Pity the Poor Folks at Fox News

In the wild world of Fox News, unbiased journalism isn’t fair and balanced—it’s whining, and it’s discouraged.

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A couple sits on chairs in a near-empty room to watch Fox News commentator Karl Rove on a big-screen television during a Republican Party election night gathering in the club level of Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado, on Tuesday, November 6, 2012. (AP/David Zalubowski)
A couple sits on chairs in a near-empty room to watch Fox News commentator Karl Rove on a big-screen television during a Republican Party election night gathering in the club level of Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado, on Tuesday, November 6, 2012. (AP/David Zalubowski)

Not a day goes by lately that Fox News does not itself make news. In the past few days, we’ve learned that the station dropped longtime commentator and pollster Dick Morris from its team of analysts. This comes after the decisions to renew the station’s lucrative contract with analyst Karl Rove and pass on the even more lucrative one with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R).

If these moves have a whiff of desperation about them, well, that’s appropriate. The station’s primetime ratings recently reached their lowest point in 12 years among viewers ages 25 to 54—who happen to be the only ones most advertisers care to reach. January was the worst showing ever for Fox’s “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren,” who viewers know as a close friend and confidante of Gov. Palin. On top of that, Fox News has hit a record low of trustworthiness among most Americans, according to a new survey by Public Policy Polling (the 2012 election’s most accurate pollsters).

What’s more, a number of key Fox personalities are talking openly about jumping ship. Journalist Geraldo Rivera, for example, is teasing New Jersey voters about the fun they might have should he throw his hat into the ring for the 2014 Senate contest. And contributor Keith Ablow put out a press release announcing that he would run for the Massachusetts Senate seat left open by now-Secretary of State John Kerry if “all the leaders of the [Republican] Party united around” him.

Not too many people appear to be taking Ablow seriously, but the Rivera announcement—as ridiculous as it may be—has caught the attention of numerous journalism scholars and critics. David Zurawik, media critic at The Baltimore Sun, explained:

When I first saw this, the thing that really concerns me again is not so much Geraldo doing this, but I am surprised that Fox News is letting itself be used this way. … it is really, honestly one of the most troubling [things], really wrong that Fox allows itself to play this political role the way it did with [Rick] Santorum and with [Newt] Gingrich, to go on as long as they did into those primaries and be on the air. These guys have benefited enormously from being on Fox and having access to that large and active political audience they have.

Come on now. Zurawik’s “surprise” over Rivera expressed in his first sentence is belied by the evidence he offers in his second one. Fox has never been a “news” network—to be considered a traditional “news” source, it would have to be unbiased, which is a quality that Fox clearly lacks. This became painfully evident to its viewers last election night. Not only was the network totally unprepared for the “shock” that everyone who took the polls and the math seriously had expected—that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) got creamed—but viewers were also privy to an on-air battle waged by analyst Karl Rove to try to prevent the station from telling its viewers the truth about the election results.

Rove, as perhaps most but not all viewers were aware, used Fox (and The Wall Street Journal) as an adjunct to his primary gig, which was the raising and distribution of literally tens of millions of dollars to Republican candidates in last year’s election through his super PACs. Indeed, he was in the news this week because he says his super PAC of multimillionaires and billionaires dubbed “American Crossroads” plans to have an even bigger role in determining which candidates get the nod in 2014.

So by calling Ohio—and therefore the election—for President Barack Obama, Fox was threatening Rove’s investments in the Senate candidates he and his cronies had funded. Many voters do not bother to show up—or remain in line—to vote if they believe the presidential race has already been decided.

If Fox were a “news” station rather than a political organization, why would it employ almost all of the potential Republican presidential candidates before the 2012 election and allow them to raise money for other Republican candidates? Why would the station’s on-air personalities be using it to launch Republican primary campaigns? Why would it constantly invite people on its various shows to advance the fantasy that President Obama was born in Kenya or that man-made global warming is a secret scientific conspiracy? Indeed, almost everything is part of a secret conspiracy, according to Fox—from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent illness to President Obama’s affection for skeet shooting.

The list of such examples goes on and on, but the lesson for all self-respecting journalists is clearer than ever: Stay away from Fox. It is in a different business than we are, and it’s not one that is compatible with truth-telling or traditional journalistic ethics of any kind. Alas, the opposite lesson appears to be the one that many conservatives prefer to believe—that those of us who believe journalists ought to at least try to tell the truth “without fear or favor” have, in actuality, been picking on the poor folks at Fox News. Fox News political analyst Kirsten Powers, for example, makes the possibly clinically insane complaint that, “There is no war on terror for the Obama White House, but there is one on Fox News. … alas, the president loves to whine about the media meanies at Fox News. To him, these are not people trying to do their jobs. No, they are out to get him.” Oh, the humanity. She goes on and on, apparently unaware that the “job” of the people at Fox News, as defined by their bosses, is “to get” President Obama. (And if she is unaware of this, perhaps it is because, for some reason, she has not gotten the memo instructing Fox News personalities to say whatever is necessary—true or not—to try to prejudice viewers against the president.)

Of course, Powers at least has the excuse of being paid for her full-throated ignorance (to put the myriad problems with her analysis perhaps overly generously). But what is Howard Kurtz’s excuse? He is the host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” but for years he has been willing to demean his credibility with repeated heartfelt defenses of Fox News president Roger Ailes, Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch, and Fox News itself. Most recently, he attacked not only the White House but also former Vice President Al Gore for their willingness to point out the problems that the typical Fox News correspondent has with telling the truth. Much akin to the Fox-flack Powers, Kurtz equates a desire to see and hear responsible reporting as “whining.” He seems to think that because the president commands “an army, a navy and a bunch of nuclear weapons, not to mention an ability to command the airwaves at a moment’s notice,” the quality of our public discourse—and the lies that are routinely introduced by Murdoch’s minions—should not concern the president. Neither, apparently, should the fact that Republicans are routinely punished on Fox for even thinking about bipartisan compromise for the good of the country. (Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) fear of just that is one of the subjects of a New Yorker investigation of the politics of energy policy by a real reporter, Ryan Lizza.)

In yet another illogical non sequitur, Kurtz went off on Vice President Gore for selling his Current TV channel to Al Jazeera because Kurtz sees an “obvious contradiction of a climate change crusader selling to a network largely financed by the petrodollar kingdom of Qatar.” Note that Kurtz does not mention whether the station’s climate coverage is any good, nor does he mention that the station he’s defending routinely misleads its viewers about the very same topic.

How ironic, moreover, that the object of Kurtz’s affection, Fox News, is owned by News Corp, whose second-largest holder of voting stock happens to be Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal—a nephew of the Saudi king—who has a rather large interest in the continued use of fossil fuels. And never mind that, according to Gore, Al Jazeera’s “climate coverage has been far more extensive and high-quality.”

I can’t speak to Al Jazeera’s reporting on the issue because my cable provider, Time Warner, refuses to carry it. I also can’t speak to Kurtz’s personal motivations to make himself look ridiculous by not even bothering to check before mocking it.

I don’t, however, see a conspiracy. But then again, I’m not paid by Fox News. And I don’t want to be—I work in a different business than it does. Any so-called objective reporters out there would do well to realize the same and act accordingly. The likes of Kirsten Powers and Howard Kurtz will call it “whining.” A better name for it, however, would be journalism.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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