Fox trades legitimacy for sleazy journalism

Scandals are an inevitable part of our ego-driven political process. You can count on them like clockwork, with members of both parties falling prey to the lure of power.

But even when our politicians aren’t diddling their staffers or tweeting pictures of their nether regions to adoring fans — even when government is operating as it should, in other words — you can count on Fox News to fill the void with some manufactured controversy of their own.

Last week, that controversy was “Muffin-gate.”

It all started when Bill O’Reilly, the network’s darling primetime anchor, announced that he had proof of the “wasteful and extravagant spending at a number of law enforcement conferences.” He pointed to a recent audit by the Department of Justice, which found that 10 conferences between October 2007 and September 2009 cost American taxpayers $4.4 million.

The worst part? According to O’Reilly, organizers of the conference had splurged a whopping $16 per muffin. PER muffin!

This seemed to hit a nerve. Not even O’Reilly, who was more than happy to brag about staying in some of the “swankiest hotels on Earth” — his words, not mine — had spent $16 on a muffin before! How dare anyone else?

Despite the dubious reliance on anecdotes, it seemed like O’Reilly had a point. The $16 muffins would be a pretty damning example of bureaucratic largess if the story were true.

But it was not true. Not one bit.

Justice Dept. spokeswoman Gina Talamona issued a statement explaining that the invoices were misinterpreted: “It is clear that the muffins did not cost $16. The abbreviated banquet checks did not reflect all of the food and services provided. The package consisted of food, beverages, staff services and function space, including a 450-seat ballroom and more than a dozen workshop and breakout rooms each of the five days of the conference.”

Then there was the statement by Hilton Worldwide, the company that manages the hotel where the Justice Dept. conference took place. According to their records, the $16 was for a full continental breakfast that included “fresh fruit, coffee, juice, muffins, tax and gratuity.”

To be fair, both statements were released after the controversy began to gain traction. But any legitimate news organization — or, in the case of Fox News, any news organization that likes to consider itself legitimate — has a journalistic obligation to its viewers to seek clarification before spreading unsubstantiated twaddle like Muffin-gate.

It would have taken only a matter of minutes to contact the Justice Dept. or Hilton Worldwide for a statement. And then perhaps a couple hours more to realize the scandal Fox News was ready to run with was not so much an emblem of government extravagance as it was an emblem of lazy invoicing, hardly worth days of national media attention.

But none of these standard checks were performed. None mattered to Fox News.

The ultimate irony here is that Muffin-gate undermines Fox News’s intended narrative. Government officials at the Justice Dept. were not wasting taxpayer dollars. In fact, they were acting exactly as they should have: A dubious charge was flagged by the Inspector General as part of an internal expense audit, then investigated further. The charge was found to be legitimate — $16 for a catered continental breakfast in Washington, D.C., is not unreasonable — and then the issue was put to rest.

The price of muffins may seem like a mundane point of debate. But it speaks to the growing willingness of Fox News to cast aside journalistic integrity in order to promote their extreme anti-Democrat, anti-government agenda.

There are plenty more examples from recent years: Shirley Sherrod and the Department of Agriculture, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and “Climategate.” In each instance, once the fog of initial outrage passed, the groups of people vilified by Fox News were cleared of all wrongdoings — without exception.

In pushing these stories and trying to create controversies where none exist, Fox News is engaging in one of the sleaziest forms of agenda-driven tabloid journalism, where facts are minor nuisances whose value is dwarfed by the appeal of any story that makes Democrats look bad.

There’s nothing wrong with having strong opinions — Fox News has that right like the rest of us.

But, if Fox News wants to be taken seriously, they must stop making things up. Only when they have repaired their reputation as a Koch-funded smattering of amoral puppets should they be granted a seat at the adult’s table.

_Jason is a senior in Engineering and Business._