What Fox News should have said
A new campaign by Check My Ads to get advertisers to stop supporting the conservative news network prompted an entirely inadequate response.
By Brad Berens
On Thursday, the folks at Check My Ads received widespread coverage about their new campaign to stop advertisers from supporting Fox News. The three Check My Ads founders—Claire Atkin, Nandini Jammi, and Mikel Ellcessor—believe that Fox News has created and disseminated disinformation about the 2020 Presidential Election and other topics. (You can see representative coverage here and here.)
Regardless of whether or not you agree with Check My Ads, the statement Fox News put out in response was inadequate.
The Check My Ads Campaign
What’s unusual about Check My Ads is that they’ve gone after online advertising exchanges instead of advertisers themselves or their advertising agencies.
Cheat Sheet: For those of you not in the ad biz…
- A big advertiser or brand, like Capital One, spends millions putting their ads in front of you.
- Creative agencies like DDB make the ads.
- Media agencies like Mindshare plan where the ads will appear in different media properties.
- Ad exchanges—like the ones operated by Google, Verizon, and Amazon—use sophisticated software to place the ads in real time.
When you visit a page online, that generates empty spaces for ads. In milliseconds, the exchange figures out who you are, what you care about, what you’re likely to buy, holds an online auction, and then places the winning ad in front of you. This is also called “programmatic advertising,” which accounts for 90% of online banner ads.
For decades, brands have dodged responsibility for their advertising budgets supporting propaganda and disinformation by pointing at the media agencies that plan where ads go. The media agencies have then pointed back at the brands, saying that they only do what their clients tell them to do. It’s a convenient Dumb and Dumber strategy…
… where each party hides behind the other.
In targeting the ad exchanges, Check My Ads has found entities that can’t hide as easily:
“Ad exchanges have set a line, they set a standard for how their publishers should operate. We are just saying, ‘You need to uphold your own standard,'” said Atkin, who says her group is going after the “ATM of the disinformation economy.”
Why the response by Fox News is a failure
When asked about Check My Ads, Fox News (in a statement that does not appear anywhere on its website) dismissed the campaign as censorship:
“There’s no greater threat to democracy than the effort to silence free speech. FOX News Media strongly supports the first amendment and is proud to lead the industry in featuring more dissenting viewpoints on the major issues facing the country than our cable news competitors, which is why we attract the most politically diverse audience in television news.”
What Check My Ads is doing is not a First Amendment issue.
Here is the text of the First Amendment in its entirety:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The most important word in the amendment is Congress. The first amendment only prevents the government from limiting the freedom of speech. What companies want to do is up to them. Publishers do not have to publish things they don’t want to publish. Advertisers don’t have to fund things they don’t want to fund.
Getting brands, agencies, and exchanges to live their professed values is not censorship. If brands, agencies, and exchanges limit their financial investment in any media property, then the media property will have to decide how it wants to respond.
Moreover, it’s hypocritical of Fox News to cry censorship. Fox News supported what is commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida that limits the free speech of teachers.
Plus, restricting funds from things you don’t like is a longtime conservative practice, which is why conservative activists have worked to defund Planned Parenthood, which Fox News has covered approvingly.
These are not freedom of speech issues. Instead, they’re about…
Freedom of Reach
I first hear the phrase “Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach” in a remarkable 2019 speech by the filmmaker Sasha Baron Cohen. That speech was directed against social media, not conservative media.
Just in the past few days, while every other news network covered the Congressional hearings on the January 6, 2021 insurrection, Fox News chose to relegate those hearings to its much smaller Fox Business News network in order to contain the reach of the hearings. Some coverage has suggested that Fox News did this because its own support of the insurrection would have been uncomfortably obvious if they aired the hearings, but that’s not my point.
Fox News airing something other than the hearings is not censorship.
Likewise, if Check My Ads gets brands, agencies, and exchanges to stop supporting Fox News, that’s not censorship either. It’s just free market dynamics at work—the sort that Fox News supports in other contexts.
What Fox News should have said in response to Check My Ads is this: “We believe in our values, the quality of our reporting, and in the diversity of our commentators. Advertisers and viewers have every right to support the journalism that correlates with their values, and we hope that they continue to support our work at Fox News.”
Why didn’t they? I’m still thinking…
P.S. I’ve been vague on purpose about my own opinions when it comes to whether or not Fox News is disinformation because that’s not what this piece is about. For the curious about my opinions: I believe in the work of Ad Fontes Media (for which I am an advisor and investor) that rates news organizations for bias and reliability. You can get a sample of Ad Fontes’ important work in the latest edition of its famous Media Bias Chart.
Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).
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June 15, 2022