Through a combination of “talking head” interviews (progressive media critics, former FOX News producers and FOX News staffers, some anonymous) and video footage culled from actual FOX News broadcasts, Greenwald methodically builds a case against FOX News, not only for its ideological slant or direction, but for its intentional obfuscation of the line between news and (right-wing) commentary. The fiction of a dividing line, a compartmentalization between news and commentary, has been dissolved through Rupert Murdoch’s ideological policy-setting, and Roger Ailes, Chairman and CEO (and former media strategist for Nixon, Reagan, and the elder Bush). In its place, Greenwald argues, FOX News has substituted right-wing cant, character attacks, negative spin (for anyone perceived to hold a progressive, leftist view), and positive spin (for anyone on the right of the political spectrum). FOX News presents itself as “fair and balanced,” per their trademarked motto (their other catchphrase, “We Report. You Decide.” is equally deceptive, suggesting an absence of bias in covering and reporting the major news items of the day).
Greenwald argues in convincing fashion that FOX News is anything but “fair and balanced,” and their motto just another example of the pernicious spin that helps to persuade its viewers of a singular point of view, on all issues, domestic or foreign. How is this uniformity of perspective achieved? Greenwald points to the “message of the day” memos generated by senior news editors who determine the talking points (usually in line with Republican talking points) that the news anchors and commentators will parrot throughout the day. For example, when Richard Clarke, former counter-terrorism czar under the Clinton and Bush administrations, testified before the 9/11 Commission earlier this year, FOX News chose not to focus on his allegations about the Bush administration’s questionable approach to terrorism before 9/11, but instead focused relentlessly on a single meme: he was out to sell his book, which neatly coincided with his testimony before the commission. They preferred to smear Clarke, rather than examine and critique the substance behind his testimony.
FOX News, however, attempts to create the “appearance” of balance in several ways: one of its more popular right-wing pundits, Sean Hannity, is paired with a centrist liberal Alan Colmes, who doesn’t match Hannity in personality, delivery, or forcefulness of expression. It’s Hannity, not Colmes, who leads the interviews, and who begins each program with a countdown until President Bush “wins” the next election. Greenwald also notes the lack of balance among the guests selected for commentary-driven programs, the majority are conservatives, and even among the minority commentators, they are chosen for their more centrist views (which often leads to the minority commentator to conceding points to his/her opponent on the right, and agreeing with them on larger issues).
Next to Bill O’Reilly, however, Sean Hannity is an exemplar of balanced, respectful commentary. O’Reilly’s so-called “No Spin Zone,” shows FOX News at its worst. His acerbic, caustic, bullying behavior toward his guests might make for Springer-level entertainment, but it adds nothing to the political discourse necessary to separate facts from spin. In his defense (if defense is the right word), O’Reilly might pretend to having no ideological axe to grind, but his behavior alone immediately makes that claim suspect. O'Reilly has made and will continue to make his reputation on boorish, bullying behavior that adds nothing to the political discourse or to public life. He's one of many right-wing pundits who have contributed to the degradation and polarization of American life. His rude, crude, hectoring behavior, cutting off guests who disagree with him, and cutting their mikes when he's been obviously flustered, should have no place on a "news" channel. Healthy political discourse depends on the free and open exchange of views from different perspectives. Personal attacks do nothing to add to the discourse we need for a fully functioning, participatory democracy.
O'Reilly has called opponents of the war on Iraq traitors, and, per his signature phrase, to "shut up." Outfoxed shows, in its entirety (because of its brevity) the now infamous interview with Jeremy Glick, the son of a 9/11 victim, who holds not particularly radical views (the "chickens coming home to roost" argument, that since the U.S. helped to fund the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, but, once the Soviets left, lost interest there, leaving chaos behind and free reign to Muslim extremists). O'Reilly went on the attack Glick quickly and shamelessly tried to invoke Glick's late father. Glick responded calmly, saying his father would have agreed with him, because they had discussed this particular issue before his death. At no time did Glick raise his voice with O'Reilly (he smartly watched O'Reilly's show before going on, to better prepare himself for the onslaught). O'Reilly became apoplectic, tried this time to invoke Glick's mother, cut off Glick's mike, and threw Glick out of the studio (Glick was escorted out by a security guard for his protection). O'Reilly is on air both to push a right-wing agenda and, of course, to make Rupert Murdoch as much money as possible.
FOX News’s ideological slant is at its most dangerous for a participatory democracy during presidential campaigns, given that a large part of the American population receives its daily news not from multiple sources, newsprint, online, or television, but from a single source, the FOX News Channel. Greenwald cites the now infamous call by political/polling analyst John Ellis (George Bush’s first cousin) on election night 2000 for George Bush, which in turn was based on predicting Florida for Bush. Given the statistical dead heat in Florida, calling the election for one candidate had several effects: it made Bush the presumptive winner and Gore the presumptive challenger unhappy with the results of a democratic election, and almost as importantly, after FOX News called the 2000 election for Bush, the other major television and news networks changed direction and called the race for Bush. Greenwald cites Roger Ailes' less-than-convincing testimony before a U.S. Senate committee to discuss this issue. Ailes argued that calling the election for George W. Bush in 2000 was an unintentional, unfortunate error (its beneficial effects for the current president in the White House notwithstanding).
Worse still, however, is FOX News potential impact on the current presidential campaign between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry. Viewers of the FOX News Channel have been relentlessly barraged with positive news about the economy and the situation in Iraq (sometimes in stark contrast to other news outlets). Negative spin is saved for raising fears about another (as yet unspecified) terrorist attack on U.S. territory. With John Kerry, the buzzword has been, per the Republican talking points, that he's a “flip-flopper” or his innate "Frenchness" (a not-so-thinly veiled commentary on his masculinity). Greenwald intercuts a variety of FOX News commentators and pundits using the same phrases ad nauseum. The substance of Kerry’s proposals for the economy, healthcare, education, or for foreign policy isn’t examined in anything but a dismissive, shallow manner.
An alternative to FOX News, spinning the news and commentary from a left, progressive perspective is one solution (if potentially unviable financially at present). An underlying question there, however, is: do we, as progressives, want the news slanted to any ideological perspective, or do we want the media to follow traditional (if mostly in theory) norms of reporting, attempting to uncover facts, and offer analysis on those facts? The highest ideal should, in fact, be “fair and balanced” reporting, not in name, but in practice. Another solution, long discussed by progressives is media reform, reform aimed at enhancing the availability of information and multiple viewpoints on a diversity of issues likely to affect the American public.
In the past, media reform was difficult to implement, due in large part to the nature and size of corporations (and the complexity of government regulation). With the creation of organizations like MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress (co-financiers of Outfoxed) who function to ostensibly influence elections, candidates, and, of course, public policy (as well as watchdog groups like Media Matters and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, both of whom Greenwald cites in his film), goals can be articulated, money collected, and membership galvanized to participate in and outside of government. First stop, a concerted effort to resurrect the “fairness doctrine” on a federal level, a doctrine that traditionally called for equal time for different points of view on public policy issues. The reclamation of the “fairness doctrine” must begin, however, with the recognition that the airwaves are a common, public good, and should therefore, be regulated with the public interest trumping financial gain. A participatory democracy depends on unbiased (as much as that’s possible), objective information, widely disseminated across multiple media.
© Mel Valentin, 21st August, 2004
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