Fox News admits bias!

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
May 31 2005 12:40 PM

Fox News Admits Bias!

Its London bureau chief blurts out the political slant that dare not speak its name.

Sound the klaxons! Corporate Message breakdown at Fox News! This is not a drill. Repeat: This is not a drill. Assume battle stations! Fire in the hole! A-woo-ga! A-woo-ga!

The usually disciplined foot soldiers at Fox News have long maintained that their news organization is not biased in favor of conservatism. This charade is so important to Fox News that the company has actually sought to trademark the phrase "fair and balanced" (which is a bit like Richard Nixon trademarking the phrase "not a crook"). No fair-minded person actually believes that Fox News is unbiased, so pretending that it is calls for steely corporate resolve. On occasion, this vigilance pays off. Last year, for example, the Wall Street Journal actually ran a correction after its news pages described Fox News, accurately, as "a network sympathetic to the Bush cause and popular with Republicans." Getting one of this country's most prestigious newspapers to state that up is down and black is white is no small public-relations victory, and if we can't admire Fox News' candor, we can at least marvel at its ability to remain on message. Or rather, we could admire it, before Scott Norvell went and shot his big mouth off.

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Norvell is London bureau chief for Fox News, and on May 20 he let the mask slip in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal. So far, the damage has been contained, because Norvell's comments—in an op-ed he wrote decrying left-wing bias at the BBC—appeared only in the Journal's European edition. But Chatterbox's agents are everywhere.

Here is what Norvell fessed up to in the May 20 Wall Street Journal Europe:

Even we at Fox News manage to get some lefties on the air occasionally, and often let them finish their sentences before we club them to death and feed the scraps to Karl Rove and Bill O'Reilly. And those who hate us can take solace in the fact that they aren't subsidizing Bill's bombast; we payers of the BBC license fee don't enjoy that peace of mind.

Fox News is, after all, a private channel and our presenters are quite open about where they stand on particular stories. That's our appeal. People watch us because they know what they are getting. The Beeb's institutionalized leftism would be easier to tolerate if the corporation was a little more honest about it.

Norvell never says the word "conservative" in describing "where [Fox's anchorpeople] stand on particular stories," or what Fox's viewers "know … they are getting." But in context, Norvell clearly is using the example of Fox News to argue that political bias is acceptable when it isn't subsidized by the public (as his op-ed's target, the leftish BBC, is), and when the bias is acknowledged. Norvell's little joke about clubbing lefties to death should satisfy even the most literal-minded that the bias Norvell describes is a conservative one. (Lord only knows where Norvell acquired the erroneous belief that Fox News is "honest" about its conservative slant; perhaps he's so used to Fox's protestations of objectivity being ignored that he literally forgot that they continue to be uttered.)

I don't think it's too much of an exaggeration to compare Norvell's op-ed to the Vatican's belated admission, after 359 years, that Galileo had it right when he said the earth revolved around the sun. Now how about a prime time seppuku by Fox News chief Roger Ailes? Failing that, maybe ABC News could lend Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer for Ailes' weepy confession. Hey, there, funny face, where's the broken-winged sparrow underneath that tough-guy exterior? Fox News has little to lose in terms of credibility—sensible viewers discounted Fox News for conservative bias years ago—and everything to gain in terms of heightened visibility. Say it with me, Roger: "Eppur si muove!" Doesn't that feel good?

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.