word terrorist in any way with Senator Obama and his wife.”

Nevertheless, Fox canceled her show the next week and eventually declined to renew her contract.

And when Fox News parted ways with flamethrower Glenn Beck in 2011, the consensus was that his divisive rhetoric — including calling then-President Obama a racist and comparing Reform Judaism to radical Islam — had simply become too much for network co-founder Roger Ailes to tolerate.

Flash forward a decade.

In recent weeks, the cable news network referred to a CNN reporter as a “nasty eunuch.” It has aired clips of “Patriot Purge,” Tucker Carlson’s lie-filled “documentary” about the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. When contributor David Webb called President Biden a “race pimp,” Fox News — far from apologizing — echoed his words in a digital headline.

Worst of all, Fox has not yet publicly addressed the despicable on-air remarks by Lara Logan comparing Anthony Fauci to an infamous Nazi war criminal.

In commentary that makes “terrorist fist bump” appear quaint, the once-lauded CBS correspondent, who seems to have completely flamed out, rambled that unspecified “people say to me” that the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist “represents Josef Mengele … the Nazi doctor who did experiments on Jews during the Second World War and in the concentration camps.”

But far from issuing a groveling apology, Logan — a frequent guest on Fox News who was showcased in a series, “Lara Logan Has No Agenda,” on the network’s streaming spinoff Fox Nation — doubled down on Twitter. She retweeted a user who bashed the Auschwitz Museum for criticizing her remarks and posted loony links to conspiracy theories about Fauci and HIV/AIDS.

Of course, cable hosts and commentators of all political stripes thrive on outrage and provocation. It’s practically in the job description. Former MSNBC host Donny Deutsch, for example, compared President Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler in 2020.

And in a very different kind of standards-breaking, CNN’s Chris Cuomo improperly got involved with the crisis-management efforts to help his brother fend off claims of sexual misconduct. The prime-time host went so far as to seek out potentially damaging intelligence about one of the women complaining about then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The younger Cuomo issued an early apology; CNN, eventually, fired him.

The most Fox has done publicly is to quietly sideline Logan in recent days. Its representatives haven’t provided on-the-record comment to media organizations inquiring about whether an apology will be forthcoming.

So, what has happened between 2008 and now?

Media both reflects and creates cultural norms, and society has grown far coarser over the past decade in matters big and small. Sports figures throw tantrums over pandemic restrictions. Pregnant and elderly people can stand endlessly on a buses without a fellow traveler volunteering to give up a seat. Couples in restaurants look at their phones instead of each other. It would be wrong to attribute this trend solely to any one event or person.

But it is also unavoidably true that this coarsening has both been led and worsened by Trump. You might remember his references to “s***hole countries,” and to grabbing women by the p****,” or his disparaging comments about Gold Star parents.

His political heirs have carried on the ugly tradition, as when Marjorie Taylor Greene, the freshman member of Congress from Georgia whom Trump has called a “future Republican star,” suggested in an online video that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should be executed for treason.

Given the symbiosis between right-wing media and the most extreme Republican politicians, it’s not surprising that the standards are similar. On Monday night, Newsmax host Greg Kelly, citing his supposed “high-level sources,” gave vent to the evidence-free claim that Vice President Kamala Harris might have a alcohol or drug-abuse problem. A few years ago, media critics might have spent days taking him to task; now, in the outrage-a-minute environment, this stuff all goes by almost unnoticed, more ephemera in the endless stream of despicable “content.”

We’ve all become inured, including journalists.

I asked two communications staffers at Fox News to respond on the record to where the network brass draws the line these days and whether an apology for Logan’s comments was coming, but they wouldn’t do so, noting only that Logan is an unpaid guest who hasn’t been on the air in recent days.

The American Jewish Committee called Logan’s words about Fauci “utterly shameless,” noting that Mengele earned the nickname “angel of death” by performing deadly and inhumane medical experiments on prisoners of the Holocaust, including children. Like other groups, the committee made a correct and obvious point: “An apology is needed.”

Needed, absolutely. Likely? It could still happen and I hope it does, but I’m not holding my breath.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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