Unethical Headline of the Year: Fox News

The headline:

“Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General”

This is how Fox noted the upcoming publication of President Obama’s children’s book,  Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters (Knopf, $17.99), which pays tribute to 13 diverse Americans whose best traits he sees in his daughters, Malia and Sasha. Among the Americans honored is the legendary Sioux chief Sitting Bull, who, among other achievements, defeated the troops of General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. Sitting Bull earned his status as a great leader and hero of Native Americans, as he tried desperately tried to resist the incursion of the U.S. population into Indian territory.

There was good reason for the Sioux to oppose Custer, who had presided over an infamous massacre of the Cheyenne in 1868, accurately portrayed in the film, “Little Big Man.” The Great Sioux War of 1876–1877 was a war of necessity and survival for Sitting Bull’s tribe, and characterizing it as an enemy action, as Fox’s deceptive headline does, ignores the moral complexities of the westward expansion and the undeniable brutality against Native Americans that U.S. policy embraced.

There is a legitimate argument to be had over the choice of Sitting Bull as an American icon, but that is not what Fox’s headline is seeking. It is using President Obama’s interesting and historically defensible choice to imply sympathy with America’s enemies and a lack of loyalty to his own country. This is, I think, a new low for Fox. It unfairly impugns the President’s loyalties, grossly misrepresents his intent, and encourages distrust. The headline is also intentionally vague, omitting the name of Custer, who was not merely a “U.S. General,” but a U.S. General who disgraced his command, hunted down Native Americans, and willfully engaged in what we would call war crimes today.

And, of course, the President is not honoring Sitting Bull for the Little Big Horn massacre, but for his strong and courageous leadership of a people in crisis. The headline is a textbook example of deceit: literally true, intentionally misleading.

The scurrilous Fox headline recalls the words of attorney Joseph Welch to red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy during the Army Hearings in 1954, the moment when McCarthy’s hold on the public was finally broken:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

In Fox’s case, as in McCarthy’s, the answer is clearly no.

9 thoughts on “Unethical Headline of the Year: Fox News

  1. So if Obama chose George Washington, should the London Times headline read “Obama Praises a Man Responsible for Thousands of British Deaths?” That would be unfair, improper, and certainly not the aspect of the man we would focus on, but unless they were telling a lie I don’t see it as unethical. Besides, I was thinking how Sitting Bull made peace and later toured Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Maybe the headline should have read “Obama Praises Indian Chief Turned Circus Performer.”

    • Deceit is a lie…just an especially effective variety. You do know that, right? It is using the literal truth in a manner that it creates an erroneous impression. Deceit is unethical, and your George Washington example would be unethical, because it is an unfair characterization….just like “Obama praises slaveholder” would also be unfair to Washington and Obama.

      • Selecting one truth out of the context of a larger story and representing it as THE truth is certainly deceitful. But that being the case, nearly every word that comes out of D. C. and nearly every media story is deceitful and “worst” becomes a matter of the eye of the beholder. The spin masters on the right and the left both need to be condemned. So maybe like Diogenes of old you and I need to light a lantern and go in search of an honest man.

        • I’m ready when you are! Deceit is indeed the official language of D.C., which is why the public has been lulled into tolerance of it. I have always admired the fact that the legal ethics rules, in current Rule 8.4, “Misconduct” and its predecessors, group deceit with misrepresentation, dishonesty and fraud…which is right whee it belongs.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Unethical Headline of the Year: Fox News | Ethics Alarms -- Topsy.com

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