By:
February 8, 2021

The stunning news came down Friday evening. Fox News Media dumped Lou Dobbs, one of the company’s best-known on-air personalities.

What happened?

So far, there’s only speculation because no one is publicly talking about the specifics.

Here’s what Fox News Media said: “As we said in October, Fox News Media regularly considers programming changes and plans have been in place to launch new formats as appropriate post-election, including on FOX Business — this is part of those planned changes. A new 5PM program will be announced in the near future.”

That really doesn’t get into why the move with Dobbs was made so suddenly and seemingly without warning.

Because, make no mistake, it was a stunner.

One couldn’t help but notice the timing. Dobbs’ show was canceled just a day after Fox was hit with a massive $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit by Smartmatic. Dobbs, himself, was named in the lawsuit after the election technology company claimed he spread disinformation about Smartmatic to bolster unfounded allegations that the election was stolen from Donald Trump.

But Fox on-air personalities Maria Bartiromo and Judge Jeanine Pirro also were named in the suit and their shows haven’t been canceled.

Could the decision be ratings-driven? That seems unlikely because Dobbs had Fox Business’ highest-rated show.

Is it that Dobbs spread too many lies about the election? Well, he was hardly the only one on Fox to push that narrative.

So what gives? Why now? What was the rush? What happened that Fox decided it couldn’t have Dobbs on the air one minute longer?

It’s possible, as some have suggested, that Dobbs was thrown overboard to show it is addressing the serious allegations made by Smartmatic. Appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik brought up how Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News, handled some of his news tabloids in London during the phone-hacking scandals.

Folkenflik told host Brian Stelter, “They would throw somebody over the side and see if that was enough. This is an effort to cauterize the wound to distance Fox from this feverish conspiracy theory.”

Or maybe Fox bosses were worried about the kinds of things Dobbs might say next. Rather than attempt to corral an out-of-control host, maybe it figured it was best to just cut ties.

Or maybe there’s something else we don’t know, something that hasn’t come out yet. Fox sources told CNN’s Brian Stelter that “tensions between Dobbs and management flared several times in 2019 and 2020.”

Whatever it was, it was surprising. Surely, we haven’t heard the last of it.

The pitfalls of a lawsuit

While we’re on the topic of Dobbs, let’s address another aspect of this lawsuit that Smartmatic has filed against Fox News. Should journalists be nervous about the lawsuit? If successful, might it lead the way to litigious-happy companies or individuals suing every time a news outlet says something they don’t like?

During an episode of The New York Times’ “The Daily” podcast, New York Times media columnist Ben Smith — who was on the receiving end of defamation suits and threats while running BuzzFeed News — said, “In general, I’ve been highly skeptical and alarmed by lawsuits that try to stop media organizations from getting information out into the world.”

However, Smith admitted on the podcast that events over the past few years, such as the proliferation of misinformation put forward by some media outlets, have shaken his conviction about that. And now he’s “hesitantly open about the idea” because the courts may be one of the few tools available to effectively fight disinformation. But, he admits, he’s “still really wary over the complications.”

During an interview with Smith for “The Daily,” Smartmatic attorney J. Erik Connolly said, “I don’t think any reporter that does his or her job and pays attention to the facts and reports what they believed to be true has anything to worry about. … This is a case where we are alleging a story was simply fabricated. And when you fabricate a story and it causes great damage then you should be worried about that. But I don’t think that’s something that most responsible journalists do.”

On the same topic, Michael Steel, a spokesperson for Dominion, another election technology company that has threatened lawsuits, told CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” “All I can tell you is that the First Amendment is first for a reason. The protections are important. But it does not protect repeatedly, knowingly, willingly lying to the American people, particularly about something as important as our election system. This is an attack on thousands of local elected officials and poll watchers who conduct our elections. And it’s an attack on the faith in democracy that undergirds our constitutional republic.”

Controversial Times

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Two prominent journalists have resigned from The New York Times in recent days.

First, there was Donald McNeil Jr. He was the science and health reporter — and one of the Times’ leading reporters on COVID-19. He resigned over an incident that happened in 2019. The Daily Beast broke the story that McNeil, while serving as a guide on a Times-sponsored trip to Peru for high school and middle school students, used the N-word. Initially, Times executive editor Dean Baquet authorized an investigation about the trip and determined McNeil’s language was offensive and showed poor judgment, but he didn’t think McNeil’s intentions were “hateful or malicious.” He determined McNeil should be given “another chance.”

Days after that decision, a group of Times staffers (well more than 100) sent a letter to publisher A.G. Sulzberger that criticized the Times’ handling of the situation. Times management, including Baquet, responded by saying they largely agreed with the letter and would investigate further. Soon after, McNeil resigned.

According to New York Times media reporter Marc Tracy, McNeil sent a message to staff on Friday saying he used the racial slur while talking with a student about the suspension of a classmate who had used the N-word.

McNeil wrote, “I should not have done that. Originally, I thought the context in which I used this ugly word could be defended. I now realize that it cannot. It is deeply offensive and hurtful. … For offending my colleagues — and for anything I’ve done to hurt The Times, which is an institution I love and whose mission I believe in and try to serve — I am sorry. I let you all down.”

Meanwhile, the other departure was that of Andy Mills, an audio journalist who helped create the wildly successful “The Daily” podcast. Mills also was the producer and co-host of “Caliphate” — and it was that podcast that could have led to Mills’ departure from the Times. “Caliphate,” a podcast about the Islamic State, ultimately had serious flaws — the biggest being that much of it was based on a source who was likely a fabricator.

However, in an online post announcing his resignation, Mills said “Caliphate” was not the reason for his resignation. Mills said no mistakes on “Caliphate” were acceptable, but also wrote, “When it came to fact-checking support for the project, the Times’ leadership told us that they had their own internal system in place for stories of this nature. That system broke down. And they did not blame us. In fact, throughout The Times’ reexamination of ‘Caliphate,’ they told our production team that we’d engaged in rigorous and careful journalism. One masthead editor even made it a point to tell me: ‘I won’t let you blame yourself.’”

But as all of this was going on, Mills wrote that his lack of punishment over “Caliphate” might have been described as some as coming down to “entitlement and male privilege”

“That accusation,” Mills wrote, “gave some the opportunity to resurface my past personal conduct.”

Mills then addressed incidents that happened while he worked at WNYC and before the Times.

“I have made mistakes that I wish I could take back,” Mills wrote, “Nine years ago, when I first moved to New York City, I regularly attended monthly public radio meet up parties where I looked for love and eventually earned a reputation as a flirt. Eight years ago during a team meeting, I gave a colleague a back rub. Seven years ago I poured a drink on a coworker’s head at a drunken bar party. I look back at those actions with extraordinary regret and embarrassment.”

Mills said he was punished at WNYC, changed his behavior, never had another incident and was upfront with the Times before being hired there. However, Mills claims many on Twitter exaggerated or lied about his past behavior.

Mills wrote, “As the pressure of this online campaign has grown to encompass some staffers of The Times, it has led to a climate where, even though I still love the mission of this important institution, I feel it is in the best interest of both myself and my team that I leave the company at this time. I do this with no joy and a heavy heart.”

A super interview

“CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell interviews President Joe Biden for the Super Bowl pregame show. (Courtesy: CBS News)

Joe Biden continued the tradition of giving a presidential interview to the network hosting the Super Bowl. This year’s Super Bowl pregame interview went to CBS and “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell.

O’Donnell started by asking Biden if, a year from now, we can have a Super Bowl with a full and normal crowd, as opposed to what we had this year — a limited crowd because of COVID-19. (Biden said he hopes so.)

That led to a conversation about COVID-19 vaccinations and the reopening of schools.

On a lighter note, Biden was asked which quarterback he would rather have throw to him — Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady or Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes. (For the record, Biden went with the “young guy” — Mahomes.)

The portion of the interview that aired on the pregame lasted just a couple of minutes, but that wasn’t the total extent of the interview. Portions of it appeared on Sunday’s “Face the Nation” and more will air on tonight’s
“CBS Evening News.”

O’Donnell did a solid job with the interview, talking about COVID-19, China and former President Donald Trump. In fact, it was the exchange about Trump that made the loudest noise. Biden said he would let the Senate make the decision on Trump’s impeachment, but added Trump should not still receive intelligence reports.

“Because of his erratic behavior unrelated to the insurrection,” Biden said.

O’Donnell said, “I mean, you’ve called him an existential threat. You’ve called him dangerous. You’ve called him reckless.”

Biden: “Yeah, I have. And I believe it.”

O’Donnell: “What’s your worst fear if he continues to get these intelligence briefings?

Biden: “I’d rather not speculate out loud. I just think that there is no need for him to have the intelligence briefings. What value is giving him an intelligence briefing? What impact does he have at all, other than the fact he might slip and say something?”

Super segment

For most, the never-ending Super Bowl pregame show is just something to have on in the background as you get ready for the big game. But CBS’s pregame show paid special attention to diversity and that topic delivered the most powerful moments of the show. Narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis, CBS looked at the NFL’s “Jackie Robinson moment” — the time the NFL truly broke the color barrier. Davis described it as a story that has been “overshadowed for far too long.”

It included these somber words said by Davis: “Just imagine you’re invisible. No one hears you. No one sees you. So no one remembers you. You’re the best at what you do, but you don’t get an audience and nobody is giving you a stage. Think about how utterly helpless that would make you feel. That was what it was like for countless Black athletes whose names you will never know.”

Davis then told the story of Kenny Washington, who reintegrated the NFL in 1946.

After the piece, CBS Super Bowl pregame host James Brown delivered an equally strong commentary, calling out the NFL and its owners for its failure to promote and welcome more people of color into leadership positions.

“When it comes to the hiring of Black head coaches, team and league executives and Black ownership,” Brown said, “frankly, the track record is pitiful.”

Brown pointed out the facts. Just two of the past 20 heading coaching hires have been Black. There is only one Black team president — and he was the first. And there are no Black owners. Since 1920, of the league’s nearly 500 head coaches, less than 5% have been Black.

“I’d certainly like to believe today that there’s not even a hint of that calculated exclusion we saw in the 1930s,” Brown said, “but can we really attribute this to an issue of unconscious bias when the numbers tell an unambiguous story? Whatever the true cause, the solution is the intention and the willingness of the owners.”

Kudos to CBS Sports for carving out time during the pregame show to address topics that need to be addressed, as well as talking about an issue that surely made the NFL uncomfortable on a day when the league wants to only celebrate its sport.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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