Fox News whiffs on coverage of settlement with Gretchen Carlson

Hours after Vanity Fair, NPR, CNN and The Washington Post reported that Fox News was settling with former anchor Gretchen Carlson for $20 million, the network has still said nothing about the settlement on air.

Earlier this morning, Fox News posted a story by "MediaBuzz" host Howard Kurtz acknowledging the lawsuit had been settled. A separate report by Kurtz that Greta Van Susteren was leaving the network made mention of the lawsuit but did not include Carlson's name or the $20 million figure.

And as the story was being reported on air elsewhere, including at CNN, Fox News opened its 10 a.m. "America's Newsroom" segment with a package of stories and interviews about Hillary Clinton emails and a poll showing Donald Trump with a solid lead among independent voters.

By 10:30 a.m., Kurtz was on the air talking about the media's perception of Trump's rise in relation to one new poll. But there wasn't a word about the Carlson lawsuit settlement. Shortly thereafter, the network announced that Van Susteren was leaving Fox News without mentioning the lawsuit that led to the departure of a key anchor and the chairman of the news division.

The apology itself is another matter. Here it is in full, from parent company 21st Century Fox:

21st Century Fox is pleased to announce that it has settled Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit. During her tenure at Fox News, Gretchen exhibited the highest standards of journalism and professionalism. She developed a loyal audience and was a daily source of information for many Americans. We are proud that she was part of the Fox News team. We sincerely regret and apologize for the fact that Gretchen was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve.

The statement fails in the same way many half-hearted apologies do. Note the careful omission of any guilty party: "Gretchen was not treated with the respect ..." The statement does not say who failed to respect her. It holds no individual accountable.

Fox and its parent company could learn a thing or two about public apologies from media companies — both those who've done it successfully and those who have failed. Former "Nightly News" host Brian Williams tried and failed to win the public back when he equivocated about his flawed war coverage. He famously said, "I am sorry for what happened here." It's the difference between saying "I am sorry you were harmed," and "I am sorry I harmed you."

Rolling Stone's unfortunate response to its botched "A Rape On Campus" exposé also illustrates how not to mend fences with the public. The magazine made a good first move, calling in an outside investigative team to plow through its reporting. But when the report showed the magazine's fact-checking and editorial policies failed, Rolling Stone fired nobody and announced no public plan for overhauling its editorial process.

Former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, for his part, shows no sign of apologizing to Carlson. The New York Times has reported the Ailes camp has retained a lawyer who's hinted at a possible lawsuit against New York magazine, which has led coverage of the Ailes story.

21st Century Fox should amend its apology to spell out precisely who was responsible for failing to treat Carlson with respect. And Fox News should issue a public report disclosing the details its internal investigation revealed and whether it intends to make any changes to prevent future allegations of harassment.

And in the meantime, Fox News should be transparent with viewers on-air about who Fox News recently settled with, for how much and why.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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