By David Shuster / current.com / @DavidShuster
If there really is a Santa Claus, he will stuff the stockings at Fox News this month with radioactive lumps of coal.
No television network this year has done more to mislead and misinform and dumb down its viewers, our fellow citizens. The latest example came this past week when Fox News produced another round of absurd stories suggesting Christmas is under attack.
Fox aired several segments claiming the holiday is under assault by progressives engaged in a “war on Christmas.” The channel has done this before. Two years ago, on “Fox and Friends,” a show that specializes in insulting the intelligence of viewers who have even a modicum of independent thinking skills (the show also delivers arguably the worst writing and grammar in television), anchor Gretchen Carlson breathlessly reported:
“Ho ho, ho, how about no, no, no? An elementary school in central Florida (is) banning all things Christmas. Teachers (are) even eliminating traditional Christmas colors like red and green. What? This is so crazy! They are not even going to let red and green in the classroom! Heathrow Elementary says it is abiding by school board policy, which requires employees to be neutral when it comes to religion.”
When I first heard the report, I was astounded. An elementary school is banning the colors red and green to keep the school “neutral” about religion? OMG!
Naturally, the Fox report was completely false. And if anybody at Fox News had bothered to call the school or the school district, they would have known the claim was untrue. Some reporters, shocked by the Fox News report, actually did engage in journalism 101 by calling the school district. Those journalists were informed by Roger Klares, a spokesman for the Seminole County School District, “There is no ban and has never been a ban on the colors red and green at Heathrow Elementary.”
Fox News says it takes pride in its “We report, you decide” approach, but its mantra is actually “We don’t report, so we can lie.” In story after story, the on-air staff and top producers seem to revel in being “uninformed” so they can repeat with a straight face the GOP’s latest right-wing talking points.
After all, to actually collect facts and then spew a right-wing conspiracy theory would mean having to intentionally lie. Most Fox News anchors/reporters, like most human beings, are not comfortable lying knowingly to your face. So they engage in the practice of plausible deniability.
They can deny “deliberately lying” because they didn’t intend to do so and didn’t know any better than the information placed in front of them. In the case of the alleged war on red and green at a Florida elementary school, “Fox and Friends” apparently got the story from Foxnews.com, which lifted the story from a controversial website in Orlando. That website ran with the story based on the claim from a parent of one “anonymous” child at Heathrow Elementary School.
Neither Fox News nor Fox News.com nor the conservative Florida website ever bothered to check if the parents were who they said they were, if the child actually existed, if any other families were making the claim or if the child in question might have been playing a prank.
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If the child really does exist, he or she is now the hero of Howard Stern fans everywhere. Because not only did the parents of this kid get punked, so did a national “news organization,” which aired a bogus story and misled more than a million people. Baba Booey. There isn’t enough space here to list everything Fox News got wrong just this past week.
Even if you want to confine this discussion to false claims about “Christmas colors under attack,” well, Fox has been down this road before. In December 2005, Bill O’Reilly declared that the Plano Independent School District in Texas “told students they couldn’t wear red and green because they were Christmas colors.” O’Reilly added that it was “fascism.” After the school district refuted the report that it banned students from wearing red and green, O’Reilly retracted his claim.
Will “Fox and Friends” retract their claim about that Florida elementary school?
I doubt it. O’Reilly occasionally fashions himself a credible TV host. “Fox and Friends” could care less.
Furthermore, the claim about a “war on Christmas” keeps the morning show’s viewers frightened and malleable.
After all, if you think your religion is under attack, you are going to wake up each day and check back with the happy warriors fighting on your behalf. But the media strategy — as shrewd as it may be for Fox News — comes with a price.
The practice of saying whatever seems plausible, regardless of the truth, needlessly divides our nation, generates unfounded hatred and plays to our worst fears.
Furthermore, that approach is un-American. Our nation was founded by enlightened and intellectually vigorous thinkers who embraced freedom, liberty and justice. Fox News continually stands for shallow, dishonest carnival-barking that perpetuates and leverages the most debased paranoia. In this season of faith and hope, pray that Fox News will someday choose to sanctify and honor its fellow citizens instead of misleading us, dividing us and trying to dumb us down. Miracles do happen.
*Full disclosure: I worked at Fox News from the channel’s startup in 1996 until I left the company at the end of 2001.
Editor's Note: The original version of this story was unclear about the timing on the airing of a Fox News report on a Florida school banning the colors red and green. An updated version posted on Monday afternoon clarified that the original broadcast was two years ago.