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Tuesday, March 25, 2003
Some conservatives have admitted that the reason that Fox News claims that it is "fair and balanced" is to drive liberals up the wall. Everyone knows that Fox News tilts to the right. The less disingenuous arguments in favor of Fox News' journalistic standards are: (1) that many other media outlets tilt to the left, so Fox, while not balanced, is at least a counter-balance, and (2) that Fox News presents the news in a more entertaining, tabloidish fashion than other outlets, which draws viewers to television news that wouldn't otherwise watch.

I agree with argument (2). Indeed, I watch Fox News because I like the tabloid sensibility, whether seen in Shepard Smith's bits and bites from around the country (20 second reports on minor local stories that nonetheless are interesting for one reason or another), or the outrageous shouting matches on Fox's top-rated debate programs, "The O'Reilly Factor" and "Hannity & Colmes".

But argument (1) is entirely phony. I realize that there are whole books written on media bias, and that topic is really too specialized for me to comment on. (From what I have seen, however, I think that conservative arguments about liberal media bias focus way too much on the fact that the people reporting the news are liberals, a manifestation of the more general principle that most college graduates are liberals or moderates, and most conservative college graduates go into the corporate world and not journalism. But reporters only have control of content on the micro level of how particular issues are presented, and what questions are asked of what people. Issues of story assignment, editorial control, and the scope of what is "newsworthy", in the mass media, are generally made by corporate types who both tend to have more conservative types and who tend to make decisions that favor conservatives because such decisions profit the company. This isn't to say that there is no liberal bias; rather, I suspect that the extent of liberal bias is overstated, and that there are also conservative biases, and other sorts of biases, that are ignored by conservative media critics.)

So why, then, is argument (1) phony? It is phony because even assuming arguendo the rest of the media (or much of the rest of the media) is biased to the left, that sort of bias is qualitatively and quantitatively different than Fox News' rightward bias. Fox News spins, rather than simply slanting, the news. For instance, for the entire runup to the war on Iraq (and continuing during the opening days of the war itself), Fox News has accompanied its Iraq war reports with a caption at the bottom of the screen reading "War on Terror". Sometimes those words also appear on a screen behind the anchors as well. Now, no responsible news outlet, even a biased one, would put those words on the screen for reports on the Iraq war. Why is that? Because the contention of whether the Iraq war is part of the war on terror is extremely debatable. Even many of the war's supporters admit it isn't, and that war against Saddam Hussein is not connected to 9/11 or fighting Al Qaeda. The Bush Administration of course claims that it is fighting terrorism in Iraq, of course, but the evidence of Iraqi connections to Al Qaeda has not been particularly convincing.

Now I am not saying that you have to buy my argument that I don't believe the war on Iraq is part of the war on terror. You can believe that it is. My point is that no responsible journalistic outfit would casually identify the war on Iraq as "War on Terror", because of the existence of strong colorable, debatable arguments that it is not. The words "War on Terror" are the sort of thing that one would see on one of those prefabricated backdrops behind an Administration official giving a speech supporting the Iraq policy-- i.e., they are one side's spin as to what the war is about. The liberal equivalent of putting them on the screen during discussions of the war on Iraq would be for one of the other networks to put the words "War for Oil" on the screen while discussing the same war. And no "liberal" network has done or will do that.

Another example is Fox's use of the term "homicide bombers" to describe Palestinian suicide bombers. This terminology is forced, redundant (it's pretty obvious that a bomber is trying to murder people), and less descriptive than "suicide bomber". While all bombers are attempting to commit homicide (though some don't succeed-- Fox calls them "homicide bombers" anyway), the unique thing about the Palestinian bombers is that they are also committing suicide. Fox may feel that to remind viewers of this fact is somehow to honor their sacrifice, but what ever happened to another of their slogans, "we report, you decide"? Giving the viewers information so that they can make up their own minds is what journalists in a free society are supposed to do. Once you get into the area of deliberately suppressing facts in order to sway your audience's opinion, you are closer to Al Jazeera than you are to CBS or CNN.

Fox News, at its worst, is a spin operation. Maybe conservatives have a point that Dan Rather is a liberal Democrat, but he doesn't blatantly adopt the questionable language of one side of contested political questions or deliberately suppress facts to sway the audience. I like Fox News for what it is, and will continue to watch it. But "fair and balanced" my ass.

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