Thursday, October 13, 2011

All Foxxed Up!

So, last week I was asked to write an opinion piece about Fox News, for a point/counterpoint feature in a little newspaper called Metro, which publishes editions in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, and distributes them free in subways, on streets, etc.  I chose the con rather than the pro, and you may recall my previous post, Murdoch on the Orient Express, where I expressed my negative view of Rupert Murdoch and his New Corporation, owners of the Fox TV network, and Fox News, and if you do, you would not be surprised at my taking this stand.

So the op eds were published in the last weekend edition, dated Oct. 7-9.  I had them scanned so I could show you what they looked like in print, and it came out a little uneven, as the scanner in our office wasn't big enough to do the entire page at once, so it's in two pieces, but you can get a pretty good idea:

To get a clearer picture of the text, you can also read all about it online, on the Metro site:  15 Years of Fox News.  But, let me provide you with the brief introduction to this point/counterpoint paring:

Fox News Channel is 15 years old this week, having changed the face of TV?news (though it still considers itself an underdog). Since 1996, Fox has caused plenty of controversy with its often caustic, center-right viewpoint. To the chagrin of liberal critics, its audience is twice that of the combined figure of CNN?and MSNBC. Fox News has always divided opinion; and here, two commentators tell us what they think.

I won't bother to reproduce or rebut the pro piece by Figiola here, we both wrote our pieces separately, and his view is just another example of what Neil Postman referred to as, amusing ourselves to death.  But I'll give you my text here, on my official blog of record:

Opinion against Fox: Lance Strate Professor of communication and media studies, Fordham University

Fox News: A Blot on the Media Landscape

The recent series of phone-hacking scandals facing Rupert Murdoch have conclusively demonstrated that HIS News Corporation is devoid of journalistic ethics. No doubt, the vast majority of broadcast journalists in the United States regard Murdoch's troubles as long overdue comeuppance for the permanent damage they inflicted on the American media landscape.

For more than a century, journalists have adhered to an ideal of objectivity — admittedly, one they could never quite live up to. Still, they were intent on serving the public interest by providing objective, factual descriptions of events. Journalists proudly proclaimed that the criticisms and complaints they received from both left and right proved that they were maintaining the correct level of professional detachment and impartiality.

Fox News represents a radical break from this tradition, as it is profoundly partisan in its reporting.
Fox's political bias would not be so damaging if the organization would be honest and up front about the fact that it favors conservatism and the Republication Party. That would be perfectly legitimate.
The problem is that Fox keeps its political agenda hidden and obscured in a manner that blurs the distinction between journalism and overt propaganda. Instead, Fox News presents itself as part of the tradition of objective journalism, claiming that its deliberately biased newscasts somehow represent “fair and balanced” reporting.

This smokescreen has the effect of tainting all reporting with an air of political bias and pressuring other organizations to compensate for the imbalance in the media ecology. MSNBC has more recently eschewed the objective ideal to become the liberal counterpart to Fox. 

And so, like a zombie plague, the infection spreads!

Cynicism abounds; and is it any wonder that when news becomes a joke, comedians become our most trusted journalists? How can we not look to Jon Stewart or Jay Leno as voices of reason and truth, when all that Fox brings us is an endless parade of programming that favors confrontation, conflict and angry exchanges?

Fox News is to journalism as professional wrestling is to sports. Murdoch is guilty of nothing less than strip-mining the media landscape, and it will be a long time healing from the damage that he has caused.

— Lance Strate is a professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University.

In response to this, I received three emails, two negative, one positive.  The two negative messages began with typical conservative put downs of liberals, and college professors, but I responded to them in reasonable fashion, resulting in a cordial exchange.  So, I'm going to share with you some of the comments I made in these private emails, just as an elaboration on the editorial, nothing personally revealing about the individuals I was corresponding with.

To the first individual, my initial response:

You are entitled to your views...   My objection to Fox is the dishonesty in their claim to be practicing a form of objective journalism.  If they made it clear that they were a partisan organ, that would be fine.  Objectivity in journalism is far from perfect, there is much to criticize much that has been criticized. But what Fox represents is much, much worse.

By the way, I was asked to write the anti-Fox op ed, to accompany a pro-Fox op ed. These pieces are clearly presented as opinion, not news reports.  That is the distinction that Fox fails to make.  Over the years, I have enjoyed reading and found myself agreeing with many conservative columnists and editorials, and even when I disagree, I respect the position they take.

It's a question of process, of honesty and integrity.  Of character.

And in a follow-up exchange:

Mass communication theorists have long been criticizing the myth of objectivity, and the fact that there is bias in the news.  But it's bias due to a variety of factors.  Journalists pay attention to sudden events, and ignore long term gradual change.  They try to tell stories, which require some kind of beginning and conclusion, and heroes and villains.  They focus on individuals, and tend to personalize, rather than look to groups and organizations (for example, the president and other world leaders, as opposed to congress and other legislative bodies).  There is bias coming from the medium, for example television favors visual images, so you get the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality.  They are biased towards their audiences, so they tend to reflect concerns of the audience, they want to keep their audiences after all.  They are biased towards their advertisers, at least to some extent, because they have to stay in business.  They are biased towards their owners, at least a little, which means they'll reflect the biases of corporate boards and stockholders, as well as idiosyncratic individuals like Murdoch, or Ted Turner in a previous era.  And there is bias in the profession of journalism, not so much political as bias towards what is and isn't news, about going to official sources for quotes, which tends to result in formation of relationships between reporters and politicians.  And I could go on, but the point is that there is a multitude of biases, some may say that they cancel each other out, some say that they amount to a liberal bias, others say that they amount to a conservative, pro-corporate capitalism bias.  But behind it all, in traditional journalism, we still have reporters and editors who are trying hard to report the facts and hold back their personal views, and are not trying to push a political agenda, as opposed to Fox's cynical attempt to play politics while claiming to be impartial.

So, I would agree that MSNBC, now that it has embraced liberal politics, should make that up front as well.  I think CNN is still trying to adhere to traditional objectivity.  They may make good or bad decisions, and folks have every right to criticize news organizations for what they do and don't report.  I just don't think it's good for democracy to have news organizations passing off political persuasion as objective reporting.

No question that Fox is entertaining.  But let me recommend to you the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.  Postman was my mentor, and his argument is with television as a medium, and how television news trivializes important matters because its primary emphasis is entertainment.  Fox takes Postman's criticism as a formula for success.

Now, here's an excerpt from my initial response to the second critical response:

You are entitled to your opinions, although I would have preferred them to have been expressed in a more civil manner. 

I was invited to write an opinion piece against Fox that would accompany one that is in favor of Fox, and it was clearly labeled as opinion.  I have no objection to conservative media, and in fact find that I agree with conservative columnists quite often.  I do object to any news organization passing itself off as objective and impartial while following a political agenda.  I believe that the ability to separate fact from opinion is vital for a democracy.

You might note, by the way, that the position I've been taking is one in defense of professional journalism, and based in part on general semantics, which the journalism ethics scholar John C. Merrill recommends as the basis for an ethical approach to objective reporting.  Anyway, in the follow-up exchange, I provided a more comprehensive statement of my position (you can infer from this some of what I was responding to):

Metro put out a call for individuals to write pro and con pieces, I was asked if I'd be interested in doing one or the other, and I said I could write the con.  They didn't reach out to me because of my previously stated views, but I assume they selected me because of my academic credentials.  I did write one post on my blog earlier this year critical of Murdoch, and the despicable practice of News Corporation, which owns Fox News.  Are you aware of the phone hacking scandal, how they hacked the cell phone messages of 9/11 victims, or gave the family of a young girl who had been kidnapped and killed false hope because their hacking generated cell phone activity that the parents and police though were signs she was still alive?  Do you know that Murdoch broke the law when he bought television stations in the US to start the Fox network while he was still a foreign national? The fact that he became a US citizen, a transparently cynical business move, after the fact doesn't alter the fact that he broke the law, but was never forced to divest himself of the stations he bought.  Special privileges for the rich.  So, I don't believe Murdoch or his holdings are deserving of your sympathy or support.

I don't believe that it's a dodge to say it's an opinion piece.  There is a long tradition of editorials in journalism, and they are clearly labeled as such, often segregated from news on an op ed page in major newspapers, and in this case labeled as opinion.  If I had been asked to write an article about Fox, I would have been more even-handed in my assessment.  The fact that I'm a college professor is a credential, yes, and I am entitled to have and express opinions, but the readers who are predisposed to grant me credibility for my status are probably those who are already on the liberal side of the divide, and those who are predisposed to dismiss me for the very same reason are probably, like yourself, on the conservative side.

Yes, it is well known that Fox is conservative, but their insistence that they are engaged in "fair and balanced" journalism makes all attempts at objectivity suspect, creating a cynical attitude that is very bad for democracy.  You're right that what happened with Dan Rather was a scandal, it was clear that he had trouble keeping his personal views out of his reporting, and this was noticed and criticized.  When the forged documents incident occurred, heads rolled, Rather's top assistant was fired, and he was allowed to continue on for a limited period to save face for the longtime anchor (and to save face for CBS itself), and then replaced.  And that's the point.  We're talking about a human, fallible attempt to be objective, where errors are made and attempts made to correct them.  But where, in a real news organization, that sort of behavior is seen as deviant and repugnant, and punished, with the attempt to eliminate it, on Fox News that sort of behavior is the actual policy of the organization.  They encourage it.  They don't try to eliminate political bias, they make it the basis of all that they do.
At his point, I included the paragraph I wrote earlier, seen above, beginning with, "Mass communication theorists have long been criticizing the myth of objectivity..."  So I won't include here for a second time.  Now, on to continue on:

Yes, journalists went easy on Obama's pastor, and no doubt concern about racial issues played a part, given that most journalists are white (which could be seen as a another source of bias). But they also went easy on George W. Bush's past of drug abuse and alcoholism.  The Tea Party movement took a while to take off, and yes, there has been negative coverage at times.  The Occupy Wall Street movement is just getting started, and is much less organized, so there's no one to interview yet, no one to personalize it for the TV cameras. Folks on the left accuse mainstream journalists of not giving it the attention they have given the Tea Party movement.  On the liberal and left side of things, mainstream journalism is seen as biased in favor of its corporate owners, whose main interest is the bottom line.
I did say that some of my colleagues are ideological.  I think less of them are than is often portrayed in the media.  I don't like that approach because it starts with conclusions and then tries to show how facts fit into the conclusions.  That's not objective.  But I do grant that ideological critiques make some important points, and make an important contribution to our understanding of society.  What makes America great (and I do believe the USA is exceptional) is the ability to engage in vigorous debate, allow different views to be expressed, but only with the understanding that we can weigh the alternatives and come to the best possible conclusion about what is really going on, and what we ought to do about it.  And to do that, we need to be able to separate fact from opinion.  Facts can be examined, tested, verified, or at least proven false.  Opinions cannot. If we're confused about what is going on, how can we make appropriate political decisions in a democracy? And maybe that's no longer possible, but I'd like to believe it still is.
You mention a statistic that 90% of college professors are liberal. That is a fact that could be checked, but whatever the number may be, I would certainly grant that the vast majority are.  Why might that be? For one, when you are engaged in education, as most professors are, you believe in the possibility that human beings can be improved upon, can be made better than they are, can be fundamentally changed. That's a liberal view. We have to believe that way, or else why are we doing what we're doing? We do by and large favor open minds and being open to new ideas, and that goes along with liberalism.  And we participate in an enterprise where we are required to make distinctions between better and worse performance, grading students, sometimes failing some, distinguishing between individuals based on degrees that they earn, bachelors, masters, doctorate.  This is an elitist view, no question about it, although one based on merit, not entitlement. And contemporary liberalism does favor granting special status to educated elites--I'm not saying that's always the best thing to do, just noting that this is another reason why professors tend to be liberal, and it's also a reason why professors tend to be portrayed negatively in the media.  All this applies to most of us who are educators, the exception being the minority at elite institutions where research and publication is their sole emphasis, but many of them receive research money from the government, including the Defense Department, which makes their work suspect to others engaged in ideological critique.
So my bottom line is that however bad American journalism was before Fox News, Fox News has made it worse by making people doubt the possibility of obtaining relatively objective reports of the facts.  If that were truly impossible, we would not have the science and technology that we enjoy.

Since this individual has ended his second message to me with "God bless you and your family, " I concluded with, "my best to you, and your family, and may God inscribe you for blessing in the coming year."

So there you have, and that about wraps it up, but wait, oh yeah, I mentioned that I did get one favorable email message.  As it turns out, it was one from a Fordham student!  I'm quite proud of that, in fact. 

And this was a student I had never met, a political science major studying at our Lincoln Center campus, and a German citizen going to college here in the United States.  He expressed his great satisfaction in the piece, and in fact his relief in seeing that not all Americans liked Fox News and believed what was being said on that cable channel.  To which I can only say, ach du lieber! 


Mike Plugh said...

Very nice. I'm glad you got feedback, since it means people still read newspapers.

I think I might have predicted the line of reasoning that was going to come your way via the piece, as there is really only one talking point for critics of Fox News. It's elitism in the form of the East Coast liberal professoriate, which I always find amusing. As if, we're all wealthy, privileged, liberals who brainwash otherwise right-minded young people.

The funniest part of the "90% of college professors are liberal" meme is the ignorance of the university ideology that stands above each individual. The trend is towards a corporate model of education (just as it was in newsrooms a generation ago) and I guarantee that a poll of many law schools and business schools would show a different tendency altogether. Calling university professors liberal ignores the institutional biases that have taken education out of the equation in so many ways, in favor go high profile research projects and the like.

I can't blame the critics. They're part of an invisible environment full of assumptions about the nature of humanity and society that easily strips thinking down into easy to digest bites of identity, like liberal and conservative without considering that many of us are not in favor of the liberalization trend in economics, while working actively to conserve culture, knowledge, and the natural environment. We're a walking culture of contradictions.

As I said, at least they were reading newspapers. :)

Robert K. Blechman said...

Thank you for sharing your Fox experience with us. I would add one further point. I believe that the strategic political goal of the owners of Fox News is to delegitimize all journalism. By purporting to be "fair and objective" while so obviously not calls into question the objectivity and validity of all journalism. For those conservative elements of our political culture who prefer to avoid "sunlight" this is a win-win situation. The right wing talking points are propagated daily while at the same time the institution of journalism as a whole is diminished.

Leeza said...


Lance Strate said...

Thanks to you all!