Fox News is nothing if not impressive. No matter how harsh the criticism it endures, the network somehow always manages to prove itself even worse than we had previously imagined. In the wake of some devastating reporting on the internal operations of the outfit, discussed here, Chris Wallace of “Fox News Sunday” invited comedian/wise man Jon Stewart on the show this past Sunday.
Fox did not have the nerve to allow the interview to run in a coherent fashion. “Fox edited me to seem like a woman having a nervous breakdown,” Stewart said on “The Daily Show” Monday night following the broadcast.
To the degree that the show made news, it was in Wallace’s admission that Fox does not even try to be “fair,” much less balanced. “I believe that we’re the counterweight,” Wallace explained in a part of the interview that Fox somehow forgot to air. “I think that they have a liberal agenda and I think we’re the other side of the story.” On Monday’s show, Stewart understandably parodied this simplistic manner of viewing reality:
We don’t tell both sides of the story, we tell one side … the other side, the one we perceive is never told. Because as you know, news only comes in two sides. And if the conservative side isn’t being told, what’s being told must be liberal. Fox News isn’t fair and balanced. It’s balancing the system, man. Don’t you get it? The system’s unfair and unbalanced. To balance the system, Fox has to be the purest form of right-wing resin. Because of how heavy left-wing America is. Hollywood, comedians, every single news organization, the Internet, facts, history, science, it’s all just left-wing bullshit, man.
But watch the entire interview on the web and you see, again, that the problems with Fox are far more disturbing than even the great—and I say that unironically—Jon Stewart is willing (or able) to consider.
Let’s examine the full transcript in detail. Once Wallace manages to drop his strange obsession with getting Stewart to drink out of his Fox News mug—leading Stewart to wonder, naturally, if it was poison—Wallace asks if Stewart wishes to stand by his characterization of Fox as “a biased organization, relentlessly promoting an ideological agenda under the rubric of being a news organization,” and a “relentless agenda-driven, 24-hour news opinion propaganda delivery system."
Stewart, of course, does, and Wallace, who is apparently unaware of the way Fox is widely viewed outside the confines of Roger Ailes’s kingdom, wonders, “Where do you come up with this stuff?” Unfortunately, Stewart punts here; one of many times he does throughout the interview. Had he come prepared with any one of the thousands of examples of Fox deliberately twisting the news and sometimes even making it up in order to further its political agenda; examples he could have found here, here, here, here, and here.
In that case, Wallace might have had to respond. Instead, he went with the breezy, “It’s actually quite easy when you feel it. You got to feel it in your soul, you know?”
Next, Wallace attempted to paint Stewart as a hypocrite because, in his view, the comedian should be “willing to say the same thing about the mainstream media, about ABC, CBS, NBC, Washington Post, New York Times … that they are, in your words, a propaganda delivery system relentlessly pushing a liberal agenda.”
Of course, this is ridiculous and Stewart refuses. He does not go into any detail, for instance, explaining that these same liberal conspiracies cooperated with the Bush administration in pretending that Iraq was manufacturing nuclear weapons or had participated in the 9/11 attacks. Or wonder why The Washington Post consistently published George Will’s dishonest climate denialism or Jennifer Rubin’s Likudnik propaganda. And what of The New York Times’s hiring of William Kristol (having lost Judith Miller)? Is NBC’s “Meet the Press” part of a liberal conspiracy when it’s most frequently invited guest in 2009 was Newt Gingrich—who held no office but has plenty of crazy, right-wing positions? (How else to explain a grown man who professes to believe that Obama’s political views can be understood “only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior”? And what about his insistence that the Obama administration leads a “secular-socialist machine” that represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union?)
Stewart tries to grant Wallace’s point with regard to MSNBC, saying, “They’ve looked at your business model and they have seen the success of it. And I think they’re attempting to be a more activist organization.” This kind of thing has been Stewart’s prime weakness and a common one: the “both sides do it” dodge.
This is true in a trivial sense but false in a larger, far more important sense. MSNBC may have a bias in primetime, but its hosts do not purposely lie. (And if it does give a show, as was recently reported, to Chris Hayes, then it will already have more honest reporting in its program than in the entire history of Fox.) Meanwhile, MSNBC has 15 hours a week in the morning of programming hosted by conservative Republican Joe Scarborough. Both he and his co-host, Mika Brzezinski, are fans of Sarah Palin, constantly mock liberals, and think the world of Paul Ryan. Where, one has to ask Mr. Stewart, is the analogy to Fox News?
Wallace thinks he can prove his point about the alleged liberal media bias and in doing so presents the arguments that:
a) The Washington Post asked readers to help them go through Sarah Palin’s emails but not the health care bill.
b) Jon Stewart made fun of Sarah Palin’s propaganda film.
c) Jon Stewart also made fun of Herman Cain saying that all bills should be no longer than three pages.
d) Diane Sawyer gave a simplistic view of Arizona’s immigration enforcement laws.
The nuttiness of the above is self-evident. Stewart, however, makes two useful points here. First, that because a person like Wallace lives in an ideological world, he assumes everyone else does. “It reminds me of … ideological regimes. They can’t understand that there is free media other places. Because they receive marching orders.” Second, he says “we should have more full context,” but rather than point to a bias, the problem is often “sensationalist and somewhat lazy.”
The interview had a lot of odd points in it that made one wonder if Wallace might not be on medication of some sort. First was the water thing. Then came a few scatological clips from shows on Comedy Central—as if that somehow bore on whether Fox was biased. Third was his insinuation regarding Stewart’s Cain joke that the comedian was exploiting racism. (Wallace: “You’re planning a remake of ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’?”)
Stewart was awfully generous to Wallace in granting that his show was somehow fundamentally different from the rest of what’s on Fox, though again, he failed to go into any detail on either one of his points above. He was also awfully sympathetic to complaints by conservatives that they are mistreated in the mainstream media, when, in fact, they are just as likely to be coddled and indulged owing to their successful 40-year strategy of “working the refs” to get their way.
The most controversial part of the broadcast came when Stewart demanded, “Who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? The most consistently misinformed? Fox, Fox viewers, consistently, every poll.” Wallace did not dispute this. And writing in The Washington Monthly, Steve Benen provided some significant documentary support. In December, for instance, the University of Maryland’s Project on Public Attitudes, or PIPA, published a report entitled “Misinformation and the 2010 Election” and found Fox News viewers were “significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe”:
- That most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely)
- That most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points)
- That the economy is getting worse (26 points)
- That most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points)
- That the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points)
- That their own income taxes have gone up (14 points)
- That the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points)
- That when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points)
- That it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points)
The statement that Fox News viewers are the most uninformed has been disputed on PolitiFact, whose refutation appeared on Jim Romenesko’s site and will undoubtedly be used by Fox defenders to attempt to undermine Stewart’s criticism. Unfortunately, the author of the post does not know how to read his evidence. He seems to think that “knowledge” of office holders and personalities in politics is akin to correct “information” about issues and political questions. But whether a person knows the name of his or her representative or can name a few members of the Supreme Court has no bearing whatever on to what degree they believe the kinds of falsehoods that Fox regularly puts forth as news.
On matters of substance, as the above survey indicates, Fox viewers are almost always the victims of far more misinformation than other citizens. The fact that all the falsehoods above tend in one direction cannot be coincidence. Nor was it coincidence that, as Beren reports, “eight years ago, a similar PIPA survey found that Fox viewers were three times more likely than the next nearest network to hold all three misperceptions—about WMD in Iraq, Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11, and foreign support for the U.S. position on the war in Iraq.” Nor the fact that Ben Armbruster noted, “An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out [in 2009] found that Fox News viewers were overwhelmingly misinformed about health care reform proposals.” (Jane Hamsher does yeoman’s work on the misunderstandings perpetrated by PolitiFact’s sloppy reasoning here, and hey, give them credit, they noticed how off base the rest of the world found them to be here, though I fear the misleading Romenesko headline will live on in what should be imfamy).
The upshot of all of the above is that from the standpoint of a citizen seeking honest news, Fox News is so corrupt it is almost impossible to do just to its myriad manners of dishonesty. Jon Stewart focused on a few of these but gave others a pass. (Although he did respond with some fact checking of his own on his show Tuesday night.) PolitiFact further muddied the waters and ended up whitewashing the purposeful misinformation that passes for news at Fox. Finally, a big part of the reason one cannot tell the truth about Fox is because it’s impolite to call people liars to their face. Most of the media coverage of Stewart’s appearance has focused on the back and forth between him and Wallace, treating the question of Fox’s role in perverting the media ecosystem as unimportant. When I tried to urge media writers to stop treating Fox like it was just another news station at a recent awards luncheon, I was told that this was “out of place.”
More and more, it is simply the truth that is “out of place” in our policy debates. And that, more than anything, is why Chris Wallace, upon hearing it, however sugarcoated, sounded so surprised.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.