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Why Facebook Is Giving So Much Airtime to Fox News

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Shepard Smith on Facebook Watch background

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images.

Facebook is trying to fight fake news and become a better news source—and it seems to think Fox News can help.

On Monday, the social network will begin airing a full slate of TV-style news programming on its streaming video platform, Facebook Watch. It’s paying established media outlets to produce shows exclusively for Watch, and on Wednesday it released its initial lineup. As you can see below, the programming is relatively diverse, but a certain conservative cable news channel appears to take up a disproportionate amount of the airtime.

Fox News, of course, is among the most openly partisan of major media outlets and is deeply mistrusted by liberal viewers. So it’s eyebrow-raising that the network will play such a heavy role in a Facebook initiative that’s supposed to be rebuilding trust in the media. But it’s actually not as bad an idea as it might seem, given the state of media in 2018 and the tricky line that Facebook is trying to walk.

First, some background. The underlying story here is that Facebook is pushing hard into TV news, splashing out the money to attract big names such as CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Univision’s Jorge Ramos, and Fox News’ Shepard Smith. Their programs will air alongside a more diverse set of offerings from younger online publishers such as BuzzFeed, NowThis, and Mic. At the same time, Facebook has also been trying to reassure conservative figures that its platform is not biased against ideas on the right.

In partnering directly with reputable media companies, Facebook is aiming to build a more credible, self-contained news product to counteract the sensationalism, partisanship, and fake news that have flooded its news feed over the years. That dovetails with its recent emphasis on original video, with video advertising seen by Facebook executives as a key to the business’s future. Whether people actually want to watch TV on Facebook, let alone live TV news, remains a question. My colleague Inkoo Kang watched a bunch of it in January and came away unimpressed.

But we already knew all that. What’s new today are the launch date and the full programming lineup, and the latter immediately caused a stir in the media world.

It’s worth pointing out that the schedule isn’t quite as Fox News­–heavy as it might appear at first blush. Fox News Update is an hourlong program, so it won’t be dominating Facebook Watch for six hours every weekday morning, as the chart above seems to imply. Still, two hours per weekday and an hour on weekends is more airtime than any other outlet will command.

But still: Why so much Fox News?

One answer is that Fox News is already a huge player on Facebook. As of June, its stories generated more Facebook engagement—likes, comments, and shares—than those of any other publisher, according to social media analytics firm Newswhip. (CNN was second.) So it’s natural that Facebook would turn to Fox News (and CNN, for that matter) to anchor its news lineup on Watch.

As for the concern that Fox News is a heavily biased outlet—one with a penchant for prioritizing partisanship over news judgment—it’s valid. But here’s the thing: Conservatives mistrust most other major news outlets nearly as much as liberals mistrust Fox News. So if Facebook is determined to make a show of bipartisanship in its news projects, which it is, then it doesn’t have a lot of other good options on the right. Lydia Polgreen, the editor in chief of HuffPost, made this point succinctly on Twitter.

Polgreen’s source for that claim was a Yale University study, which I covered in some depth in February.

In an ideal world, Facebook might identify high-quality news sources based on a nuanced understanding of journalism ethics and the media landscape. But Facebook has always been reluctant to exercise its own judgment, or indeed human judgment of any kind, in prioritizing the news that its users get. And so it has turned to more objective-seeming metrics such as user surveys to try and establish which news sources are “broadly trusted.” On those metrics, we can assume that Fox News scores relatively well, at least compared to other conservative outlets such as Breitbart or the Daily Wire. Indeed, Fox News seems to be thriving since Facebook implemented its trust rankings, even as smaller, left-leaning publications such as Slate falter.

The good news, for those who care about Facebook’s effects on the news, is that the Fox News programming that will air on Facebook Watch is not the outrageous, conspiracy-mongering, Trump-worshipping variety. Fox News told me the channel is viewing the project as a way to build on its news brand while establishing its presence on a new platform.

The word news is key here, because Fox News distinguishes internally between its news programming (think Shep Smith) and its opinion programming (think Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity), with the news programming being far less partisan. Smith in particular has a reputation as a relatively down-the-middle newsman and has long covered President Trump with healthy skepticism. A March 2017 profile of Smith in the Washington Post portrayed him as “the Fox News anchorman who drives the Fox News faithful crazy.” The other two Fox News personalities who will be anchoring its Facebook Watch Show are Carley Shimkus and Abby Huntsman, both of whom also hail from the network’s news side. None is likely to inundate viewers with right-wing propaganda.

That’s in contrast to a lot of the conservative programming that’s doing well on Facebook Watch today. For instance, my colleague April Glaser reported that right-wing Facebook Watch channels found viral success with misleading defenses of Trump’s immigration policies at the height of the family separation controversy.

So, yes, Facebook’s foray into TV news appears likely to further entrench Fox News as a heavy presence on the social network. But at least the programming is likely to be more fact-based and evenhanded than what conservatives typically see in their Facebook news feeds. And who knows—maybe some of them will even stick around on Facebook Watch long enough to be exposed to some different points of view.

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