The Fox Effect

Fox News has found a new public enemy. This time it’s not Acorn, George Soros, or the Occupiers of Wall Street. Instead it’s an entity with a low profile and a tedious job: Media Matters, the watchdog  organization that tracks conservative news sources and checks their accuracy. For two months beginning in June 2011, and sporadically thereafter, Fox has been going after Media Matters as though it were Satan himself, accusing it of being inflammatory and overly aggressive in performing its task. The people at Fox are calling for an end to the organization’s tax-exempt status and instructing their viewers on how to file complaints against it with the IRS.

The reason for Fox’s campaign is not difficult to imagine. Media Matters has hit a raw nerve. For several years now, the organization has been recording Fox News’ journalistic misbehavior on a day-to-day basis. Recently it let it be known that it was preparing a book detailing Fox’s style of operation. Not surprisingly, Fox’s reaction was swift and predictable: to damage the messenger as decisively as possible.

Now the book, entitled The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned A Network into a Propaganda Machine, is on store bookshelves. For the many who avoid Fox News because of its unsavory reputation, the book will no doubt confirm their general impressions. But this is no reason to pass it by. Make no mistake: this is an important book that provides a fascinating look at the rise of faux reporting and the trajectory of right-wing influence on TV news.

From the outset, the authors (David Brock, Ari Rabin-Havt and MM staff) point out that the problem with Fox is not “bias” per se. Even with the best sort of journalism, bias inevitably enters the picture to some degree, even if it expresses itself in something as simple as topic selection. None of the media are free of it. The basic problem is that Fox has gone far beyond bias and into the business of molding opinion and presenting a platform. As the book states, Fox has become “a news business that is willing to put politics above all else.” This political emphasis permeates its entire operation from news to discussion to opinion.

Several key points stand out. First, the book substantiates the premeditated nature of Fox’s news slanting. Although Fox often speaks of the “firewall” between its news and opinion sections, whatever independence the news side had in its early years effectively ended in late 2008, when Brit Hume retired as Fox News managing editor of Fox News’ Washington, D.C. bureau. Hume, who had at least some core of journalistic professionalism, was replaced by a right-wing ideologue by the name of Bill Sammon, who had worked at the Moonie publication, Washington Times, and authored several hagiographies of George W. Bush. Sammon’s political heavy-handedness gibed perfectly with that of his boss, Roger Ailes, a man born with sword in hand. During the Obama administration, the two men developed political spin into an art form. The book corroborates this trend with ample evidence: internal emails from Sammon instructing newscasters on how to frame issues in partisan ways, the reporting of Republican press releases verbatim as though they were news, and the machine-like coordination between newscasters and editorialists (Beck, Hannity, O’Reilly, etc.) on whatever Fox’s exposé du jour might be, almost always aimed at the left.

Secondly, the book chronicles how Fox did not just spin news, but created it out of very thin tissue. It made a habit of latching onto inconsequential episodes, misconstruing them to convey a predetermined message, and magnifying their significance. The story surrounding Acorn, a non-profit organization working to extend voting registration in depressed communities, was the most notorious of such episodes. With its progressive record, Acorn was on the top of Fox’s list of least-favorite organizations. Fox was thus happy to take advantage of an opportunity in which a low-level Acorn employee, reacting to a right-wing prankster, made funny and sarcastic remarks that could be hyped as an “admission” of law-breaking. Fox blew up the so-called story and within weeks was able to lay claim to one of its great “victories”: the federal defunding of the organization. Similar non-events involving climate scientists, Black Panthers, and targeted officials have been turned into similar propaganda opportunities.

Third, Fox employees have readily crossed the line into outright political advocacy. Unlike the other major news organizations, which suspend employees on the mere suggestion of partisan activity, Fox allows its employees to wear their advocacy on their sleeve. Fox reporters and opinion makers, for example, were instrumental in chaperoning the right-wing tea parties into existence, and, during the 2010 elections, served not simply as cheerleaders for GOP candidates but as money conduits for their campaigns.

So what is the Fox effect? Fox, as much as any other entity, has contributed to our present-day “post-truth politics.” It has subordinated journalism to considerations of power and influence. Its promotion of divisiveness has helped to make governing an increasingly futile exercise. And its cynical manipulation of politics has lowered the status of government in the eyes of the American people. The good news is that with the aid of organizations like Media Matters, more and more people are wising up to Fox’s game.

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