October 20, 2009

Not Necessarily the News

[Click image to view at full size]

Last week, White House Communications Director Anita Dunn stated plainly that the Obama Administration wasn't going to continue pretending the Fox News Channel was... well... a news organization:
Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party... What I think is fair to say about Fox, and certainly the way we view it, is that it really is more a wing of the Republican Party.
Predictably, in the masturbatory world of the 24-hour news cycle - in which on-air personalities seem to love nothing more than to cover themselves - this has been a big deal. There has been breathless coverage of the response from Fox News that the White House is conflating reportage with opinion, and conventional wisdom among the media establishment has been that this is a bad move for the White House, and one that diminishes the presidency.

My own perspective however, has been that this is a long time coming; Fox News has not only blazed its own tawdry, partisan path to new lows, it has dragged down the quality of broadcast journalism overall. (Evidence of said decline is below.) To my mind, handled properly, there is little risk to the president, and this may well be something that reinvigorates our cowardly, incurious Fourth Estate.

All that said, I have friends and even relatives who watch Fox News, and so I think it is only fair that I back up those assertions. For starters, click on the image above, and zoom it to full size. (Thanks to whoever created this - I stumbled across it online, and it is, at present, uncredited to the best of my knowledge.) Now take a look at these screen captures and notice several things:
  • There are about as many examples from "straight reporting" programs as there are from so-called opinion shows
  • In all cases, the Fox News Channel logo is displayed to reinforce the idea that what is being watched is "news"
  • There are consistent tactics: the use of the caption in the form of a question to express an opinion while maintaining deniability ("Dems helping the enemy?"); the rebranding of Republicans from John McCain to Lamar Alexander to Arlen Specter (pre-party-switch) to Mark Foley to Larry Craig as Democrats when they were either embarrassing to the GOP or failing to toe the party line; captions designed to favor a conservative position ("Usama bin Laden is talking to the far left, saying we're on the same side" ); and even outright lies ("Scooter Libby found not guilty of lying to investigators").
The response to this type of observation, however, is almost always to trot out MSNBC as the so-called "liberal equivalent" of Fox News. Liberal voices probably outweigh conservative ones on MSNBC (but even that is a tenuous toe-hold for claims of comparability, as there is simply no liberal equivalent to MSNBC's conservative Morning Joe on Fox News, for example), but even if the two networks' pundits provided precise counterweights to one another, there is simply nothing on MSNBC or any other major network that rivals the consistent and blatant conservative advocacy utterly permeating Fox's supposedly straight reportage. (If you haven't clicked on the image, now would be a good time to do so.)

In fact, the people running Fox News haven't really made this fact much of secret. Executives at the network have described the Fox News Channel as the "voice of the opposition" who see their confrontation with the Obama Administration as "the Alamo." To be certain, the press corps should absolutely be adversarial when it comes to politicians; but it needs to be consistently so, and in a way that is based on fact, rather than propaganda or the promotion of a particular agenda.

The Fox News Channel has literally promoted - not simply reported on, promoted - the so-called Tea Party movement, encouraged disruptions to town hall meetings held to discuss health care reform, and celebrated political victories for what it calls "Fox News Nation". Fox has even gone so far as to pass off a Republican press release as its own research - lazily failing to correct a typographical error from the original version. Ms. Dunn's assertion that the network is no more than an arm of the Republican Party has a deep basis in fact.

For some people, this will almost certainly still be insufficient reason to switch their source for news; they may simply prefer to get their information in a way that is most compatible with their world view. Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether the goal of journalism should be to inform or to comfort, here is the single most damning fact about the Fox News Channel: It does a terrible job of factual reporting, and it has done a terrible job consistently.

In 2003, for example, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) conducted a study to examine misperceptions among the public in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq:

An in-depth analysis of a series of polls conducted June through September found 48% incorrectly believed that evidence of links between Iraq and al Qaeda have been found, 22% that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, and 25% that world public opinion favored the U.S. going to war with Iraq. Overall 60% had at least one of these three misperceptions.
The most misinformed of our misinformed populace? Those who got their news from Fox:

Likewise, a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center revealed that, when given a standardized set of 23 factual questions, Fox News Channel viewers were half as successful answering those questions as people whose primary news source was either The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, which are both comedy progams.

Even now, this trend continues. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from September reveals not only a startlingly high amount of ignorance and misinformation regarding health care reform efforts among the general population, but Fox News Channel viewers again bringing up the rear with regard to valid information:

72% of self-identified FOX News viewers believe the health-care plan will give coverage to illegal immigrants, 79% of them say it will lead to a government takeover, 69% think that it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and 75% believe that it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing care for the elderly.
None of these beliefs are true, so even if one attempts to defend the Fox News Channel's advocacy for Republican positions, it's hard to understand why anyone would go to bat for such a piss-poor source of information. Of course, if someone is getting all their facts from Fox News, given the network's track record, ignorance and misinformation - especially about ignorance and misinformation among its viewership - is probably understandable.


John said...

Great post! Really well stated. Unfortunately there seems to be a problem with the image. I'd love to see it if you can point me to it!

PBI said...

Hi John,

Thanks for stopping by, and for the kind words.

The image appears to be working when I check it, but it is good sized, and may take a while to download. In any case, here is the direct URL for it: http://img200.imageshack.us/img200/434/foxnews152b.jpg