Fox News Responds
"If your readers would take a few seconds to consider the things they enjoy by virtue of being in this country, the depth of their anger would dissipate," says John Moody. "We're not arguing over whether democracy is being sacrificed here, we're arguing over the path we're going to take the country on -- and rightly so!"
Moody, a veteran of United Press International and Time, is now senior vice president, news editorial, at FOX News. During a provocative, alternately aggressive and defensive, sometimes sincere and sometimes sarcastic interview this week, Moody did his best to answer questions about issues ranging from bias at FOX and other news organizations to mainstream media reporting on the war in Iraq, and from the cable news obsession with "dead white women" to controversial Fox commentators like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. Ultimately, like Jonathan Klein, his peer at rival cable news network CNN [interview here], Moody seemed genuinely puzzled at the extent and depth of the anger and discontent expressed by the questions, and contended that they "all tend to be similar in voicing discontent."
"Do you think American media, generally speaking, is biased," I asked first. "If so, how so -- too liberal? too conservative? too corporate? too careerist? too driven by ratings and celebrity?"
"I think, first of all, that Americans should be proud of their news media, in general," Moody began. "Everyone likes to complain -- about the government, the media, and so on. But stop, for goodness' sake, and look at the rest of the world. We are a democracy -- however imperfect -- with great blessings and wealth. Most of the world envies us and our news media, because it is un-intimidated and -- I'm going to make up a word here --- largely un-intimidatable. That's part of our patrimony.
"Because of the qualities it takes to succeed in the media, we have bright and responsible people in this business -- and bright people have opinions about everything. These opinions stay with them when they put on a reporter's hat," he continued. "The challenge is not to let those opinions cross the line into their reporting. So there are biases -- not at the corporate level -- but biases that can creep in to become part of the mindset of a news organization."
"Does FOX News take personal political beliefs into account when hiring?" I wondered.
"I've hired more than 100 people here in ten years, and I have never asked about anyone's personal political beliefs," Moody replied. "Because that wouldn't be fair and wouldn't be effective. That's no way to start a relationship, with defensiveness and suspicion. This is a place where anybody can question or voice an opinion without fear of retaliation."
Moody defined "the main purpose of our profession" in straightforward terms: "To tell people what's happening." When you do that, he said, "you shape their outlook of the world, and when you realize that power, and responsibility, you can react in different ways. You can make sure that your reporting is accurate, or you can decide that your purpose is to make the world a better place. But saving the world is not a good reason to become a journalist."
Asked about charges from former FOX News producer Charlie Reina that "The roots of FNC's day-to-day on-air bias come in the form of an executive memo distributed electronically each morning, addressing what stories will be covered and, often, suggesting how they should be covered," Moody, who writes the daily document, smirked.
"Poor Charlie, he had trouble getting things right," he said. "It's not even called a 'memo,' it's an editorial note. It is not a political directive -- that's a specious charge -- but my attempt to communicate about what are important stories."
On the subject of the colorful conservative commentators who have largely come to define the FOX News Channel, Moody was contentious. "So Bill O'Reilly has opinions -- that's not a bulletin! He's an engaging, forceful debater, and our primetime lineup is obviously full of opinions. Do I talk to Bill O'Reilly about what he's doing? Yes, but I don't oversee him."
Although some contend that Fox News is more "fair and balanced" in its daytime news programming than its primetime opinion shows, and that O'Reilly and Hannity's bluster has led others to conclude falsely that the channel is biased in its news reporting, Moody was nonplussed by the assertion. "I have not heard from viewers that our newsgathering is tarnished by anything Sean Hannity says in the heat of debate, and I don't agree that it's an issue," he stated flatly. "What you're seeing in primetime is FOX News. This is not a homogenized product. I'm proud to work with O'Reilly and Hannity. They helped to make us."
On the subject of the cable news fascination (some might say obsession) with the likes of missing teenager Natalee Holloway, Moody was dismissive at first. "These freethinking bloggers amaze me," he began. "They refer to 'dead white women.' But what about live black pole dancers?"
"Is black life less valued by us? Certainly not!" he continued. "So why Natalee Holloway? What story rises to the level of becoming a news story? Often it's the circumstances of the disappearance -- was it different, lurid, unusual in some way? Could it happen to you?"
"This is a huge country and a huge world, and there are hundreds of missing persons," he said. "In part, you're asking about the philosophy of the news business, and part of the equation is a kind of lurid fascination with others' misbehavior. Maybe we take some vicarious comfort in hearing about it, I just don't know. Why does one story become news when others don't? Sometimes, frankly, just because there's video "
"Are these proper questions? Yes," he concluded. "But no question or accusation should be used as a battering ram to tell us how to do our job. We don't have a responsibility to respond to every demand, but we do have a responsibility to get the facts right and to be fair -- as well as responsibilities to owners, such as doing that in a timely way."
On the topic of Iraq war coverage, and charges that mainstream media organizations such as FOX News were at best too unquestioning in their coverage of the government's rationale for going to war -- and at worst complicit in the disaster that has since unfolded -- Moody was largely dismissive. "This is a form of 20/20 flagellation that can never be satisfied. It's also a form of questioning and criticism that most people would find offensive," he said. "We did our job, and the contention that the press or media should have somehow stopped the government is a misunderstanding of the nature of the two institutions."
"There's a misbegotten, self-comforting notion that we live in a country where nothing should ever go wrong -- and if it does, someone must be at fault," he said. "I think that's an unrealistic view of the world, and my viewers don't think that either."
After an hour and a half, the interview was drawing to a close, but Moody graciously hung in for more. I inquired about ways he thought FOX News could "increase the variety of perspectives and opinions" in its news shows. Moody surprised me, responding, "Diversity is not necessarily a strength.
"There is a cut off point of adding people somewhere," he continued. "The opinions presented on our network represent a fair spectrum of responsible thought on major topics. Take the Duke lacrosse story -- suppose there's someone who believes that rape is good. We could put them on the air, but it wouldn't add to the discussion. So diversity of opinion isn't the only issue. It's good, but only up to a point. Within the confines of informed and responsible opinion, we do fairly well."
In the end, Moody seemed to indicate that the opinions that count the most -- in the cable news business at least -- are those of the viewers holding the remote controllers. And with more than two million viewers in primetime -- by far the most among cable news networks -- he takes issue with the premise that FOX News leans right or offers largely conservative viewpoints, and seems content with where the network is positioned at the moment.
"I'm willing to listen to the audience and consider what they say. I don't turn a blind eye to criticism," he said. "But a respectable number of our viewers actually like what we do! Is there room for improvement? Yes. Do the Yankees occasionally lose? Yes. Does the manager make wrong decisions? Yes. But he can't react to every question raised about them. If viewers question why I did what I did, the answer is, 'Because I thought I was doing the right thing!'"
"I think in ten years we have come to be recognized as a reliable source for alternative news," he said, in sum. "If some people want to scoff, go ahead. That doesn't make it right!"