E.D.'s Apology: Yeah, Right!

06/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fox News Channel anchor E.D. Hill has apologized for uttering the words "terrorist fist jab," among others, in reference to the victory gesture Barack and Michelle Obama exchanged last Tuesday. I, for one, don't buy the apology.

Let me start by acknowledging that it could have been worse: one slip of the tongue and YouTube would have crashed under the onslaught of "E.D. Hill Fist Job" hits. But I digress.

It's long past the day when anything FNC does under the guise of reporting news should surprise anyone, but this "fist jab" thing needs to be addressed for two reasons. It is further evidence of Fox's basic dishonesty (in case anyone thinks the jury is still out on that.) And, just as important, it illustrates the depths to which what we have come to know as cable news has gone -- particularly at Fox, which pioneered the concept of misinformation-as-news and elevated it to an art form.

It's not surprising that the offending phrase came during a lead-in to a commercial break. In television, this is when everyone gets creative. The object is to be provocative, to tease what's coming up in a way that holds the audience through the break. The danger, particularly in news, is that carelessly creative copy can mislead.

In this case, the hook was: You might be surprised by what SOME people are saying about the Obamas' fist bump. The copy read, "A fist bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab? The gesture everyone seems to interpret differently." And Hill delivered it skillfully, pausing for effect twice on the take-home phrase: "A terrorist ... fist ... jab?"

What was misleading about the tease? Let's start with the premise, that the fist bump is a "gesture that everyone seems to interpret differently." A bit of over-statement there, don't you think? Sure, some people use the bump simply to say hello, in place of a handshake; some use it to congratulate, in place of a high five. But who thinks it has terrorist implications?

Just one person, apparently. Not a terrorism expert or an informed observer of any sort; not a columnist; not even a pandering politician or a nut-job pundit (Google "Michelle Malkin Dunkin Donuts.") No, the source for Hill's grabber was merely a website reader -- a website reader! -- who, in posting a comment about a column on the site, opined that the Obamas' bump resembled a "Hezbollah-style fist jab."

Think about it. This means that a news reporter can stand on a street corner, wait for a passerby to make some ridiculous comment about a person or issue in the news, then report that "some people are saying" whatever. In fact, that "whatever" can be anything the reporter -- or the reporter's boss -- wants it to be.

If you think that's too cynical a concern, you've probably forgotten the report from a Fox correspondent in Iraq the day after Election Day 2006, when Democrats regained control of Congress. There were, she said, "reports of cheering in the streets on behalf of the supporters of the insurgency in Iraq that they're very pleased with the way things are going here and also with the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld." Interestingly, her words were a near-perfect match for those of Fox News V-P John Moody in his memo earlier that day suggesting what his correspondents might be on the lookout for.

That, in my view, was a major violation of whatever rules of journalism remain in television news. Hill's Obama/terrorist tease might seem insignificant by comparison, but its implications are just as serious. It shows not only how pervasive sloppy writing is in cable news, but how dangerous it can be in the hands of a news outlet with a political agenda.

Fox clearly holds no trademark on shoddy reporting, but no one else carries it to the same extremes or applies it so well as a weapon of mass propaganda. There are many hard-working and dedicated people at FNC, but they are surrounded by (and take orders from) people who are either politically motivated, willing to subvert the report to fit management politics, or simply unaware that what they do is not news.

Now look at Hill's "terrorist fist jab" tease in that context. You have the hook (differing interpretations of the fist bump); it's unsupported by fact, but who cares? And you have the grabber -- the provocative line suggesting a terrorist angle.

What you don't have, though, is a payoff for the viewers. Back from the commercial break, the segment - an innocuous (and worthless) chat with a pop "body language" expert -- doesn't even mention the terrorist fist-jab notion.

So what are the implications of that tease? Was its inherent dishonesty justified because it got viewers to stay through the commercial? Was the deception a simple transgression, nothing more than the work of an over-imaginative copywriter? Or was it a conscious attempt to taint the Obamas by putting them in the same sentence with the word "terrorist"?

I doubt that anyone instructed the writer to make that association. But having worked at FNC and witnessed the effects of its please-the-boss mentality, I know that the writer didn't need direct instruction.

At Fox, it's okay to bend facts, or stretch them, to make a point. Innuendo reigns, its dishonesty often disguised with a question mark. And everyone knows who's fair game for it, and who is not. When was the last time one of FNC's patented cheap shots hit a favored Republican, or a friend of Fox management?

This week, after four days of criticism elsewhere in the media, Hill readdressed the Obama/terrorist tease. "I apologize," she said, "because, unfortunately, some thought I personally had characterized (the fist bump) inappropriately. I regret that. It was not my intention. And I certainly didn't mean to associate the word 'terrorist' in any way to Senator Obama and his wife."

At the least, Hill might have rephrased her apology to say that she didn't care whether she associated the Obamas with terrorism. But given Fox's history, I'm not sure even that would be telling the whole truth.