Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Fox News revisited

Liberals would have you believe Fox News is destroying America.  Is that true?

Oh, Fox News.  Why do liberals loathe and detest thee so?

I think the answer to that is pretty obvious, actually.  Liberals can’t control Fox News and, despite the best efforts of the left to shout it down, huge numbers of Americans watch it.

And they fight over it.  Whenever I mention the phrase “Fox News,” one of my close relatives gets up and leaves the room.  Well, then.  But she’s certainly not alone.  When the subject of Fox News came up on my radio show this week it resulted in louder voices than I’ve heard from callers in some time.

Let’s be clear.  Despite the network’s marketing slogan, Fox commentators are neither fair nor balanced, and this does affect the network’s main non-commentary news coverage at times.  Let’s be clear about something else:  Just like any news organization, Fox News makes mistakes.  Of course it does.  Plenty of them.  Some are spectacular.

The difference is that when other news organizations step in a cow patty, liberal columnists typically don’t get their shorts in a bunch, pitch hissy fits, scream, shout, wave their arms, run in circles, and so on.  That response is reserved almost exclusively for Fox.

Recent example:   A couple of weeks ago Fox was blathering on and on about so called Muslim “no go” zones in Europe, places where police supposedly feared to tread and Sharia law ruled.  The reports were wildly exaggerated, and finally leaders and citizens of Britain and France called Fox on it.  Fox apologized profusely, and did so multiple times.

Liberal columnists then began gleefully pointing fingers and screaming, “Ah, ha!”  Leonard Pitts wrote, “So maybe you can see why serious people — a category excluding those who rely upon it for news and information — do not take Fox, well … seriously [ellipses in original], why they dub it Pox News and Fakes News, to name two of the printable variations.”

So there you have it.  Fox New is a joke and so are the people who watch it.  Millions of Americans, take note:  this means you.  You idjits you.  Fortunately, those with a bit more intellectual firepower than you possess are here to point out to you the error of your silly ways.  Consider yourselves corrected.

Fox’s hysteria about “no go zones” was completely out of proportion with the reality.  But there was a reality.  Fareed Zakaria, a Muslim American who skews liberal and who, like Pitts, is a widely read syndicated columnist, wrote this week that Muslim communities in Europe do stand apart, as do some of its other immigrant areas.  “Integration is something that America does well and with which Europe struggles,” he said.  “Europe still faces huge challenges in integrating those who are new or different into societies that have long been defined by blood and soil.”  And that, he said, contributes to the terrorist threat.

So there is an issue there, even if it is not quite as Fox painted.  Fox was off base.  But maybe not off planet, as its hand-wringing foes would have you believe.

The guest who got Fox started on the whole “no go zone” thing was a pundit named Steven Emerson, who is not a Fox employee but is a frequent contributor.   In his column Pitts tossed him off as a “supposed” expert on terrorism and pointed out that Britain’s prime minister had called Emerson an “idiot.”  Well.  If a politician calls a journalist an idiot, then it must be true.  Note that Emerson has written six books on terrorism.  The highly respected IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors) organization gave him its top prize for investigative reporting—and trust me when I tell you that IRE judges do not hand out this award to any random piece of drooling, unwashed weirdness found sitting on a park bench.  Does this mean Emerson is always right?  Of course not.  Is he a right-wing nutjob?  Does Fox’s association with him mean Fox is the land of wingnut whackybirds?  I think that answer is clear.  But you decide.

On my Tucson radio program I’ve documented many, many news media lies and distortions, and a fair amount of those have come from the liberal side.   Recently CNN presented a Muslim expert who blandly announced that 98% of all terrorism attacks in Europe were carried out by non-Muslims for non-religious reasons.  If you didn’t look at the report he cited for yourself, you’d never know that some attacks that clearly were carried out by radical Muslims were not classified as such, or that arrests of radical Islamics plotting such attacks in Europe had skyrocketed.  Further, if you missed the qualifying phrase “in Europe” the statement would lead you to believe that radical Islamics are among the world’s most lazy, unproductive terrorists, when in fact the vast majority of the deadliest terrorist attacks the world has seen have been carried out by such groups.  Did the CNN host challenge his guest on this issue?  No.  Did Leonard Pitts?   No.  Did anyone else?  Not that I could find.  Would a guest on Fox making such an outlandish claim in the opposite direction have been pilloried?  Probably—witness Steven Emerson. 

Recently NASA issued a press release claiming that 2014 was the warmest year on record.  Nowhere in the press release did NASA state what the difference was between the alleged hottest year and the second hottest year.  It turned out to be 0.02 degrees—and it further developed that this figure was well within the study’s margin of error.  In other words, the claim may not be true.  NASA also neglected to mention that the figure continues an ongoing pause in global warming, which has stalled in recent years despite all the greenhouse gasses that we’re continuing to pump into the atmosphere.  Did Leonard Pitts or any other columnist raise a hue and cry about these little omissions?  What do you think?  Not only did American media give NASA a free pass, but journalists and liberal politicians from the president on down trumpeted the figure as the latest proof that global warming will kill us all.  It took a British news organization to raise the challenge.

A primary difference between Fox News and the rest of the news media in this country is that, its dishonest “fair and balanced” slogan aside, Fox revels in its slanting.  The fact that its commentators favor the right is lost on absolutely no one.  But mainstream media also engage in slanting, with few traditional journalists jumping up and down about it (I don’t count avowed right-wing blog sites and pundits).  The CNN expert quoted above, who tried to make you believe something about radical Islam that just isn’t true and who went completely unchallenged, is one example.  Here’s another really mundane but very common one.  In my morning paper this week this headline appeared:  “$1-billion-a-year border bill unneeded, critics say.”  Why put the spotlight on the bill’s liberal opponents?  Couldn’t the headline as easily have read, “$1-billion-a-year border bill needed, supporters say?”  Of course it could have.  But that would not have fit with the newspaper’s coverage agenda—an agenda it would have you believe does not exist outside of its editorial pages.  The larger point is, both examples above are slanted.  An even-handed headline might have read, “Opponents debate billion dollar border bill.”  But that’s not what readers got.

This kind of thing happens every day, day in and day out.   Americans are not blind to it.  That’s why so many of them have come to believe the mainstream “objective” media are anything but.  And it’s why Fox News has found an audience.   Fox may be slanted, but it wears its values on its sleeve.  So does its audience, many of whom get their news exclusively from Fox.  By and large, Fox viewers don’t become conservative because they watch Fox.  They watch Fox because they’re conservative.

This makes liberals crazy.  Should it?  Is Fox News really endangering America?  My view is that obvious, generally acknowledged slanting is better than stealth slanting, which is what the rest of the media often give you.  And I further submit that Americans, despite their flaws, as a general rule are able to sort out the conflicting facts and opinions and make up their own minds pretty well.  If Fox News really does set the national agenda and brainwash Americans, Barack Obama would not have been elected, and then re-elected, would he?  And if people never changed their minds in the face of new facts, parties would never come and out of power, would they?

Because left-wing distortions so often get a free pass, I have come to believe that the national news media really do skew at least slightly left.  I think that most of the time, this skewing is not conscious.  I’ve never personally met a journalist who deliberately stirred political flavoring into his or her coverage.  But as an industry journalism does tend to favor the underdog.  This is engrained in the journalists’ code of ethics, which exhorts reporters to “give voice to the voiceless.” 

Who are the voiceless?  They’re most often defined as people like the poor, the disadvantaged, the homeless, the mentally ill, those without health insurance, racial minority groups, immigrants, women, sexual preference minority groups, gender identity minority groups, and so on.  Let’s be honest.  None of these are causes that are dear to the hearts of those on the far right.  But they are dear to the hearts of journalists.  I don’t say there’s anything wrong with giving voice to those whom society would otherwise tend to ignore.  Quite the contrary; this is a key purpose of journalism, and that's as it should be.  But it does tend to put a thumb on the scale for the left, which champions such groups and their viewpoints.

Does Fox go out of its way to cover these groups and give them voice?  Not so much.  Is there a place in our society for what Fox does do?  Does it perform a valuable service?  Personally, I think so.  It does tend to cover stories and showcase viewpoints that some other news organizations ignore or underplay.  You may feel differently.  But that, too, how the process is supposed to work.  The facts and opinions get placed on the table and then they find their own level, and value, in the nation’s free marketplace of ideas.

And here lies a valuable lesson.  You are part of that marketplace.  To participate fully, you cannot completely trust anything you read, see or hear—not anywhere, not at any time.  By their very nature, a journalist’s decisions in selecting facts for your consideration are part of a subjective process.  It’s a sliding scale—when pursuing the facts and selecting them for presentation in a mainstream news report (as opposed to print editorials and broadcast commentary), the best journalists employ craft skills so as to filter out personal biases.  The worst don’t, or don’t do it well.   Absolutely no one does it perfectly.  The best option at your disposal is to check out anything that doesn’t sound right to you—these days, that’s not hard to do.  The system does not work gracefully but it does work.  The Truth Is Out There.  Find it.  Be a skeptical consumer.

After all, that’s what journalists themselves do.  There’s an old saying in journalism:  “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”  These days news consumers would do well to adopt the same attitude.


Find more of my scribblings on Fox News here.  And if this discussion of TV news interests you, I invite you to check out my book Messages, which Kirkus Reviews called “an accomplished debut novel.”  It presents a side of local TV news you have not seen before.

©2015 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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