Roving thoughts and provocations

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It’s Time to Scrutinize Fox

Glenn Beck’s progressive “Tree of Revolution” chalk board, from the September 18, 2009 episode of his television show

Since the outbreak of the News Corporation scandal in Britain, journalists on this side of the Atlantic have been intently scrutinizing Rupert Murdoch’s American operations in the hopes of uncovering similar improprieties. Joe Nocera, in a column in the New York Times, complained that the Wall Street Journal has been “Fox-ified” since Murdoch took it over, running articles slanted toward the Republican party line and serving as “a propaganda vehicle for its owner’s conservative views.” David Carr, a Times media reporter, observed that the money the company reportedly paid out to hacking victims in England is “chicken feed” compared with what it has spent responding to lawsuits filed by smaller competitors like Floorgraphics (over allegedly stealing proprietary information) and Insignia Systems (over predatory business tactics). The Washington Post detailed the activities of Michael Regan, the head of News Corporation’s lobbying corps in Washington, which, it noted, is “one of the most muscular teams in town.”

Such digging into Murdoch’s American operations is certainly welcome, and if it turns out that his company has broken the law here as in Britain, then journalism prizes will fly. But it seems to me that these stories have overlooked the two properties in Murdoch’s portfolio that deserve the most attention.

One is the New York Post. Under Murdoch’s control, the Post has trafficked in the type of malicious, salacious tabloid journalism practiced by the now-defunct News of the World and the still-reeking Sun. The paper has delighted in breaking (and making) politicians, smearing enemies, and ridiculing many ordinary citizens. Its utter amorality was on recent display in its coverage of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, when in a matter of days it abruptly pivoted on its front page from calling him a “perv” to labeling his accuser a “hooker” (for which she is now suing the paper).

Yet the sins of the Post are mild when compared with those of the real centerpiece of Murdoch’s American holdings, the Fox News Channel. Since being launched in 1996, Fox has had a profound and toxic effect on the press and politics in this country. With a daily prime-time viewership of around 2 million—more than that of CNN and MSNBC combined—it has become the Republican Party’s most powerful booster. “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox,” David Frum, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, has observed. Fox has put several Republican presidential hopefuls on its payroll and allowed other candidates to fund-raise on its shows. After appearing on Sean Hannity’s program, for instance, 2010 senatorial candidate Sharron Angle boasted that that she had raised $40,000 before even leaving the studio.

Fox has helped to foster the Tea Party and amplify its message. In the days prior to the nationwide Tea Party gatherings on April 15, 2009, Fox ran more than 100 promos touting both its coverage and the movement. (“Americans outraged over unfair and crippling taxes,” went one. “They fight for their future. Neil Cavuto [a Fox anchor] is giving them a voice.”) The endless publicity given the Tea Party, in turn, helped make possible the sweeping Republican gains in the 2010 midterm elections. According to New York magazine, FOX News president Roger Ailes, disappointed with the Republican presidential field, called New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to urge him to enter the race—one of a number of king-making bids by Ailes, who, the magazine observed, has in a sense become “the head of the Republican Party.”

Unlike the News of the World, there’s no indication (as of now) that Fox has engaged in illegal activity. What it has done is violate every journalistic and ethical standard. It has promoted preposterous conspiracy theories, peddled blatant falsehoods, and given a soapbox to all sorts of cranks and crackpots. It ballyhooed President Obama’s “terrorist fist jab,” spread false reports that he attended a madrasa, gave Donald Trump a platform for questioning the president’s US citizenship, and endlessly promoted “Climategate,” the faux-controversy surrounding the leak of emails from climate specialists at the University of East Anglia in England. According to a public-opinion study released six months after the invasion of Iraq, 67 percent of regular Fox viewers believed that the United States had found clear evidence that Saddam Hussein had worked closely with al-Qaeda; another poll released last December reported that 60 percent of Fox viewers believe that most scientists have concluded that climate change is not occurring—examples of how the network has contributed to the steady seepage of know-nothingness throughout the American body politic.

Politicians and journalists who criticize or challenge Fox often find themselves targeted. I know this from personal experience. In early 2009, I wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review about the troubling excesses and outrages perpetrated during the 2008 presidential campaign by the right-wing media, including radio talk-show hosts, bloggers, and, most egregiously, Fox, which repeatedly sought to tie Obama to Bill Ayers, Louis Farrakhan, ACORN, and the like.

Not long after the article appeared, Mike Hoyt, CJR’s editor, received an email from a producer for “The O’Reilly Factor” asking him to appear on the show. Hoyt replied that he faced multiple deadlines and so had to pass. A few days later, while waiting for an early-morning bus in Teaneck, New Jersey, to take him into Manhattan, Hoyt was suddenly accosted by a three-person Fox camera crew demanding to know why he had allowed someone like myself, who had contributed to a “radical, far-left” magazine like the Nation, to write about Fox. Hoyt said that I had written for many outlets and that in any case the real issue was the argument I had made in the article. They were not interested in that, however. In a few minutes Hoyt’s bus arrived, and the crew tried to follow him onto it, only to be shooed away by the driver. A few days later, Bill O’Reilly played a clip of the encounter on his show.

Hoyt is but one of dozens of people Fox has similarly ambushed over the years. They have included high school principals, lawmakers, celebrities, and journalists. Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker was set upon for allegedly taking an O’Reilly segment out of context, while Amanda Terkel of the liberal Web site ThinkProgress.org was targeted while vacationing in West Virginia, two hours from her home in Washington D.C., after criticizing Bill O’Reilly for calling a rape victim who had dressed provocatively and gotten drunk “moronic.” Terkel accused Fox of stalking and harassing her. In several other cases, the police had to be called.

Fox’s on-screen stalkings have been no less disturbing. A good example is Glenn Beck’s oily campaign against George Soros. The billionaire investor and philanthropist, Beck repeatedly asserted, was the linchpin in a vast leftist conspiracy to control the world. In March, in an insidious two-part series titled “The Puppet Master,” Beck claimed that Soros was “notorious for collapsing economies and regimes all around the world” and that his “next target” was the United States. Reaching back into Soros’ youth in Nazi-occupied Hungary, Beck claimed that at the age of fourteen Soros used to go around with an anti-Semite “and deliver papers to the Jews and confiscate their property and then ship them off….” Here, he added, was “a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to death camps.” This allegation—based on Soros’ recollection that as a boy he had once accompanied a Hungarian official posing as his godfather while the man made an inventory of a house abandoned by Jews—was so spurious that even the Anti-Defamation League felt driven to protest.

For such inflammatory accusations to appear on a major American news channel would seem worthy of note, yet few news organizations took any. And that’s typical. The New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and other top newsgatherers rarely see fit to report on Fox’s misdeeds. When they do, the coverage is usually soft. A Glenn Beck cover story that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in September 2010, for instance, played up his kinder, gentler side. Beck, it declared, “is not particularly angry. He seems sorrowful; his prevailing message is umbrage borne of self-taught wisdom.” More agonized than mad, he is a “principles-and-values guy.”

The article did note in passing that, during the 2009 health care debate, Beck compared Obama’s economic agenda to Nazi Germany, illustrating his points with photos of Hitler, Stalin, and Lenin. It also cited Dana Milbank’s book Tears of a Clown, which found that Beck and his guests, in the first fourteen months of his show, mentioned fascism 172 times, the Nazis 134 times, Hitler 115 times, the Holocaust 58 times, and Goebbels 8 times. But these harsher realities receded before descriptions of Beck’s “twinkle-eyed” demeanor and “sheepish and approachable” manner.

The coverage of Fox by the Times’ media reporters has been no less solicitous. David Carr, who is now sinking his talons into Murdoch, in January 2010 co-authored an admiring profile of Roger Ailes that saluted both his business savvy and political acumen. Howard Kurtz, the long-time media reporter for the Washington Post (who moved to The Daily Beast last year), has often defended the channel. In October 2009, when the Obama administration—fed up with Fox’s extreme partisanship and relentless criticism—publicly rapped the channel, Kurtz sided with Fox. Administration officials, he told NPR,

are frustrated and, frankly, I think it’s because they are not used to what is the typical aggressive and sometimes almost confrontational coverage from the media. This is what we do. We’re not supposed to get along with these people. They’re not our friends. We’re supposed to hold them accountable.

Fox, in other words, was just doing its job like every other news organization.

The one person who regularly holds the network to account is Jon Stewart. Night after night, his “Daily Show” gleefully highlights Fox’s lunacies. Back in 2009, after Mike Hoyt was approached by the Fox camera crew, Stewart ran a montage of Fox ambush interviews together with clips of Bill O’Reilly denouncing paparazzi photographers for violating the privacy of celebrities; Stewart had much fun with the obvious hypocrisy. (Two months later, the Times ran a piece of its own about the Fox ambushes.) On his July 27 show, Stewart mocked the frenzied effort by Fox’s “rapid-response team” to deny that the Norway mass murderer is a Christian despite the man’s own claim to be one and his “fifteen-hundred-page crucifix-drenched call to reclaim Western Christendom from the infidels.” Stewart’s unflinching readiness to take on Fox (as well as MSNBC and CNN when they deserve it) has helped establish him as the nation’s leading media critic.

What explains the reticence of most journalists toward Fox? Fear is no doubt a factor. No one wants to be ambushed by one of its camera crews or mugged on one of its shows. Some journalists worry that, if they investigate Fox, they’ll be accused of liberal bias. Others are dismissive of Fox’s influence. The New York Times’ main TV critic devotes far more attention to reality TV than to Fox (or any other news operation).

But Fox’s influence seems to be growing, as has been disturbingly apparent during the current debate over raising the nation’s debt ceiling. The intransigence and extremism shown by so many Republicans in Congress has to a degree been enabled and enforced by Fox and its supporting cast on talk radio and the Internet. (On his daily radio show, for instance, Sean Hannity recently accused several senators of “getting wobbly” on the debt issue and urged his audience to call the Senate switchboard to demand that they “get a spine.”) The cone of silence Fox has been accorded by other news organizations has helped it advance its agenda. It’s time to break it. There’s so much about Fox that seems worth investigating. What is the nature of its ties to the Republican Party? To the Tea Party? To conservative think tanks, lobbies, and trade associations? Last year, News Corporation gave $1.25 million to the Republican Governors Association and $1 million to the US Chamber of Commerce; how has such largesse affected its news coverage?

Also worth examining is the seemingly orchestrated nature of Fox’s programming. Last December, the watchdog group Media Matters was leaked a directive written by Bill Sammon, Fox’s Washington managing editor, in which he ordered the channel’s journalists to “refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without immediately pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question.” During the 2008 campaign, Sammon sent around a memo noting Obama’s references to socialism, liberalism, Marxism, and Marxists in Dreams From My Father; this helps explain the frequent allusions I heard to such subjects during my own viewing that year. Sammon, who oversees Fox’s political coverage, has written several fawning books about George W. Bush, including Strategery: How George W. Bush Is Defeating Terrorists, Outwitting Democrats, and Confounding the Mainstream Media. His part in shaping the channel’s strong conservative slant would seem well worth exploring.

Last year, the New York Times sent three investigative reporters to London to dig into the hacking practices of the News of the World. After five months of reporting and writing, they produced a story that, together with the tenacious reporting of the Guardian, helped set off the current outcry. Why not devote similar resources to Fox, a far more influential outlet on the home front?

In Britain, it took the revelation of a squalid phone-hacking ploy for a backlash against Murdoch-style journalism to develop. What will it take here?

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