What's Your Beef With Fox, Mr. Dem-Basher?

A mostly political weblog.
Oct. 20 2009 6:05 PM

What's Your Beef With Fox, Mr. Dem-Basher?

First Rough Draft of kf : Some readers may understandably be confused by my posts about Fox. On the one hand, I seem to be saying Fox is ideological and unbalanced but, hey, that's the wave of the future, and as a lifelong opinion journalist I'm not that bothered by the prospect of living in a universe populated by such outfits (The New Republic , MSNBC, the New York Times , DRUDGE). On the other hand I find myself agreeing with the White House, and Jacob Weisberg, when they argue Fox is different from even those other non-balanced news enterprises--that it's "not a news organization."

I guess there are two distinct axes on which you can judge press organizations--actually, there are many more than two (see below), but two are important here: 1) Neutrality --Are they attempting to be "objective," trying to serve the "public interest" in some balanced way, or are they ideologically (or otherwise) driven in a way that inevitably colors their coverage--what topics they pick, what 'experts' they rely on, etc. 2) Independence --Whether they are biased or generally neutral, can somebody--a political party, a Mafia family, a government-- tell them what to do?

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I think it's pretty clear MSNBC and the NYT and Breitbart.tv are not neutral. They all have an agenda and they pursue it. But they are independent. The Obama White House can't tell Bill Keller what to do. They can't tell Keith Olbermann what to do. (They can suck up to him, and it will probably work, but that's a different issue.) Breitbart is for sure independent--I can't see anyone telling him what to do.

I think Fox is also not neutral (which, again, doesn't bother me) but it's also not independent (which does). This isn't because it's owned by Rupert Murdoch--moguls are, typically among the more independent sorts. It's because it's run by Roger Ailes. I have zero faith that Ailes is independent of the Republican party or, specifically, those Republicans who have occupied the White House recently--the Bushes. As I said, I think if Karl Rove called Ailes in 2003 and said "We don't want so much coverage of X" it's extremely likely that X would not be covered on Fox. A ...  suggestive example of Fox's loyalty is the debate on immigration, in which Ailes' network initially seemed to try valiantly--against the beliefs of most of its audience--to push the Bush White House line in favor of "comprehensive" legalization (while brushing aside its viewers' views).

It's certainly possible , in theory, to have a faux news organization that pretends to be an ordinary, ideologically biased journalistic outlet but that, at the top, is actually taking orders from Moscow, or from Kennebunkport. That news organization might have lots of viewers and money and White House press passes and some great on-air correspondents--it's not as if you could rip off their masks to uncover the alien underneath, like in V . ABC's Jake Tapper would refer to it as "one of our sister organizations."   But that's not what, ultimately, it would be about. It would be different in nature , just like Organizing For America would be different in nature if it decided to buy some cameras and cable time and start reporting the news.

Here are some other measures you could use when classifying media outfits:

3) Accuracy --Are they committed to not telling untruths?

4) Fairness --Do they try to present all sides, even if it's only to take on an opponent's best argument (as opposed to his worst)?

5) Discipline --Do they tolerate dissenting voices within the organization--even when those voices are effective? Will they assign major stories that will cut against their interests and arguments?

6) Willingness to Suppress: You can have a commitment to accuracy, even a commitment to going out and finding and publicizing the truth for its own sake--but what happens when that commitment collides cataclysmically with your other, ideological purpose? The New York Times has a high commitment to accuracy, for example--and it's so big it almost has to be relatively tolerant of individual deviation. But would it endanger the Democrats' Senate majority by printing a series of damaging exposes of a leading Democratic Senator shortly before an election?  The Times answered that one for us in 2002 .

Note, first, that these are all sliding scales . Only a few media enterprises print what they know to be untruths, but many more sometimes run with very suspiciously sourced stories. Some organizations tolerate lots of dissent, some very little. Some are wildly unfair, some occasionally give an idea of the strongest competing arguments. I suppose even Pravda in the Brezhnev era had its little moments of internal rebellion. But it's also possible to put some organizations at one end of the spectrum and some at the others.

Second, I'm not arguing that any of these additional qualities --aside from extreme inaccuracy (#3)-- are essential for a media enterprise to play a valuable role in the national debate. The idea of the First Amendment isn't that everyone will be fair. It's that everyone will be free, and out of it all the voters will come to their own conclusion about what's fair--right? Likewise, you can have a terrific national debate between ten magazines none of which publish dissenting views in their pages. And I'm pretty sure I wouldn't pass the suppression test if you framed the hypothetical right. Suppose on October 25th, 2008 I'd discovered, without doubt, and with documentation, that Barack Obama cheated on his taxes. Would I publish it? Probably not. I think Bill Keller would publish it way before I would. Would Marty Peretz publish something true that had a high probability of leading to the destruction of the State of Israel? I have my doubts! That doesn't make The New Republic not a "news" organization.

But I do think independence is essential to be a legitimate player in the new, emerging non-objective press world. If you're independent, there's always a chance you'll change your mind. At the least, you have to make fresh calculations about your views and interests, which means that in a free society there will be a steady proliferation of nodes of thought. If you're independent, Obama's press secretary Robert Gibbs has a shot at convincing you--even if you're conservative, even if you're wildly biased, even if your organization is almost dictatorial in structure. Even if you're Rupert Murdoch! But not, I think, if you're Fox.

Update: Maguire is unconvinced .

I can suggest a better place to look for signs of Fox's fealty to Bush - how did they handle the conservative rebellion in early 2006 over both Harriet Miers and the Dubai port deal?   If Fox was truly in the tank for Bush, as opposed to holding a conservative point of view, they would have tilted in favor of Harriet and Dubai.  Did they? [E.A.]

My impression is they did--on Miers, anyway. ... Samples:

MORT KONDRACKE, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, ROLL CALL: Well, you know, I trust the president. I trust the president to know this person that he's known for 10 years, and what her mind is and how she thinks. And he thinks she is strong and all that.

When various conservatives say, "Oh my God, you know, we're scared that she's going to turn into David Souter" -- as I said yesterday, I don't think that's going to happen.

-- Fox News All Stars, Oct. 4, 2005

BRIT HUME: Needless to say, our colleague, Mr. Will, lacks enthusiasm for Harriet Miers, as does Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Laura Ingraham, and the former Justice Department lawyer John Yu, not to mention David Frum. What do they all have in common? Well, they're products of the most prestigious Eastern schools.

Some observations on whether there is in all of this a whiff of elitism in the air from Fred Barnes, a graduate of the University of Virginia, as indeed I am, Mort Kondracke, a graduate, I'm afraid to say, of Dartmouth, and Mara Liasson, a graduate, dare I say it, of Brown University.

All right, folks. What about it? Is there a bit of elitism in all of this?

FRED BARNES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Well, there may be snobbery even.

(CROSSTALK)

HUME: Snobbery even? Snobbery even? Go ahead, Fred.

-- Fox Special Report, October 5, 2005

  7:11 P.M.

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