Just What Exactly Is Fox News?

It’s hard to pin down what Fox News really is, writes Eric Alterman. But it sure isn’t journalism.

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Steve Doocy, left, E.D. Hill, and Brian Kilmeade pose on the set of "Fox & Friends," in New York. (AP/Frank Franklin II)
Steve Doocy, left, E.D. Hill, and Brian Kilmeade pose on the set of "Fox & Friends," in New York. (AP/Frank Franklin II)

Fox News Channel is often described as a cable news station. On occasion, the words “conservative” or “biased” are attached to that description. But few dispute the journalistic orientation of the overall enterprise.

This is a mistake. Fox is something new—something for which we do not yet have a word. It provides almost no actual journalism. Instead it gives ideological guidance to the Republican Party and millions of its supporters, attacking its opponents and keeping its supporters in line. And it does so at a hefty profit, thereby turning itself into the political equivalent of a perpetual motion machine.

Recall that last spring, David Frum lost his appointment at the conservative American Enterprise Institute before observing, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox.” This is literally true in the case of at least four likely Republican candidates for president in 2012: Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. In fact, as two Politico writers observe, “With the exception of Mitt Romney, Fox now has deals with every major potential Republican presidential candidate not currently in elected office.”

In the first place, one must note the oddity of this situation. After all, what are political candidates doing working for a “news” station? Isn’t that inconsistent with very idea of journalism? Can these candidates be trusted to tell the truth about themselves, their supporters, and their opponents? What’s more, what is it about Fox that would entice these candidates to give the station exclusive access to their appearances?

Politico quotes C-SPAN Political Editor Steve Scully explaining that when C-SPAN tried to interview Sarah Palin, “he was told he had to first get Fox’s permission—which the network, citing her contract, ultimately denied. Producers at NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, and MSNBC all report similar experiences.” “We have tried to book many of them, but they have always refused, saying they are exclusive to Fox,” explained another rival network staffer.

The Politico reporters note that when these candidates appear on the network, like most Republicans, they simply “offer their views on issues of the day.” Rarely if ever are they expected to defend their views or answer to any potential inconsistencies.

Think about it. Fox is paying the people they are alleging to cover, and this makes them off limits to any actual coverage save straightforward propaganda. “We’re acutely aware of this” explained a “Fox insider” in the Politico story. And yet, “The cold reality is, nobody at the reporter level has any say on this,” added someone Politico described as “another source familiar with the inner workings of Fox.” Nobody will talk about it on the record, outside of C-SPAN, apparently for fear of retribution.

And this cozy arrangement sure works for the candidates, who not only rake in cash but are protected from answering any uncomfortable questions. Why else would Sarah Palin tell Delaware GOP Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell to stick to Fox (and do so while on Fox)?

“She’s gonna have to dismiss that, go with her gut, get out there, speak to the American people, speak through Fox News, and let the independents who are tuning into you, let them know what it is that she stands for, the principles behind her positions,” Palin explained.

These candidates are not the only ones to enjoy a Fox perch and paycheck. Karl Rove, you will recall, is also cashing a Rupert Murdoch check. And again, the relationship between Rove and journalism is tangential at best, hostile at worst.

For instance, not long ago, Fox News’s Alisyn Camerota interviewed Fox contributor Karl Rove and committed one of those faux pas that can make viewing Fox so interesting. She asked Rove about the steady stream of Code Pink protesters who had been following him on his book tour.

“These are sort of sad and pathetic people,” Rove explained. “Let’s not give them any more attention.” How dare a journalist ask a paid employee of the very same news organization an inconvenient question.

Bringing Rove into the equation naturally raises the issue of Fox and political contributions. As The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg explained, “Already a prominent presence as an analyst on Fox News Channel and a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Rove is also playing a leading role in building what amounts to a shadow Republican Party, a network of donors and operatives that is among the most aggressive in the Republican effort to capture control of the House and the Senate.”

Rove is seeking to guide both voters and operatives in picking the party’s candidates in addition to plans for “an anti-Democratic barrage of attack ads that will be run tens of thousands of times, a final get-out-the-vote push with some 40 million negative mail pieces, and 20 million automated phone calls.”

Political spending on TV ads this election cycle, according to The New York Times blog, The Caucus, “is on track to hit $3 billion by the November election, breaking the previous highs of roughly $2.7 billion in 2008 and $2.4 billion in 2006.” The single best place for Rove and the candidates to find big chunks of this cash is by pitching themselves to Fox viewers.

Finally, there is the role Fox plays in intimidating candidates and public officials from doing their jobs in a way that might cause any unpleasant attention to come their way. Recall that when Fox ran Andrew Breitbart’s deliberately doctored video over and over that was designed to falsely portray Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod of having bragged to an NAACP audience of discriminating against whites when she was saying just the opposite, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack panicked and fired her right away, without bothering to get to the truth himself.

What spooked him so? As Sherrod explained, Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook had demanded her resignation, telling her “do it, because you’re going to be on ‘Glenn Beck’ tonight.”

The implied threat of unfavorable Fox coverage works even better with Republicans. During the period of 2010 when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was negotiating to join Democrat John Kerry and conservative independent Joe Lieberman in their attempt to craft an energy bill, the Republican warned Lieberman and Kerry that they needed to get as far as they could in negotiating the bill “before Fox News got wind of the fact that this was a serious process,” one of the people involved in the negotiations said to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza.

“He would say, ‘The second they focus on us, it’s gonna be all cap-and-tax all the time, and it’s gonna become just a disaster for me on the airwaves. We have to move this along as quickly as possible.’”

No wonder few people were surprised to learn that Rupert Murdoch, who owns a controlling interest in News Corp., Fox’s owner, had so far this year contributed $1 million each to the Republican Governors Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which acts as a cutout both for Republican donors and possibly for foreigners seeking to influence our political process. (Murdoch told Politico Wednesday night that the Chamber of Commerce gift “‘doesn’t reflect on Fox News,’ he said. ‘It had nothing to do with Fox News.’”)

Sure. Like so many Murdoch properties, including The Wall Street Journal, Fox itself is one big contribution to the Republican cause.

Again, I’m not exactly sure what to call Fox. It has more in common with the integrated political/judicial/business/media empire that is making a mockery of Italian democracy under the rule of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi than any American political or media machine of the past. And yet for a whole host of reasons, both financial and psychological, many in the media cannot admit this, thereby allowing Fox to benefit from the protections of journalism offered up by the First Amendment while simultaneously subverting their purpose.

When members of the Obama administration pointed out last year that Fox News did not adhere to the same standards as other news organizations, many sought to defend it. Baltimore Sun critic David Zurawik said he heard “echoes of Nixon-Agnew” in the comments of White House and accused the administration of failing to respect “press freedom.” ABC’s Jake Tapper asked White House briefer Robert Gibbs, insisting, “It’s escaped none of our notice that the White House has decided in the last few weeks to declare one of our sister organizations ‘not a news organization’ and to tell the rest of us not to treat them like a news organization. Can you explain why it’s appropriate for the White House to decide that a news organization is not one?”

A “news organization”? Really? Let’s give the last word on that to Ms. Palin. She asked viewers in Louisville, “What would we do without Fox News, America? We love our Fox News, yes.”

I sure understand why Sarah Palin and company love their Fox News. As for the rest of us, well, that’s a column for another day.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His "Altercation" blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

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