fox news sean hannity
Fox News anchor Sean Hannity (Image: Fox News)

The latest newsroom revolt in the United States (at Fox News of all places) has lifted the lid on one of modern media’s dirty secrets: the commentary grift.

A report on American online politics and culture site The Daily Beast quoted an unnamed insider suggesting that the network frequently deploys right-leaning, black contributors and guests to give cover to racially insensitive content.

Well consider me shocked — about as shocked as Captain Renault was to discover gambling going on in Rick’s Café in Casablanca. Or perhaps as the popular Futurama gif: “I’m Shocked! SHOCKED! Well, not that shocked.”

“Grift” is an American word by origin. It’s a back-formation from “grifter”, believed to be a portmanteau formed out of “graft” and “drifter”.

In traditional media today it’s become a critique of a type of editorial practice. 

The grift has taken on a life of its own, without any need for grifters. It’s a fair exchange of value between commentator and publisher. Both know what they’re getting out of it: status (and usually money) for the commentator and political cover for the distributing medium.

The unnamed source in the Fox revolt is simply exposing the commentary grift out in the open for all to see. Here we can best see how it’s used as a tool for attack and defence. 

As with Fox in the US, News Corp in Australia predominantly uses it to attack, to advance its conservative agenda and target its enemies. (Again, I’m shocked!) This occurs particularly through the op-ed pages of The Australian and on Sky News after dark. There you’ll find two versions: one from the apostate; the other from the disappointed loyalist.

Who better to attack, say, unions than a former union activist? Or who better to attack Labor than former Labor MPs? They bring not only the credibility borrowed from their past activities but also, as Whig historian Thomas Macaulay wrote: “That peculiar malignity which has, in all ages, been characteristic of apostates.”

Then there’s the disappointed footy-fan loyalist: the ageing (and at least publicly) Labor-voting commentator who, more in sorrow than anger, rarely has anything good to say about their team except insofar as they can attribute historical Labor values to the conservative side. (See also, Scomo: the workers’ friend.)

While the Fox revolt is about calling out this grift in the Black Lives Matter cultural reset, there’s also a revolt against its use as a tool of defence, where it’s deployed to assert a narrowly defined sense of “balance” as a pre-emptive right of reply, usually for the right. (See also ABC talk shows’ affirmative action for News Corp commentators.)

Don’t confuse false balance with real diversity. When the ABC’s Insiders responded to criticism for its all-white panel discussion about Black Lives Matter with at least one journalist of colour for three successive weeks, it simply made it a better program. 

In the US, this balance-grift exploded in the Tom Cotton “send in the troops” op-ed controversy in The New York Times, which the paper was forced to walk back. Similarly USA Today was forced to apologise for an op-ed from Trump official Peter Navarro attacking the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Doctor Anthony Fauci. The piece had been published as a counter to the paper’s editorial praising Fauci and — the masthead discovered too late — “did not meet USA Today’s fact-checking standards”.

It’s a linguistic misreading: “op-ed” is a newspaper abbreviation for “opposite the editorial page” not “opposed to the editorial we just published and we’re worried we might cop flak for”.

For Australians, the concerns about standards may seem odd. In 2014 the Australian Press Council effectively removed op-eds from its review, saying: “The principle of reasonable fairness and balance applies to presentation of facts … but not to writers’ expressions of their own opinion.”

Can’t be getting in the way of the commentary grift.