Years ago, Republican party chair Rich Bond explained that conservatives’ frequent denunciations of “liberal bias” in the media were part of “a strategy” (Washington Post, 8/20/92). Comparing journalists to referees in a sports match, Bond explained: “If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time.”
But when Fox News Channel, Rupert Murdoch’s 24-hour cable network, debuted in 1996, a curious thing happened: Instead of denouncing it, conservative politicians and activists lavished praise on the network. “If it hadn’t been for Fox, I don’t know what I’d have done for the news,” Trent Lott gushed after the Florida election recount (Washington Post, 2/5/01). George W. Bush extolled Fox News Channel anchor Tony Snow–a former speechwriter for Bush’s father–and his “impressive transition to journalism” in a specially taped April 2001 tribute to Snow’s Sunday-morning show on its five-year anniversary (Washington Post, 5/7/01). The right-wing Heritage Foundation had to warn its staffers not to watch so much Fox News on their computers, because it was causing the think tank’s system to crash.
When it comes to Fox News Channel, conservatives don’t feel the need to “work the ref.” The ref is already on their side. Since its 1996 launch, Fox has become a central hub of the conservative movement’s well-oiled media machine. Together with the GOP organization and its satellite think tanks and advocacy groups, this network of fiercely partisan outlets–such as the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and conservative talk-radio shows like Rush Limbaugh’s–forms a highly effective right-wing echo chamber where GOP-friendly news stories can be promoted, repeated and amplified. Fox knows how to play this game better than anyone.
Yet, at the same time, the network bristles at the slightest suggestion of a conservative tilt. In fact, wrapping itself in slogans like “Fair and balanced” and “We report, you decide,” Fox argues precisely the opposite: Far from being a biased network, Fox argues, it is the only unbiased network. So far, Fox‘s strategy of aggressive denial has worked surprisingly well; faced with its unblinking refusal to admit any conservative tilt at all, some commentators have simply acquiesced to the network’s own self-assessment. FAIR has decided to take a closer look.
Fox‘s founder and president, Roger Ailes, was for decades one of the savviest and most pugnacious Republican political operatives in Washington, a veteran of the Nixon and Reagan campaigns. Ailes is most famous for his role in crafting the elder Bush’s media strategy in the bruising 1988 presidential race. With Ailes’ help, Bush turned a double-digit deficit in the polls into a resounding win by targeting the GOP’s base of white male voters in the South and West, using red-meat themes like Michael Dukakis’ “card-carrying” membership in the ACLU, his laissez-faire attitude toward flag-burning, his alleged indifference to the pledge of allegiance–and, of course, paroled felon Willie Horton.
Described by fellow Bush aide Lee Atwater as having “two speeds–attack and destroy,” Ailes once jocularly told a Time reporter (8/22/88): “The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.” Later, as a producer for Rush Limbaugh’s short-lived TV show, he was fond of calling Bill Clinton the “hippie president” and lashing out at “liberal bigots” (Washington Times, 5/11/93). It is these two sensibilities above all–right-wing talk radio and below-the-belt political campaigning–that Ailes brought with him to Fox, and his stamp is evident in all aspects of the network’s programming.
Fox daytime anchor David Asman is formerly of the right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial page and the conservative Manhattan Institute. The host of Fox News Sunday is Tony Snow, a conservative columnist and former chief speechwriter for the first Bush administration. Eric Breindel, previously the editorial-page editor of the right-wing New York Post, was senior vice president of Fox‘s parent company, News Corporation, until his death in 1998; Fox News Channel‘s senior vice president is John Moody, a long-time journalist known for his staunch conservative views.
Fox‘s managing editor is Brit Hume, a veteran TV journalist and contributor to the conservative American Spectator and Weekly Standard magazines. Its top-rated talkshow is hosted by Bill O’Reilly, a columnist for the conservative WorldNetDaily.com and a registered Republican (that is, until a week before the Washington Post published an article revealing his party registration–12/13/00).
The abundance of conservatives and Republicans at Fox News Channel does not seem to be a coincidence. In 1996, Andrew Kirtzman, a respected New York City cable news reporter, was interviewed for a job with Fox and says that management wanted to know what his political affiliation was. “They were afraid I was a Democrat,” he told the Village Voice (10/15/96). When Kirtzman refused to tell Fox his party ID, “all employment discussion ended,” according to the Voice.
Catherine Crier, who was perceived as one of Fox‘s most prestigious and credible early hires, was an elected Republican judge before starting a career in journalism. (Crier has since moved on to Court TV.) Pundit Mara Liasson–who is touted as an on-air “liberal” by Fox executives–sits on the board of the conservative human-rights group Freedom House; New York magazine (11/17/97) cited a Fox insider as saying that Liasson assured president Roger Ailes before being hired that she was a Republican.
The most obvious sign of Fox‘s slant is its heavily right-leaning punditry. Each episode of Special Report with Brit Hume, for example, features a three-person panel of pundits who chat about the day’s political news at the end of the show. The most frequent panelist is Fred Barnes, the evangelical Christian supply-sider who edits the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard. He sits proudly on the rightward flank of the Republican party (and often scolds it for slouching leftwards).
The next most frequent guest is Mort Kondrake, who sits in the middle of the panel. Politically, Kondrake falls at the very rightward edge of the Democratic party– if not beyond it. As he famously explained in a 1988 New Republic essay (8/29/88), he is a Democrat who is “disgusted with the Democratic Party” and whose main reason for not defecting to the Republicans is that they “have failed to be true to themselves as conservatives.” (He was referring to Reagan’s deficit spending.)
Rounding out the panel is its third-most-frequent pundit, Mara Liasson, who sits on the opposite side of the table from the conservative Barnes, implicitly identifying her as a liberal. But her liberalism consists of little more than being a woman who works for National Public Radio; she has proposed that “one of the roots of the problem with education today is feminism” (Talk of the Nation, 5/3/01); she declares that “Jesse Jackson gets away with a lot of things that other people don’t” (Special Report, 6/21/00); she calls George W. Bush’s reversal on carbon dioxide emissions “a small thing” (3/14/01), campaign finance reform “an issue that . . . only 200 people in America care about” (3/19/01) and slavery reparations “pretty much of a non-issue” (3/19/01).
Less frequent Special Report panelists include conservative Washington Times reporter Bill Sammon, centrist Fortune writer Jeff Birnbaum and NPR host Juan Williams. Williams, the only guest who could plausibly claim to be a liberal, was so outraged over attacks on his friend Clarence Thomas that he declared that “liberals have become monsters” (Washington Post, 10/10/91), denouncing the “so-called champions of fairness: liberal politicians, unions, civil rights groups and women’s organizations.” Indeed, Fox‘s crew of “liberal” pundits seems almost calculated to be either ineffective left-of-center advocates or conciliatory moderates. Ironically, perhaps the only Fox commentator who consistently presents a strong progressive perspective–that is, critical of corporate power and militarism, and sympathetic to progressive social movements–is FAIR founder Jeff Cohen, a weekly panelist on the weekend media show Fox News Watch.
Meanwhile, Barnes and Kondracke –the conservative Republican and conservative Democrat–make up the entire political spectrum on Fox‘s weekend political show, The Beltway Boys, where they are generally in agreement as they discuss the week’s news.
Even Fox‘s “left-right” debate show, Hannity & Colmes–whose Crossfire-style format virtually imposes numerical equality between conservatives and “liberals”–can’t shake the impression of resembling a Harlem Globetrotters game in which everyone knows which side is supposed to win.
On the right, co-host Sean Hannity is an effective and telegenic ideologue, a protégé of Newt Gingrich and a rising star of conservative talk radio who is perhaps more plugged into the GOP leadership than any media figure besides Rush Limbaugh (Hannity reportedly received “thunderous applause” when he spoke at a recent closed-door House Republican Conference meeting that is usually closed to the media–U.S. News & World Report, 5/7/01.)
On the left is Alan Colmes, a rather less telegenic former stand-up comic and radio host whose views are slightly left-of-center but who, as a personality, is completely off the radar screen of liberal politics. “I’m quite moderate,” he told a reporter when asked to describe his politics (USA Today, 2/1/95). Hannity, a self-described “arch-conservative” (Electronic Media, 8/26/96), joined Fox when the network was started, and personally nominated Colmes to be his on-screen debating opponent (New York Times, 3/1/98). Before the selection was made, the show’s working title was Hannity & Liberal to Be Determined–giving some idea of the relative weight each host carries, both on-screen and within the network. Fox sometimes sends a camera down to Hannity’s radio studio during the network’s daytime news programming, from which he holds forth on the news of the day. Needless to say, Colmes does not receive similar treatment.
Fox has had trouble at times hiding the partisanship of its main news personalities. In 1996, while already a Fox anchor, Tony Snow endorsed Bob Dole for president in the Republican National Committee magazine Rising Tide (New York, 11/17/97). A former speech-writer for the elder Bush, Snow often guest-hosts the Rush Limbaugh show and wrote an unabashedly conservative weekly newspaper column until Fox management recently pressured him to drop it to avoid the appearance of bias (Washington Post, 5/29/01).
At the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, Snow–ostensibly present as a journalist covering a news event–jumped onstage to give a speech to the Republican Youth Caucus after organizers asked him to fill in for a speaker who couldn’t make it. (He was later reprimanded by his bosses.) Trent Lott, whose speech directly followed Snow’s, began with a cheer of “How about Tony Snow in 2008?” (New York Daily News 8/2/00; Federal News Service, 8/1/00).
Just three days earlier, near the GOP convention, Bill O’Reilly gave the keynote speech at David Horowitz’s conservative “Restoration Weekend” event, where he was introduced by Republican congressmember Jack Quinn. Fox‘s Sean Hannity also spoke at the gathering, described by the Washington Times (6/30/00) as the “premiere political event for conservative thinkers.” O’Reilly has had Horowitz on his show six times–to talk about everything from National Public Radio‘s “left” bias (12/20/00) to Hillary Clinton’s “sense of entitlement” (6/22/00) to Horowitz’s book on race relations, >Hating Whitey (10/4/99).
Some mainstream journalists have suggested that Fox‘s “straight news” is more or less balanced, however slanted its commentary might be. “A close monitoring of the channel over several weeks indicates that the news segments tend to be straightforward, with little hint of political subtext except for stories the news editors feel the ‘mainstream’ press has either downplayed or ignored,” wrote Columbia Journalism Review‘s Neil Hickey (3-4/98). The fact that Fox‘s “chat consistently tilts to the conservative side,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz (2/5/01), “may cast an unwarranted cloud on the news reporting, which tends to be straightforward.”
When a New York Times profile of Fox News ran with a headline calling it a “conservative cable channel” (9/18/00), the paper quickly corrected their “error” the following day, explaining that in “attributing a general political viewpoint to the network, the headline exceeded the facts in the article.”
Putting aside the question of what genuine “balance” means, there are undoubtedly a few reporters in Fox‘s Washington bureau–such as White House correspondent Jim Angle–whose stories are more or less indistinguishable from those of their counterparts at the mainstream networks.
But an attentive viewer will notice that there are entire blocks of the network’s programming schedule that are set aside for conservative stories. Fox‘s website offers a regular feature on “political correctness” entitled “Tongue-Tied: A Report From the Front Lines of the Culture Wars,” whose logo is a scowling “PC Patrol” officer peering testily through a magnifying glass. It invites readers to write in and “keep us up on examples of PC excess you come across.”
Recently the network debuted a weekly half-hour series–Only on Fox–devoted explicitly to right-wing stories. The concept of the show was explained by host Trace Gallagher in the premier episode (5/26/01):
Gallagher then introduced a series of stories about one conservative cause after another: from white firefighters suing Boston’s fire department for discrimination, to sawmill workers endangered by Clinton-Gore environmental regulations (without comment from a single supporter of the rules), to property owners who feel threatened by an environmental agreement “signed by President Clinton in 1992.” (The agreement was actually signed by George Bush the elder, who was president in 1992–though that didn’t stop Fox from using news footage of a smiling Bill Clinton proudly signing an official document that was supposed to be, but wasn’t, the environmental pact in question.)
Fox‘s news specials are equally slanted: Dangerous Places (3/25/01), a special about foreign policy hosted by Newt Gingrich; Heroes, an irregular series hosted by former Republican congressmember John Kasich; and The Real Reagan (11/25/99), a panel discussion on Ronald Reagan, hosted by Tony Snow, in which all six guests were Reagan friends and political aides. Vanishing Freedoms 2: Who Owns America (5/19/01) wandered off into militia-style paranoia, suggesting that the U.N. was “taking over” private property.
There is a formula to Fox‘s news agenda. “A lot of the people we have hired,” Fox executive John Moody explained (Inside Media, 12/11/96) when the network was launched, “have come without the preconceptions of must-do news. There are stories we will sometimes forego in order to do stories we think are more significant. The biggest strength that we have is that Roger Ailes has allowed me to do that; to forego stores that would be ‘duty’ stories in order to focus on other things.”
These “other” stories that Moody has in mind are what make up much of Fox‘s programming: An embarrassing story about Jesse Jackson’s sex life. The latest political-correctness outrage on campus. A one-day mini-scandal about a Democratic senator. Much like talk radio, Fox picks up these tidbits from right-wing outlets like the Washington Times or the Drudge Report and runs with them.
To see how the formula works, consider the recent saga of right-wing activist David Horowitz and his “censored” anti-slavery reparations ad. When some college newspapers refused to carry the ad, and some campuses saw protests against it, the case instantly became a cause celebre on the right. It was the perfect story for Fox: The liberal academic establishment trampling on the free speech of a conservative who merely asked that his views be heard. Within less than a month, Horowitz was on nearly every major Fox show to discuss the issue. (See sidebar.)
Former CBS producer Don Dahler resigned from Fox after executive John Moody ordered him to change a story to play down statistics showing a lack of social progress among blacks. (Moody says the change was journalistically justified–New York, 11/17/97.) According to the Columbia Journalism Review (3-4/98), “several” former Fox employees “complained of ‘management sticking their fingers’ in the writing and editing of stories to cook the facts to make a story more palatable to right-of-center tastes.” Said one: “I’ve worked at a lot of news organizations and never found that kind of manipulation.”
Jed Duvall, a former veteran ABC reporter who left Fox after a year, told New York (11/17/97): “I’ll never forget the morning that one producer came up to me, and, rubbing her hands like Uriah Heep, said, ‘Let’s have something on Whitewater today.’ That sort of thing doesn’t happen at a professional news organization.” Indeed, Fox‘s signature political news show, Special Report with Brit Hume, was originally created as a daily one-hour update devoted to the 1998 Clinton sex scandal.
One of the most partisan features on Fox is a daily segment on Special Report called “The Political Grapevine.” Billed as “the most scintillating two minutes in television,” the Grapevine is a kind of right-wing hot-sheet. It features Brit Hume at the anchor’s desk reading off a series of gossipy items culled from other, often right-wing, news outlets.
The key to the Grapevine is its story selection, and there is nothing subtle about it. Almost every item carries an unmistakable partisan message: Democrats, environmentalists and Hollywood liberals are the perennial villains (or the butts of the joke), while Republicans are shown either as targets of unfair attacks or heroes who can do no wrong. Political correctness run amok, the “liberal bias” of the mainstream media and the chicanery of civil rights groups all figure prominently.
When Rep. Patrick Kennedy tussled with airport security (3/21/01), Democrat Pete Stark used intemperate language (4/18/01) and California Gov. Gray Davis uttered a string of curse words (4/18/01), it made it onto the Grapevine. When the Sacramento Bee ran a series on the shortcomings of the big environmental groups, its findings earned a mention on the Grapevine (4/21/01). When it emerged that Al Gore booster Ben Affleck didn’t bother to vote in last year’s election, you heard about it on the Grapevine (4/25/01).
Republicans are treated differently. “Since [New York’s] Rudolph Giuliani became the mayor,” one item cheered (4/24/01), “the streets are cleaner and safer, and tourism reigns supreme in Times Square.” When George W. Bush ordered men to wear a coat and tie to enter the Oval Office, Grapevine (5/14/01) noted that “his father had a similar reverence for the office,” while “President Clinton used to come into the Oval Office in running shorts . . . and sometimes he did not remain fully clothed while he was there.”
The success of the Grapevine has apparently inspired a spin-off on Fox‘s Sunday morning show. Fox News Sunday anchor Tony Snow recently inaugurated “Below the Fold,” a weekly roundup of “unheralded political stories” that is basically identical to Grapevine, including the conservative spin. When one Below the Fold item (4/15/01) mentioned that Barbra Streisand was reportedly thinking of starting up “a cable TV network devoted exclusively to Democratic viewpoints,” Snow couldn’t resist adding that the singer came up with the idea “apparently believing such a thing doesn’t exist already.”
To hear the network’s bigwigs tell it, it’s not Fox that’s being biased when it puts conservative fare on heavy rotation. It’s the “liberal media” that are biased when they fail to do so. Fox‘s entire editorial philosophy revolves around the idea that the mainstream media have a liberal bias that Fox is obligated to rectify.
In interviews, Ailes and other Fox executives often expound this philosophy, sometimes with bizarre results. Ailes once told the New York Times (10/7/96) that he and Fox executive John Moody had both noticed a pattern in the weekly newsmagazines: They often cover religion, “but it’s always a story that beats up on Jesus.” “They call him a cult figure of his time, some kind of crazy fool,” Ailes continued. “And it’s as if they go out and try to find evidence to trash him.” Moody added that two recent Time and Newsweek articles on Jesus “really bordered on the sacrilegious.”
But the core of Fox‘s critique is the notion that the mainstream media just don’t tell the conservative side of the story. This is the premise Fox executives start from when they defend their own network: If Fox appears conservative, they argue, it’s only because the country has grown so accustomed to the left-leaning media that a truly balanced network seems to lean right. “The reason you may believe it tips to the right is you’re stunned at seeing so many conservatives,” Ailes once told a reporter (Washington Post, 2/5/01).
But Ailes and his colleagues have trouble backing up these claims with actual facts. He’s fond of calling Bob Novak the only conservative on CNN–“that’s the only guy they hired that was to the right!” (Charlie Rose, 5/22/01) –but he ignores Tucker Carlson, Kate O’Beirne and Mary Matalin (who recently left for the White House), not to mention past conservative stars such as Lynne Cheney, Mona Charen, John Sununu and, of course, Pat Buchanan, perhaps the most right-wing figure in national politics and an 18-year veteran of Crossfire (minus the occasional hiatus to run for president).
According to Bill O’Reilly, Fox “gives voice to people who can’t get on other networks. When was the last time you saw pro-life people [on other networks] unless they shot somebody?” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/10/01). O’Reilly’s question is easily answered; in the last three years, the National Right to Life Committee’s spokespeople have appeared on CNN 21 times (compared with 16 appearances for their main counterpart, the National Abortion Rights Action League).
In a 1999 Washington Post profile (3/26/99), Ailes offered another example. He said he was particularly proud of a three-part series on education that Fox had recently aired, which reported that “many educators believe self-esteem teaching is harmful” to students. “The mainstream media will never cover that story,” Ailes told the Post. “I’ve seen 10,000 stories on education and I’ve never seen one that didn’t say the federal government needed to spend more money on education.”
But just weeks prior to Ailes’ interview, CNN‘s weekly Newsstand series (2/28/99) aired a glowing profile of an upstate New York business executive who had turned around a troubled inner-city elementary school “by bringing the lessons of the boardroom into the classroom.” CNN‘s report came complete with soundbites from a conservative education advocate (“the unions are a major impediment to education reform”) and lines from host Jeff Greenfield like, “Critics have said that for decades, the public education system has behaved like an entrenched monopoly with little or no incentive to improve its performance.” The piece would have warmed the heart of any conservative education reformer.
The difference between the two networks is that while such conservative-friendly fare airs on CNN some of the time, Fox has oriented its whole network around it. Contrary to what Ailes and other right-wing media critics say, the agenda of CNN and its fellow mainstream outlets is not liberal or conservative, but staunchly centrist. The perspectives they value most are those of the bipartisan establishment middle, the same views that make up the mainstream corporate consensus that media publishers and executives are themselves a part of. It’s politicians who stake out centrist, pro-business positions within their parties who win the adulation of the Washington press corps, like John McCain and Joe Lieberman during the 2000 campaign. Both parties are constantly urged by the media to “move to the center.”
Defenders of Fox might argue that its brand of conservative-tilted programming fills a void, since it represents a form of ideologically hard-edged news seldom seen in the centrist media. But the same point could be made on the other side of the spectrum: Just as conservative stories don’t always make it onto CNN, neither do stories that matter to the left. A left-wing version of Fox might run frequent updates on the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, the dangers of depleted uranium weapons or the benefits of single-payer health care. That would contrast sharply with CNN–but it wouldn’t justify calling CNN “right-wing” or “conservative.” Fox‘s “leftist” accusations are equally unfounded.
At about the same time that Fox was taking a deep interest in the David Horowitz ad controversy, the Boston Globe refused to run an ad criticizing the office supply company Staples for its use of non-recycled paper. Though the Globe is arguably a more important venue for debate than any number of college papers, the case was not reported by either Fox or CNN. Indeed, until a FAIR letter-writing campaign forced the Globe ombudsman to address the issue (6/11/01), only one publication in the Nexis news database reported it at all (Sacramento Bee, 4/12/01).
Fox is sometimes forced to juggle two identities–Republican and conservative–that are not always the same. A recent example was the standoff over the downed American spy plane in China. Following appearances on Special Report by conservatives William Kristol (4/9/01) and Fred Barnes (4/11/01), who were critical of Bush for his unexpectedly conciliatory handling of the crisis, Fox (4/13/01) was quick to run a slew of letters from outraged Republican viewers accusing the pundits of trying to “undermine a president of their own party.” They “never cut him a bit of slack,” one viewer wrote. “Who needs Dan Rather when you have Mr. Kristol to bring down our president?”
Fox‘s sensitivity to Republican complaints came into the open during the 2000 presidential campaign when Tony Snow was the target of a barrage of criticism from posters to the far-right website FreeRepublic.com, who accused him of being too negative about the Bush campaign in his columns and on Fox News Channel.
Snow responded to the Freepers, as the site’s conservative contributors call themselves, with a long and detailed apologia, highlighting every pro-Bush aspect of his work in excruciating detail. Discussing his syndicated conservative column, he wrote:
I have found over the years that the best way to be friendly to any politician is to be honest. Having said that, I’ve hardly been hostile to Bush in recent columns. Yes, I have criticized him this year, but no serious reader could possibly believe Gore has gotten the best of the exchange.
Just check out the two most recent columns. A piece on “specifics” notes that Gore offers virtually no specifics to voters and the few he mentions are nuts. There’s plenty of grist there for Bush fans and the Bush campaign. The most recent defends Bush in the Adam Clymer affair.
In response to a writer who was irate at a video clip showing a Bush gaffe, Snow replied: “Yes, we carried a Bush gaffe at the end. It was funny, not damaging to the candidate.”
And perhaps most tellingly, he described the strategy he had recently used on Fox News Sunday (9/10/00) to interview a pair of guests about the presidential campaign– the first an aide to Bill Clinton, the second the Republican governor of Pennsylvania:
1) We opened with a tough interview of John Podesta, taking Clinton to task for a series of things (including hate crimes legislation) and asking some tough questions about Gore’s energy and health-care policies.
2) Tom Ridge came next. We tried to get him to fire away at Clinton/Gore corruption. He wouldn’t do it. We tried to get him to urge a more openly conservative campaign by Bush. He wouldn’t do it. If you have complaints about such matters, I suggest you write the Bush campaign, not Fox News Channel.
In other words, Snow admits he was trying to put the Democratic guest on the defensive about Clinton–while goading the Republican into playing offense against Clinton. (The episode is a perfect example of Fox‘s notion of balance: attacking Democrats and liberals on substance while challenging Repub-licans and conservatives only on tactics.) In closing the memo, Snow wrote, “Parting thoughts: I made fun of the United Nations.” He concluded: “I have a hard time finding anything in that lineup that Freepers would consider treasonous.”
Some have suggested that Fox‘s conservative point of view and its Republican leanings render the network inherently unworthy as a news outlet. FAIR believes that view is misguided. The United States is unusual, perhaps even unique, in having a journalistic culture so fiercely wedded to the elusive notion of “objective” news (an idea of relatively recent historical vintage even in the U.S.). In Great Britain, papers like the conservative Times of London and the left-leaning Guardian deliver consistently excellent coverage while making no secret of their respective points of view. There’s nothing keeping American journalists from doing the same.
If anything, it is partly the disingenuous claim to objectivity that is corroding the integrity of the news business. American journalists claim to represent all political views with an open mind, yet in practice a narrow bipartisan centrism excludes dissenting points of view: No major newspaper editorial page opposed NAFTA; virtually all endorse U.S. airstrikes on Iraq; and single-payer health care proposals find almost no backers among them.
With the ascendance of Fox News Channel, we now have a national conservative TV network in addition to the established centrist outlets. But like the mainstream networks, Fox refuses to admit its political point of view. The result is a skewed center-to-right media spectrum made worse by the refusal to acknowledge any tilt at all.
Fox could potentially represent a valuable contribution to the journalistic mix if it admitted it had a conservative point of view, if it beefed up its hard news and investigative coverage (and cut back on the tabloid sensationalism), and if there were an openly left-leaning TV news channel capable of balancing both Fox‘s conservatism and CNN‘s centrism.
None of these three things appears likely to happen in the foreseeable future.
SIDEBAR: Toeing the Line on Special Report
For some, the free market is a religion. That seems true for Fox News reporter Brit Hume, who has made no secret of what he thinks about the idea of caps on wholesale electricity prices in California. Hume commented on Fox (5/29/01) that “no one with an economics degree that I know” would support price caps for California.
In fact, 10 prominent mainstream economists wrote a letter to George W. Bush endorsing the idea. “We are mindful of the potential dangers of applying a simple price cap,” they wrote (New York Times, 5/30/01). “But California’s electricity markets are not characterized by effective competition.” The letter added that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s “failure to act now will have dire consequences for the state of California.” Paul Krugman, one of the country’s most prominent economists, had by that point written six columns in the New York Times calling for energy price caps.
But on Fox, laissez-faire orthodoxy was enforced. When Jeff Birnbaum, Washington bureau chief of Fortune magazine and a frequent guest on Special Report with Brit Hume, suggested (5/29/01) that price caps “might help the blackouts through this summer,” this view was rejected by both of the other panelists, Morton Kondracke and Bill Kristol. Hume, acting as moderator, derided Birnbaum for his deviation: “Did you ever have any economics in college? . . . There are books . . . that could help you.”
A day later (5/30/01), Birnbaum came on the show to deliver what can only be described as a recantation: “I consulted my Economics 101, and I made a mistake last night when I spoke,” he said. “Price caps are definitely the wrong economic answer. It could lead to a spreading energy gap and problem beyond California’s borders and a long-term energy problem that would clearly be a serious political and substantive problem for the Bush administration.”
“No apology required,” was Hume’s response. But one got the definite impression that toeing the ideological line is required on Special Report.
One of Fox News Channel‘s favorite recent stories involved a newspaper ad that claimed African-Americans benefited from slavery, and owed America for the favor. The ad’s author, conservative activist David Horowitz, claimed to be a victim of censorship and “political correctness” because a number of college newspapers refused to publish his ad, which argued against the idea of slavery reparations. Fox saw this as a major issue: Horowitz and his ad were mentioned at least 21 times on the network between March 6 and April 3.
On Fox News Sunday (3/25/01), the network’s Sunday-morning equivalent of Meet the Press, interviews with Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham and Sen. Joseph Lieberman were incongruously followed by a segment featuring a largely unknown reparations activist and David Horowitz, in a Crossfire-style debate about Horowitz’s rejected ad.
On Special Report with Brit Hume, the Horowitz ad became the subject of at least nine “Grapevine” items in less than a month. The ad was also the subject of Hume’s lead question to conservative columnist John Leo when he appeared for a one-on-one interview (3/23/01). Afterward, Hume put the Horowitz issue to the show’s all-star panel of pundits; all three pundits agreed that campus liberals were squelching debate. Mara Liasson argued that reparations are “pretty much of a non-issue” and Horowitz’s ad was not “nearly as bad as the kind of hate speech you hear about in other cases,” while Mort Kondracke explained that “there’s nothing racist in this.”
On Hannity & Colmes (3/26/01), the issue was: “Has David Horowitz’s freedom of speech become a victim of political correctness?” On The O’Reilly Factor (3/6/01), it was Horowitz and host Bill O’Reilly interrogating a reparations activist from Mobile, Alabama. (“That’s my tax money!” O’Reilly exclaimed.) The Edge with Paula Zahn brought Horowitz on three times within a month to discuss the same subject.
But there was one twist to the Horowitz story that Fox couldn’t be bothered to report. When Horowitz’s ad was offered to the Daily Princetonian in April, the paper ran it–along with an editorial (4/4/01) describing its ideas as racist and promising to donate the ad’s proceeds to the local chapter of the Urban League. Horowitz, the free-speech crusader, refused to pay his bill unless the paper’s editors publicly apologized for their hurtful words: “Its slanders contribute to the atmosphere of intolerance and hate towards conservatives,” a statement from his office read.
Suddenly Fox lost interest in the Horowitz case. After a month of running twice-weekly updates about college papers that were refusing the ad, Special Report with Brit Hume ignored the Princeton episode. None of the network’s major shows transcribed in the Nexis database reported Horowitz’s tiff with the paper. No editor from the Princetonian was invited on The O’Reilly Factor to debate whether or not Horowitz was being a hypocrite. When their favorite free-speech martyr suddenly looked like a censor, it was a story Fox just didn’t want to pursue.
See also the other two articles in FAIR’s special report on Fox:
Fox‘s Slanted Sources: Conservatives, Republicans far outnumber others– a comparison of Special Report with Brit Hume with CNN‘s Wolf Blitzer Reports.
Bill O’Reilly’s Sheer O’Reillyness: Don’t call him conservative– but he is.