Polarization: The Fox News Legacy

Those close to me are aware of disdain for Fox News.  I would like to say it has nothing to do with its political agenda and that I am just advocating for more legitimate journalism on television, but that would only partly be true.  I am also not going to make some nostalgic plea to return to the “good old days” when journalists were objective, blah, blah, blah.  There never really were any “good old days” if the standard is “objective” journalism.  Throughout the history of the printed word, politics and self-interest has been a big part of what ends up on a piece of paper or in a book.

Look back at the election between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams if you want to see some real mud-slinging.  The shameful use of the press in escalating the saber rattling between a falling imperial power in Spain and a rising imperial power in the United States into a full-fledged war is another example of “journalism” that wasn’t quite objective.   And this lack of objectivism is not limited to the United States.  When Thomas Paine wrote “The Age of Reason” he intended to publish a reasoned attack on organized religion and its role in supporting the brutal regimes of Europe.  His attacks on the Catholic Church did not go unnoticed in Rome and the Pope commissioned a “biography” of Paine that painted him as a womanizing alcoholic.  This portrait of Paine prevailed for over 150 years as other biographers simply cited the Pope’s libel as part of their work.  It’s only been in the past 20 years or so that legitimate biographies of Paine have begun to unravel the myth and do justice to one of history’s true “man of the people.”

There are also, of course, countless examples of legitimate attempts at truth-telling through the media. The classic tales of the Murrow-McCarthy showdowns, the Pentagon Paper controversy, the Watergate scandal, etc., all demonstrate the power and virtue of a press dedicated to cutting through the smokescreens which surrounds those in power so that something close to the “truth” can be told.  These efforts always come at a great cost, or at least the risk of a huge cost, to those involved in challenged the status quo.  Paine, Woodward, Bernstein, Ellsberg, Murrow all faced assaults on their character and even jail time for following their conscious.

Enter Fox News.  There’s been no greater whopper in the history of commercial slogans than “Fair and Balanced.”  Perhaps if Burger King ran ads that said the Double Whopper with Cheese and Bacon is a proven weight-loss product they would knock Fox News’ off as the most disingenuous slogan of modern times.

There’s no need to chronicle all the misdeeds of Fox News.  Just turn the channel on for 10 minutes and they will make my case for me.  Their contempt for President Obama is clear and they will do anything to fill 24 hours of air time in making sure we all know it.  If you’ve ever watched The Daily Show when they compile a montage of Fox’s talking heads using the same talking points throughout the day, it can make you laugh, if it wasn’t so damn sad.  There can be little doubt that production meetings at Fox decide on the theme of the day, and no matter what time you tune in, there’s someone disparaging the President.

The obvious response to my disdain for Fox, of course, is just to turn the channel off.  That will work for me, but not for the large number of people who tune in to Fox each day thinking they’re going to learn something useful.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to turn on a station with “News” in its name and expect to get some “news.” At Fox, however, you get a message wrapped around events of the day.

There’s a really interesting interview that Bill O’Reilly did with Ted Koppel.  We mostly remember Koppel for rising to prominence during the Iran Hostage crisis as he reported nightly on a show that became “Nightline.”  This program was a gem at the time because instead of showing 2 minute clips and sound bites for 20 stories in a half hour, it took an in-depth look at one story.  Koppel was/is a throwback journalist in the mold of Murrow, Cronkite, Brinkley, etc. who knew that THEY were not the story.  During the Fox interview, O’Reilly claims that Fox has made America a better place.  Koppel looks at him and chuckles.  End of interview.

So why is Fox News on in just about every dentist office, airport, restaurant, hotel lobby, etc?  If Fox is really this biased and their stories are really this useless in our quest for the truth, why do people keep tuning in?  Each time I go into an office where Fox is on, I ask the manager, doctor, etc., why Fox is on.  Not once has anyone given me an answer that makes sense.  Normally I get a blank stare which indicates that someone mindlessly switched it on perhaps thinking that people should have their daily dose of “Fair and Balanced.”  (Yes, I know Fox has dropped this lie from their ad campaign, but it will always be part of how we think of them.)  I told the manager of a Big Boy that I would like him to change the channel.  (I’m not sure why the Big Boy needs big screen TV’s everywhere you look, but that’s another argument.)  He really couldn’t imagine why I would have taken the time to get up from my seat, seek him out, and ask for this.  I explained that if I ever walked back in the restaurant and Fox was on, I was going to turn around and go eat somewhere else.

And that’s what we all need to do.  If a business is going to help proliferate the hate and lies that is Fox News, we need to spend our money elsewhere.  Let your conscious be your guide.

I suppose it’s time for me to state why I’m writing about this today.  In the wake of the horror in Newtown and the radical right’s screaming for MORE guns, perhaps that topic is worthy of my thoughts.  But that will have to wait.  Fox News’ role in dividing the country and polarizing the political debate was shoved abruptly and painfully into my face on Saturday morning.  And I wasn’t even watching.

I went to work out and ran into a couple of people I know at the gym.  I commented that I can’t stop watching the Newtown coverage and that I was fascinated by the insanely irresponsible job the news stations were doing on the massacre.  They had so many “facts” wrong and yet blasted them all over the airwaves.  The name of the killer, the occupation of his mother, the relative who was killed and where, on and on and on.  All day long in an attempt to be “first” no one was seemingly concerned about being “right.”  One of the men at the gym lamented, “They’re all interested in getting to the bottom of THIS story while they ignore real news like Benghazi.”

My brain went to DefCom 5 and it took every bit of willpower to avoid lighting this guy up.  I gave him a pass because he is sadly and clearly a Fox News dittohead (mixed metaphor intended).  On top of that I refused to take the Fox News bait.  At a time when I was sincerely struggling with the horror of Newtown, it was not the time to drive another wedge between two people who barely know each other.  Had I pointed out that the Benghazi “scandal” is a Fox News creation that no other news source will touch, it would not have led anywhere except to him calling me a liberal and me dismissing him as a non-thinking blockhead.   And yesterday was not the day for that.


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