It is time, once again, to explain journalism to Fox News.
In a way, that’s disappointing. After all, that network’s Shepard Smith has emerged as something of a journalistic hero lately, repeatedly standing up to Donald Trump’s administration for its attempts to undermine and delegitimize the news media. It’s been a stirring performance — and a pleasant surprise to those of us who long ago wrote the network off as just the propaganda arm of the Republican Party.
But Fox is still Fox. For proof, look no further than a peculiar little story that aired last week on “Fox & Friends.”
“Media bias on full display!” chirped the report breathlessly. “Newspapers now cashing in on T-shirts splashed with anti-President Trump rhetoric!”
So what, you ask, are these terrible anti-Trump slogans?
From The Washington Post: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
From The Los Angeles Times: “Journalism Matters.”
From The Chicago Tribune: “Speaking Truth To Power Since 1847.”
As anti-Trump rhetoric goes, they sure sound a lot like journalistic boilerplate. Makes you wonder if anyone at Fox ran this piece past Shepard Smith. Probably not. Surely he would have explained to them that these slogans simply celebrate a basic principle of journalism: News media exist to ferret out truth and hold power to account. He might further have reminded them that this is supposed to be the prime directive, even at Fox.
He might even have asked: “What does it say about that network, about Trump, about how upside down our world has become, when being pro-truth is decoded as being anti-Trump?” People get awards for defending truth. They are lionized for it. Indeed, you’ll sometimes hear a journalist boast that her job is to “report the truth without fear or favor.”
Is that anti-Trump rhetoric, too?
Better question: does the essential quality of truth change depending upon whom it helps or hurts? Did some of us not get the joke when Stephen Colbert said that “reality has a well-known liberal bias?”
These questions are bigger than Fox, bigger than journalism, bigger, even, than Trump’s pathetic attempt to impersonate a president. They are as big as the country itself. One is reminded of the famous line from “A Few Good Men:” “You can’t handle the truth!”
What if that’s right? What if we can’t? What then? You can’t run a democracy this way. Where truth is the enemy, a people cannot be free.
Yet in just the last few days, we’ve had the bizarre spectacle of the so-called president accusing his predecessor of wire-tapping him, based on no evidence whatsoever. Then his press secretary “clarified” by explaining that when Trump said “wire-tapping,” he didn’t mean “wire-tapping.” Meantime, the attorney general clearly lied under oath. And Russia goes drip, drip, drip.
But someone at Fox thinks we should be up in arms because The Chicago Tribune celebrates journalism? Unreal.
Wherever Harry Truman went, people used to yell, “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” for his blunt way of expressing himself. To which the 33rd president would reply: “I never gave them hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”
Truman’s quip seems apropos to this standoff between news media and apologists like those at “Fox & Friends” seeking to normalize Donald Trump. It should be painfully clear by now that they’ve set themselves an impossible mission.
You know you’re in trouble when the truth looks like hell.
— Leonard Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald.