Scary: People Who Watch and Trust Fox News Will Surprise You
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In the 7 March issue of the Tribune, Mark Seddon reported on the threat that Glenn Beck, "as a sort of hired gauleiter on Fox News", poses to American democracy. The article hit the nail on the head when it comes to Beck's paranoiac propaganda. Seddon, however, misses the broader danger of the Murdoch-owned Fox News: the media outlet's audience is growing even as its programming veers away from broadcast journalism and shapes instead a rightwing political operation.
Consider the facts: more than twice as many Americans watch Fox News as watch CNN, the next most popular cable news channel, and almost five times as many as watch MSNBC. Fox's audience cuts across age, gender, race, education, and income level. The average Fox News viewer is a male between the ages of 30 to 49 -- far from most people's perception that mostly seniors watch Fox. So where Seddon pointed to a fabled minority audience of "not-so-bright … American citizens", Fox is instead popular among a wide swath of well-educated, contributing members of society. Fox's audience includes your neighbour, your cousin and the guy in front of you in line every morning at Starbucks.
This growing audience also puts significant faith in the credibility of the news delivered by Fox, even while trust in other major news outlets declines. Fox is among the most trusted news outlets in the US, despite countless demonstrable instances of their anchors and pundits spreading misinformation. This rise in influence is not an accident or a coincidence. It is the result of a sophisticated strategy to gain market dominance through an almost monopolistic aggregation of media platforms in individual markets, an aggressive strategy of cross-marketing between entertainment and news, and a systematic denigration by Fox News on air of all other outlets.
Fox's pre-eminent position has had an irrefutable and destructive impact on the state of political discourse in the United States. Since its inception, Fox News has performed as a political party, not as an objective journalistic outlet. Since President Obama took office, Fox has succeeded not only in spreading misinformation and lies, but also in entrenching those fictions so that its audience relates to them as irrefutable fact. One in four Americans believes "most or all" of what's said on Fox News, despite Fox's fabrication of everything from death panels to Climategate. (Coined by Sarah Palin, the term "death panels" -- an inaccurate claim that the healthcare reform bill would require end-of-life counseling -- was picked up by Fox to advance the provocative and false threat that the government would "tell grandma and grandpa… how and when to die". Climategate is Fox's name for the so-called scandal in which emails -- stolen and then distorted -- from the UK's Climate Research Unit suggested that "scientists are fudging data to make their case for global warming", when the "evidence isn't really there.")
Fox News' approach to these issues has, among other things, limited genuine debate about the merits of healthcare policy, forcing elected representatives to spend time insisting to their constituents that the president of the United States does not want to kill their grandmothers. The claims are so outrageous that they would be funny -- if they didn't have real impact on people's lives.
Not content to spread misinformation and singlemindedly pursue an extreme agenda, Fox decided in 2009 it would contribute explicitly to the rise of a social movement. Fox spent disproportionate airtime rallying people to join the Tea Party, the radical right group that was formed in the wake of the presidential election in 2008. Over ten days in April of 2009, Fox aired 107 ads for its coverage of Tea Party protests and, in that same time period, featured at least 20 segments on the upcoming protests. By contrast, in the recent legislative battle over collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, Fox called the protesting union supporters a "shrieking leftist mob".
By encouraging people to attend local rallies and providing incessant coverage of town halls around the healthcare bill, Fox lent structure and legitimacy to what might have otherwise been a brief episode of "tax day" anger. And as far as the 2010 midterms are concerned, both the Tea Party movement and Fox News deserve credit for the Republican sweep of the nation. What's sinister here is not the change of power -- the response of an unsatisfied American populace is, indeed, "vote another guy in" -- but the very deliberate manufacturing of that change by a force masquerading as a reputable news outlet.
The UK is currently faced with the prospect of full News Corp ownership of BSkyB. As political and opinion leaders think through what this would mean for their country, they should carefully consider not only Fox's worst instances of propagandising, but also the potential British audience for such misinformation. And, most likely, they need look no further than their flatmate. Seddon warns in Tribune that "America needs to wake up before people like Beck and his ilk has it by the throat." Let me end here with a counter-admonition: the UK needs to wake up before Murdoch and his corporation have the media -- and, by extension, British citizens -- even more in the palm of his hand than he already does.