Fox Outfoxes Itself

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

In its now-infamous July 6 edition, Rupert Murdoch's New York Post added its own entry into the newspaper headline hall of fame when it declared that Richard Gephardt was John Kerry's pick for vice president — on the same day that Kerry actually chose John Edwards. The anonymous tip that led the paper astray is said to have been supplied by Murdoch himself, in what appears to be SOP for the tabloid.

According to the New York Times, "Mr. Murdoch, the chairman and chief executive of the News Corporation, called his tip in to the Post's news desk just after 10 on Monday night, between the first and second editions," causing an editor to rewrite the paper's original article about Kerry's VP announcement. Apparently, this is nothing new at Murdoch-owned news outlets, as Dan Cox, former senior media reporter at the Post recently wrote on Romenesko, "Barely a day went by when Murdoch didn't force feed items about his rival media moguls and their particular transgressions…Not only were we not allowed to ask Murdoch any specific questions about these 'tips,' we were not allowed to check their veracity — anywhere. Murdoch expected us to use them wholesale, unattributed of course."

Stories like this would have fit in perfectly in Robert Greenwald's new documentary "Outfoxed," which premiered last night in Manhattan at the New School, preceded by a panel discussion I moderated with Paul Starr, Arianna Huffington, Nicholas Lemann and John Nichols, hosted by the Center for American Progress, World Policy Institute and The American Prospect.

The discussion moved beyond just the obvious ideological slant of Fox News, and tackled the problems of consolidation in media in general. Although Murdoch owns a vast swath of American media from television to newspapers to book imprints, he has plenty of company at the top, and as Paul Starr pointed out, these massive, cross-media companies are the babies of years of government largesse and the rollback of tough New Deal-era FCC regulations limiting cross ownership. Not only does big media limit the amount of diversity in what we see, hear and read, but as John Nichols noted at the New School, "Bigness is by its nature anti-journalism."

Fox, however, offers a special problem in addition to bigness and that is bias.

In a study commissioned for the film and conducted by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, "Still Failing the 'Fair & Balanced' Test" found that between June and December 2003, the conservative guests outnumbered liberal guests 5 to 1 on Brit Hume's Special Report, the channel's one-on-one flagship interview show. But surely a bastion of liberal thought like NPR would even the scales, right? Not so. FAIR also conducted a guest study of NPR, published in June of this year, which found that the station used Republican sources over Democrats by a ratio of more than 3 to 2. (Repeat after me, "What liberal media?").

Meanwhile, a more pristine example of the corruption of the journalistic process would be harder to find than in these Fox News memos. Consider the daily Fox memo, written by senior vice president for news John Moody which goes out to all Fox affiliates, addressing "what stories will be covered and, often, suggesting how they should be covered," according to six-year Fox news veteran Charlie Reina. "One day this past spring, just after the U.S. invaded Iraq, The Memo warned us that anti-war protesters would be 'whining' about U.S. bombs killing Iraqi civilians, and suggested they could tell that to the families of American soldiers dying there. Editing copy that morning, I was not surprised when an eager young producer killed a correspondent's report on the day's fighting – simply because it included a brief shot of children in an Iraqi hospital."

On Monday July 12, Fox offered its rebuttal by attacking the New York Times, which ran a piece about "Outfoxed" in its Sunday magazine, Fox accuses the Times of "taking orders from" a George Soros-funded Web site, and described Soros as "a left-wing billionaire currency speculator who funds many liberal efforts." The Web site of which they speak is this one, and of course the accusation is a flat-out lie in all of its particulars. First off, while the Center for American Progress did give Robert Greenwald $85,000 to support "Outfoxed," which is the same level of support as from, it had no say whatever over its editorial content and did not see a single frame until it was completed. It obviously had nothing whatever to do with the Times Magazine story. So Fox is just lying right there. Second, the "Web site"—which is of course, a think-tank—does receive funding from George Soros, but he is far from its most significant funder. So why is Fox picking on Soros? I don't know for sure, but we do know that Sean Hannity, Tony Blankley and Bill O'Reilly have proven part of a nasty disinformation campaign to slander Soros with anti-Semitic codewords and images and attack his religious beliefs on Fox and elsewhere. Hence the loaded term, "left-wing billionaire currency speculator," which would have fit perfectly into any Nazi propaganda pamphlet about Jews. (Blankley has actually criticized Soros for being both Jewish and surviving the holocaust, and has passed along poisonous, unsubstantiated accusations that Soros' family cooperated with Hungary's Nazi occupiers.)

This kind of innuendo aside, Fox's distorted broadcasts are in some ways less worrisome in what they actually say than in what they represent. CNN, MSNBC and even to some degree, the broadcast networks have taken up the cause of flashy, content-light reporting, even aping much of Fox's conservative slant. With so much of what Americans see, read, and hear controlled by larger and less accountable multinational conglomerates, the underlying basis of a democratic exchange of ideas becomes a utopian fantasy. Americans are starting to sense this as the rise of a mass, populist movement in opposition to media concentration has demonstrated. Right now, the lack of credibility of so much of the media when it comes to reporting politics is the networks' loss and a gadfly documentarians' gain. If the media mavens were to wake up and take seriously their charges as the eyes and ears of a democratic society—then films like "Outfoxed" (and "Fahrenheit 911") would not be necessary.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and author of "What Liberal Media?" Research assistance provided by Paul McLeary.

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