On Saturday, March 9, Jeanine Pirro, on her regular Fox show, lit into Ilhan Omar, the freshman Democratic representative from Minnesota. “Omar wears a hijab,” Pirro said. “Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to Sharia law, which, in itself, is antithetical to the United States Constitution?” It was a scandalous diatribe. On Saturday, Pirro’s show was off the air. Instead, Fox reran an episode of the documentary series, Scandalous, focusing on a 1991 rape case involving JFK’s nephew. The schedule change irked one high-profile viewer. “Bring back @JudgeJeanine Pirro,” President Trump tweeted, tagging Fox.
Had Fox brought Judge Jeanine to justice? The network wouldn’t say, but CNN’s Brian Stelter reported, based on a conversation with a source, that Fox had, indeed, formally suspended Pirro over her Omar comments. The New York Times’s Michael M. Grynbaum soon confirmed that reporting. According to Stelter, Fox has not fired Pirro. It’s not yet clear when her show will return. Nor was it clear when, or why, the decision was taken. Fox publicly condemned Pirro’s remarks the day after they aired—an unusual move for the network. Some observers speculated that Friday’s horrifying mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, may have been decisive given the Islamophobic tenor of the scandal. “Maybe [Fox] had a nightmare vision,” Jay Rosen, a professor at NYU, tweeted. “Pirro on a short leash, but getting urged on by Individual One [Trump], with the NZ attacks as fuel for a wildfire she could start with one remark.”
Others, including Stelter, suggested pressure from advertisers likely factored into Fox’s calculus. As The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr reported early last week, at least four corporate advertisers dropped Pirro after the Omar episode. At the same time, advertisers also fled Tucker Carlson’s show after Media Matters for America, a left-wing media monitoring group, dug up and published offensive comments Carlson made on Bubba The Love Sponge’s shock-jock radio show. Last Wednesday, Media Matters organized a noisy protest outside Fox News’s Manhattan headquarters, timed to coincide with an ad-pitch meeting going on inside. “The boycott and Media Matters is having an effect on them, and I really think it’s a bottom-line effect,” David Zurawik, a media writer at The Baltimore Sun, told Stelter on Reliable Sources yesterday.
Fox is no stranger to ad pressure following on-air controversy. Laura Ingraham faced an advertiser boycott last year; Sean Hannity faced three. In December, at least 18 companies yanked commercials from Carlson’s show after he said immigrants make the US “poorer and dirtier and more divided.” The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote, during that episode, that these boycotts have tended to be like snowstorms: “initially disruptive and attention-getting but usually ephemeral.” Sustained outrage is a long-term ratings—and revenue—draw for Fox; in the short term, the network has been known simply to move ads to less controversial shows. It’s rarer for hosts to go off air, but hardly unprecedented. In the past, Bill O’Reilly, Jesse Watters, and Ingraham have all taken abrupt “vacations.” Stoking controversy is obviously tiring work.
As Farhi noted, sustained ad boycotts have forced change in the past: in 2011, a two-year campaign forced Glenn Beck off Fox. And as Zurawik said on CNN yesterday, moving ad inventory away from prime time is not a sustainable tactic. Nonetheless, it would be naive to expect that Fox’s benching of Pirro will prove a tipping point. We’ve seen this dance before: Fox, under advertiser pressure, makes a short-term concession, tries to keep it low key, then reverts things to the way they were before. Pirro was not granted the vacation excuse. But we shouldn’t be surprised if she’s soon back and picking up where she left off.
Below, more on Pirro and Fox:
- Very Online: Trump’s demand that Fox reinstate Pirro came in a bizarre Twitter thread that resembled a pep talk for the network. “Keep fighting for Tucker, and fight hard for @JudgeJeanine. Your competitors are jealous—they all want what you’ve got —NUMBER ONE,” the president wrote. “Don’t hand it to them on a silver platter. They can’t beat you, you can only beat yourselves!” Also yesterday, Trump took aim at Fox weekend anchors Arthel Neville and Leland Vittert, asking if they were trained by CNN; called on the federal government to investigate Saturday Night Live (again); and retweeted an account with a QAnon avatar, amid a slew of other weird missives.
- Rhetoric and receipts: While Trump took time to defend Pirro amid her Islamophobia scandal, the massacre of Muslims in New Zealand seemed to be less on his mind. Chris Wallace, a real journalist at Fox, pressed Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, hard on the president’s history of anti-Muslim rhetoric, citing various examples of inflammatory language. “The president is not a white supremacist,” Mulvaney said.
- The boycott debate? During the Carlson boycott in December, Politico’s Jack Shafer argued that ad boycotts aren’t an appropriate tactic for targeting news organizations. “Journalists are independent of the companies that buy the advertisements adjacent to their copy. But then advertisers are independent, too—of the journalists whose pages and minutes they subsidize with ads,” Shafer wrote. “The boycotters don’t see that independence. An ad, for them, is an act of agreement with content.”
- Mouse eats Fox: Elsewhere in the Fox-verse, the sale of company entertainment assets to Disney is finally expected to close Wednesday. According to Vanity Fair’s Nicole Sperling, the deal could cost 4,000 to 10,000 jobs.
A quick PSA: The Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at Columbia Journalism School is hosting its inaugural symposium with Jelani Cobb, the center’s director, on Monday, April 1, at 4.30pm. Panelists include Carol Anderson, Martha Mendoza, Jenni Monet, Ginger Thompson, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. For more information, click here.
Other notable stories:
- The weekend news cycle was dominated by responses to the Christchurch massacre, which started overlapping debates about Islamophobia and right-wing extremism, the role of social media in spreading hateful thought, and what the media should and should not report on. On Friday, CJR’s Mathew Ingram recapped the latter debate: “information is everywhere instantaneously, and the media no longer has the kind of gatekeeper role it used to have,” and yet “the press has a clear responsibility not to pour gasoline on a roaring internet blaze of racism.” As Ingram notes, “almost everyone agreed that posting the actual video of the killings was beyond the pale.” Writing for the LA Times, Virginia Heffernan had a contrary take. “Should we really be ‘protected’ from footage that documents white supremacist terrorism as vividly as anything can?” she asked.
- Joseph Menn, a technology reporter at Reuters, revealed last week that Beto O’Rourke, who just announced a presidential bid, participated, as a teenager, in the Cult of the Dead Cow, an infamous group of computer hackers. In a behind-the-story piece, Reuters said O’Rourke confirmed his membership of the group in November 2017, “on the understanding that the information would not be made public until after his Senate race against Ted Cruz in November 2018.” (Menn was working on a book about the Cult of the Dead Cow.) The disclosure drew fury on right-wing Twitter, including from Cruz. On Friday, CJR’s Alexandria Neason had questions, comments, and concerns about Vanity Fair’s recent O’Rourke cover story.
- Rudy Giuliani, once ubiquitous on TV as the president’s legal attack dog, has mostly been absent from our screens since January 20, when he bungled his “victory lap” over the special counsel slapping down a controversial report from BuzzFeed. Giuliani tells Axios’s Jonathan Swan that he decided to stay off-screen so as “not to upset the apple cart” with Mueller’s team. Swan, however, hears that Trump has griped in private about Giuliani’s ineffectiveness, and suggested he stay off TV for a while.
- The Times’s Mark Mazzetti and Ben Hubbard report that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman authorized a secret campaign to silence dissenters in 2017, over a year before state assassins murdered Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The campaign, which was to involve surveillance, kidnapping, detention, and torture, was partially carried out by the same team that killed Khashoggi. American officials call it the Saudi Rapid Intervention Group.
- For CJR, Sarah Feldberg writes that a class-action lawsuit alleging the misclassification of California truck drivers as independent contractors, rather than employees, is having a knock-on effect on freelance journalists in the state, some of whom have been cut loose by publishers anxious to ensure compliance. “Heralded by labor groups as protecting the rights of vulnerable workers and confronting the abuses of the gig economy, [the suit] has also created widespread confusion about who’s exempt, who’s in trouble, and what the ruling will mean for freelancers,” Feldberg reports.
- Earlier this month, a Texas judge ordered the deportation of Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, a Mexican journalist who claimed asylum in the US after facing threats related to his work. Last week, Michigan Reps. Debbie Dingell and Fred Upton wrote to Immigration and Customs Enforcement asking that the decision be overturned, the Detroit Free Press’s Niraj Warikoo reports. Last year, Gutiérrez Soto reflected on his experiences in ICE detention in a first-person piece for CJR.
- And for CJR, Charles Davis evaluates The Intercept’s billionaire-dependent business model following a painful round of layoffs at its parent company, First Look Media, last week. On Friday, yet more job losses hit the journalism world: the Cleveland Plain Dealer said it’s cutting 12 editorial staff.