No, Fox News isn’t Terrible Because They Have a “Viewpoint”
Earlier today, Dan posted something of a response to Bruce Bartlett’s white paper on Fox News. Dan’s criticisms come from the places one might expect, including a criticism of the social sciences in general. Not surprisingly, I am going to push back fairly hard here because I think that the Fox News model is actually quite dangerous. Worse, I think that all the things that make Fox News dangerous are becoming more universal in journalism every year.
As I hope to illustrate in this post, the news media that we choose to consume today — all of us, regardless of political stripe — is little more than entertainment, public relations, and the marketing of celebrity masquerading itself as actual reporting and journalism. That alone might be worth little more than Daily Show-esque mocking for fun, save two critical factors. The first is that the economics of this new pseudo-journalism is slowly killing actual news reporting. The second is that its impact on public policy is growing.
But before we go all meta, let’s zero in on Fox News to set the table.
The way Dan sees it, criticisms of Fox News come down to a kind of confusing of frames of reference with factual information:
The reason that so many see Fox as “biased” is because Fox is on its own island; it differs dramatically from other networks. But it only looks particularly egregious because the rest of the media shares an underlying worldview. Ultimately, the assumptions inherent in the worldview aren’t generally falsifiable; they just are what they are. Assumptions come from our values and our read of the past. We all have assumptions: some are more shared than others, but ubiquity and validity are not necessarily correlated.
Unfortunately, when it turns out that our different worldviews and concerns–and not an innate lack of intelligence, deliberate bias, or misinformation–are the source of different responses to surveys, this brings many of us to an uncomfortable position. Many politically-engaged people, particularly on the Internet–derive self-actualization by being “rational” and “intelligent,” and such intelligence is often evaluated in contrast to the imbeciles on the other side.
To be fair, there is a lot truth to this. Certainly, many liberals often look at Fox News choosing to cover a riot primarily from the government’s point of view rather than the rioters’ as either biased, manipulative, or politically driven. And to flip that around, many conservatives do the same when mainstream or liberal media outlets report on corporate malfeasance. However, as Dan’s point attests, you don’t need to be racist to be critical of rioters and report the police’s version of events first any more than you need to be an Occupy drum-circler to be critical of a corporation caught breaking the law. Indeed, you can be a racist or Occupy drum-circler and that doesn’t make either point of view any more or less truthful.
The problem with this defense of Fox News, however, is that it is largely a slight of hand debating trick. In effect, it’s pleading guilty to the lesser misdemeanor of having a biased viewpoint while ignoring the rather more serious crime of a major news outlet outright manufacturing fictitious content to fill consumer demand.
For example, in the weeks leading up to the 2012 election, Fox reported three stories that I noted here on OT. The first was a comparison of real unemployment rates under Bush and Obama, the second was a commission of the same two president’s spending as a percentage of GDP, the third was about Obama insulting Netanyahu by saying he was too busy to meet with him but then attending a photo op event for National Pirate Day. Each of these stories ended up being bogus and entirely made up. Many things reported in the news end up being bogus, of course, but what set these stories aside from most was who had made them up. As I said at the time,
I want to be very clear that in each of these stories FOX was not discussing reports made by other news organizations or commentators, nor were they passing along newly released government statistics or press releases. They were not even presenting things that the Romney campaign was claiming without “fact-checking.” In each case, FOX simply created the story in-house – stories they knew to be completely fictitious – to make the president’s record better fit the narrative their viewers wanted to see reported.
As I have also noted, at various points during the President’s first term Fox News reported — either by their own anchors and reporters or by invited and unchallenged “experts” — that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, was raised in a Madrassa, was the illegitimate sone of Malcolm X, was a sleeper agent of the Muslim Brotherhood, used the word “whitey” to describe caucasians, was replacing tenured FBI agents with Muslim terrorists, was creating a Nazi Youth program to brainwash children, was secretly importing 100 million Muslims for some nefarious purpose, had conspired to turn over US territories to Vladimir Putin, was planning on outlawing synagogues and Christian churches immediately after reelection, had faked Bin Laden’s death, had his gay lover deported, had Andrew Breitbert killed, had his Kenyan grandmother killed, and was preparing to fake his own assassination attempt.
None of these stories about the President were different views of some landscape we all see from different viewpoints. They were all patently untrue falsehoods, and they were reported by a news network that knew them to be so. But to be clear, Fox didn’t run these stories because they are partisan (though they certainly are), which is where most liberal criticism of the Fair and Balanced Folk misses the mark.
No, Fox News broadcast them because a story about the President of the United States sneaking in 100 million muslim terrorists to kill you in your sleep drives higher ratings from their customer base (and thus greater revenue) than, say, the growing issues with the United State’s infrastructure. And the fact that Fox’s sin is one of greed and not ideology is very important.
Because it’s not just Fox.
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Here’s an experiment you can try on your own: Over a week’s period time, make a note of where you get your news. Don’t think about it, and don’t change your pattern; just jot the source down as you do it.
If you’re like most people, what you’ll find at the end of the week will no doubt be odd at first blush: Even though you think you consume a lot of journalism every day, in fact you consume almost none if any. In order to hide this shortcoming from our own brains (because it’s one of those things we really don’t like to admit it to ourselves), we’ve done what humans have always done when faced with such a truth. We’ve just changed the definition of the word “journalism” so that it encompasses all sort things that we do choose to consume, so that we can feel better about ourselves. It’s common for people to blame the Internet for the way things have gotten, but the true culprit here is economics.
Here is what journalism is today: It’s recaps of TV shows we just watched. It’s a pundit making a comment about something she or she may or may not actually know very much about. It’s other reporters commenting about what the comment of the first pundit. It’s an even greater number of reporters reporting on the fact that the previous reporters reported on whatever the pundit said. It’s breathless reports on new diet fads, and criticisms of those diet fads by the same media outlets that reported them, filed by people who know nothing they haven’t googled just moments before writing their criticism. It’s celebrity’s foibles, car chases of people wanted for misdemeanors, gaffes from politicians we had never would have heard of otherwise, and reporters standing outside letting us know if a snow storm that was supposed to have hit a place we’ve never been and have no intention of ever visiting has begun yet.
Here is what, more and more, is no longer journalism: Reporters going places, asking questions, and taking the time to try to talk to the people they are covering. Men and women following up with experts about claims politicians, government officials and corporations make that sound too good/horrible/funny/crazy to believe. People double checking to make sure what they have been told is factually correct before reporting it as truth.
The reason this is happening is a matter of simple economics. We want our news free of charge, and we want it to first and foremost entertain and confirm our biases. To make matters worse — and I mean worse for you, readers; it’s actually much better for journalists — it’s far easier and infinitely cheaper to produce the new journalism.
In ye olde times, it might take a week or more of work for an Amanda Marcotte, Josh Marshall, or Elias Isquith to research, confirm, fact check and write a piece. Now any of them can crank out half a dozen a day if they want, never leaving their desk or picking up the phone to talk to the people they are writing about (or even talking to someone who knows a lot about whoever they’re writing about). And because there’s no real research or fact checking required, they can do old journalism one better and tailor their content to what readers want to read as opposed to having to work to craft the telling of important stories in ways that allow readers to connect with the subject matter. Because that’s the other dirty secret about new journalism: you can actually create the demand for content in house by misrepresenting the urgency and the benefit/threat of the subject matter.
True story: By just about every conceivable metric — page hits, donations, ad and merchandise sales, etc. — the internet-based Men’s Rights Movement and its associated brethren of professional PUAs, anti-anti-rape organizations, and such peaked a few years ago and has been in steady and rapid decline ever since. But as it turns out, that’s not just bad for MRMs. It’s bad for the cottage industry of journalists covering MRMs that rose alongside it. The result is that although it’s certainly not intentional, these journalists have essentially become the MRM sites’ largest promoters. Many of them have ben forced to report — completely fallaciously — that the movement is growing, thriving, and hiding under you bed.
I wrote about this earlier here, but the best example of this was a story written “activist journalist” Barry Nolan and published by Boston Magazine. The story was a frightening cautionary tale of MRMs taking over the inner workings of the government of Massachusetts and it was completely bogus.
But before we judge Nolan too harshly, we need to recognize that he wasn’t some maverick gone rogue. He was doing exactly what was expected of him by those that paid him. He wasn’t paid to report news; he was paid to produce a page-click worthy article that was judged on its ability to go viral over it’s accuracy. And before we judge Boston Magazine too harshly for doing just that, we need to recognize that they’re a pretty mainstream publication that gave us exactly what we ask them to give us over and over, day in and day out, as consumers of journalism. More and more in today’s world, news is manufactured to answer a consumer demand rather than reported on because of it’s relevance and urgency.
Indeed, I would argue that the growing influence Ted Cruz is largely based on this dynamic of the new journalism. By all accounts on peers the right, he is widely disliked and not particular respected. He doesn’t have a past of outstanding career accomplishments to hang his hat on, nor has he really worked to pass legislation as a Senator. (In fact, as has been widely reported lately, he doesn’t even necessarily bother to show up to vote for legislation he talks about to the media.) In any other time in our country’s history, Ted Cruz would be an little known and inconsequential lawmaker — if he had ever been elected in the first place. But his willingness to say controversial things in the camera has made him something that the new journalism can create a mythos around, be that mythos savior or boogeyman.
And before you poo-poo the importance of that, remember: Cruz used that celebrity to pretty much single handedly reduce the nation’s credit rating.
None of this comes as a shock to readers here, of course. But I’m not sure that most of us are paying attention to how much the new journalism is overtaking the old journalism, and what exactly that means for public policy long term.
 This is understandable since Bartlett chose to post it on the Social Science Research Network, which does indeed sound social-science-y. Still, it’s probably best to note that the site is a place where random people can just upload stuff. Bartlett’s paper does not appear to have in any way been peer reviewed, or may not have been reviewed at all.
 I haven’t really watched Fox News since the 2012 election fall out, and doubt I will want to return to it until the 2016 GOP primary gets under way. Because of this, some of my Fox examples are going to be somewhat dated.
[Picture: Screenshot of Hooters Calendar Girls being interviewed on Fox News’s The Strategy Room, a news segment that was brought to you by Fed Ex.]