Fair and Balanced, My Ass! The Bizarre Reality of Fox News

The following is an excerpt from Fair and Balanced, My Ass!: An Unbridled Look at the Bizarre Reality of Fox News, by Joseph Minton Amann and Tom Breuer (Nation Books, 2007).

Well, that's your opinion!

Those of us who watch Fox News professionally, or simply to unwind at the end of the day with a few well-earned belly laughs, dismiss the network at our own peril.

While there may be a considerable measure of Schadenfreude involved in tuning in to, say, The O'Reilly Factor, it's hard to overlook the fact that he influences millions of people nearly every day. Indeed, watching Fox can be a little like watching Jeopardy! During kids' week. Even if you know more than they do -- and you probably will -- it's hard to feel good about yourself for the experience. But it's not like the leading lights at Fox actually enjoy turning America into a nation of fatuous morons. If they could accomplish the same goals by not making their viewers morons, they'd probably do so, just as the tobacco companies would probably prefer their products didn't cause cancer, and Ann Coulter probably wishes the sound of her voice didn't make young men's and small animals' testicles shrivel. But none of that is going to stop any of them from making their money and spreading their propaganda. To be sure, Fox News' sensationalistic brand of personality and opinion-based journalism is a well-crafted sales strategy. And whatever else you want to say about them, they're excellent salesmen. Indeed, with just about any story on Fox, you can ask yourself three questions: Are they pandering to their viewers, peddling right-wing propaganda, or both?

Now, preaching to the choir can be quite lucrative, particularly if the choir has an almost unlimited budget for Rascal Scooters and Civil War chess pieces. And there's not necessarily anything wrong with that. Lots of media outlets preach to the choir. For some, it's their bread and butter. The Nation's not going to solicit a commentary on Social Security privatization from Grover Norquist, after all, and Us Weekly is certainly not going to report that Brad and Angelina aren't hot.

But most people who are engaged in some form of advocacy journalism -- be they Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken -- have the decency to admit it. Fox not only doesn't admit it, it famously cloaks themselves in a tawdry veil of objectivity, endlessly shouting their "Fair and Balanced" and "We Report, You Decide" slogans until their viewers are finally programmed, Clockwork Orange-like, to believe them.

But again, by objective measures, Fox does a demonstrably poor job of presenting the cold, hard facts in a spin-free fashion. For instance, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's 2005 State of the News Media report, 24 percent of the stories on MSNBC's Hardball With Chris Matthews contained the host's opinion, compared with 97 percent on The O'Reilly Factor. The report also analyzed coverage of the war in Iraq, finding that 73 percent of Fox's Iraq war stories contained opinion, compared with 2 percent for CNN and 29 percent for MSNBC. Fox was also around twice as likely as its competitors to run positive stories about the war and far more likely to run positive stories than negative ones. So what we're seeing more and more in today's news business, and particularly at Fox, is that personality and opinion sell. Not reasoned and informed opinion but blustering, loud, obnoxious, in-your-face opinion. Archie Bunker opinion. We're right and you're wrong. We're going to heaven and you're going to hell. We're patriots and you are traitors. We're men who love women, while you, my good sir, are a homo.

Of course, Fox News' one saving grace is that it's hilarious. Watching Hannity pummel Colmes won't make us better people, but it's kind of like seeing the school bully beat up the really irritating kid. It's not right, but you don't really want anyone to stop it. Seeing O'Reilly get his panties in a bundle when someone questions his ratings is always a good laugh. And having those three loons on Fox & Friends spout hateful lies with racist overtones is like music -- sweet Clay Aiken music.

But Fox can be frustrating, too, because its employees are so unswervingly dedicated to denying their true nature. If your local weatherman dressed up as a Viking every day, called himself Hjørt Bjornsen, and told you there was a 60 percent chance of snow flurries and a 30 percent chance that Thor would rain fire and canned hummus from the sky during midmorning rush hour -- all the while claiming he absolutely was not dressed as a Viking -- eventually it would stop being cute. That's essentially what it feels like to be sane and reasonably intelligent and tuned in to Fox News. It's hard to look away, because there's a guy on TV making a complete ass of himself while saying obviously untrue things. But it would be nice to get the forecast every once in a while. So we understand your pain.

And we're here to turn that frown upside down.

I see your stupid argument, and I raise you, Michelle Malkin

Let's start off with just one concrete example of Fox's special brand of lunacy.

While the commentators and anchors at Fox do the bulk of the heavy lifting, they're not afraid to farm out some of their dirtier work to subcontractors. And this is where Fox loves to be an equal- opportunity employer. A person of color on Fox is certainly something to behold, yet these are not your traditional minorities. This is the rainbow coalition of far-right conservatism and apologetic liberalism -- and they're given free rein to be even loonier than their WASPy counterparts.

Take, for instance, Michelle Malkin. Malkin is a rising right-wing star who has, ironically enough, authored books on how liberals are unhinged and out of control as well as how the forced eviction and imprisonment of innocent Japanese-Americans during World War II was a pretty solid idea. If she still doesn't ring a bell, picture a pilot fish following a shark around cleaning scraps of shredded cabana boy from its host's teeth, and that will give you a good sense of why she shows up on Fox so often. Watch Michelle Malkin for any length of time, and it's hard not to want to actually put her in one of those internment camps she's so fond of. Of course, we wouldn't actually support putting Malkin in an internment camp, even though she does pose a clear and present danger to Western liberal democracy. To paraphrase Voltaire, "We disapprove of what Michelle Malkin says, but we will defend to the death her right to say it." Then again, we'd also defend to the death your grandmother's right to say Kelly Ripa is sending her coded satanic messages through her television. That doesn't mean O'Reilly should book her on his show. But the fact that O'Reilly does book Malkin on his show -- over and over and over again -- is as good an example as any of how Fox conducts its business.

Attractive in a superficially intellectual way? Check. Toes the party line? Check. Mirrors the viewers' fears and core beliefs? Check. Blustering right-wing demagogue? Check. Nutty as a holiday cheese log? Check.

And while an appearance by Michelle Malkin offers just the right blend of pandering and propaganda for the perfect Fox stew, on May 8, 2006, it took a vigorous stir from that big homophobic spoon she carries around to really get things cookin'. On that bright, sunshiny, gaybashing spring evening, Malkin and O'Reilly did their level best to misrepresent a California bill that dealt with public school history curricula and sexual orientation. Essentially, the bill amended a law that was already on the books prohibiting curricula that discriminated on the basis of such things as race, sex, creed or handicap. The proposed bill simply added gays and lesbians to the list of protected groups. The bill also said social sciences curricula should include "an age-appropriate study of the role and contributions of both men and women, black Americans, American Indians, Mexicans, Asians, Pacific Islanders and other ethnic groups, and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, to the economic, political and social development of California and the United States of America."

So it was merely a recognition that gay people shouldn't be smeared for their sexual orientation and that prominent gays should be duly recognized for their contributions to society. Pretty simple, really.

And likewise, it should have been pretty easy to grasp, unless you're congenitally dishonest, a rank homophobe, or stupid. Here's how Loofah Man and Internment Girl framed the debate:

MALKIN: Well, this is much more radical than ensuring that homosexuals and other people of minority sexual orientation status are respected in the schools. It's already against the law in California to discriminate against anyone based on their sexual orientation.

I looked this bill over very closely, and it is a very radical, very extreme, dangerous bill. It says that no teacher can even say anything that would, quote unquote, "reflect adversely" on anyone, a historical figure, whatever, based on their sexual orientation. And so, now, there are real concerns that this could be interpreted broadly in the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and other liberal courts as saying that you can't even have sports teams, for example, that discriminate based on gender. And this is pure political propaganda.

O'REILLY: Well -- and also, if you are a teacher, what are you -- you're not going to be able to say bad things about Jeffrey Dahmer? He's a cannibal, a gay cannibal, and you can't say, "Well, that's wrong. "I mean, if what you're saying is true, teachers would not be able to cast aspersions on even villains if they were homosexual.

MALKIN: Yeah, that's right ...

OK, there's so much bullshit stuffed into those five paragraphs, you practically need a ZIP file. Now, if you actually want to research the bill instead of taking Malkin's and O'Reilly's word for it, that's fine -- though unnecessary. We promise you, there was nothing in there about special rights for gay cannibals.

All the bill said is that you can't trash historical figures because of their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. So basically, a teacher can't stand in front of his class and exclaim, "You know what they're saying about Alexander the Great, don't you? FLAM-er!" Similarly, you can't say JFK was a dirty papist, or use the n-word when referring to Martin Luther King Jr. That just makes sense.

And if you're taking art history and learning about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it probably also makes sense to discuss Michelangelo's homosexuality. Is it absolutely necessary? Probably not. But if you're discussing his life, and his impact as an artist on 16th-century Europe, then you should probably mention that he was a gay guy. This fact had a significant impact on his work. Is it necessary to read his love poems to Tommaso dei Cavalieri? No. Let's face it, gay love letters from the 1530s are kind of a snoozefest anyway.

Furthermore, what the fuck? Really, what's with the gay cannibal crack? Is O'Reilly really imagining a bleak futuristic dystopia where gay cannibal history is brutally suppressed by sinister government jackboots and where kids can't be told that storing your homosexual lover in your Sub-Zero is frowned upon? Oh, how will our children ever be able to compete in the world marketplace? Anyway, what history class are your kids taking where they're learning about Jeffrey Dahmer? Seriously, if you happen upon a copy of your son's American history syllabus and it says, "Sept. 7: Ideological Foundations of American Revolution in New England Agrarian Communities in the Early Colonial Period. Sept. 14: The Fabulously Gay Cannibalism of Jeff Dahmer," you should probably move to a new school district.

We grant you, it was a long time ago, but when we were in school we're pretty sure we never had classes where we learned all about John Wayne Gacy ... our Trapper Keepers filled with gruesome crime scene photos and sketches of creepy birthday clowns. But this argument is actually quite typical of Fox News -- the ugly twin heads of pandering and propaganda are out there in the open for all the world to see.

Malkin went on to say, "And in any case, I think school teachers in California and everywhere else ought to be paying more attention to whether or not third graders can find, oh, Sacramento or Washington, D.C., on a map than what the sexual orientation is of historical figures in America."

Be assured, Malkin and O'Reilly are a lot more concerned about whether kids know Henry David Thoreau was gay than whether Jeffrey Dahmer was. Or whether they can find the Castro District on a map, for that matter.

It's like news for 14-year-olds

Of course, the above is just a small sampling of the cornucopia of insanity you get every day from Fox. But O'Reilly's thoughts on gay cannibalism are actually the deep end of the pool compared to the stream of inane chatter and bright, shiny things the network likes to toss at TV screens minute by minute. "News with a pulse . . . News not boring" was the old mantra of Shepard Smith's Fox Report. Somewhere along the line he's dropped it -- probably because it's an awful slogan. Yet it really sums up the Fox approach to journalism.

While the "elite" media bore you with straightforward news couched in civility, Fox is like the dentist who tries to lure people to his practice by handing out fudge and Snickers bars. Flashy graphics and bombastic music, women who look like they may have started out in the soft-core porn industry, and stouthearted men who talk loud enough to cover up the fact that they don't know what the hell they're talking about -- that's Fox News.

As Fox News anchors go, we like Shepard Smith. Of all the network's personalities, he's one of the few who dares take little digs at O'Reilly, and he still appears to be walking around with two intact legs. But let's face it, he's running the McDonald's of the news world.

His show has taken the already dummied-down approach of Fox News and hammered it into a thin film that can be eaten like a Fruit Roll-Up. The graphics are bolder, the music more intense, and the copy even "hipper." You'll hear stuff like, "Now with your G-Block Quick Hits. "What does that even mean? It's the sort of thing you'd hear if they made Ashlee Simpson managing editor of the CBS Evening News.

Rest assured it's much the same throughout the broadcast day. For instance, on nearly all Fox News Channel shows, random local car chases have become programming staples. And we're not talking about the ones featuring wife-murdering football stars. Those are kickin'. We're talking about the guy who steals a Camaro from the parking lot of the Travelodge in Van Nuys and spends the next 15 minutes driving down Sepulveda. Will the guy get shot? Will an innocent pedestrian get creamed? Will the police drag one of those spiky things across the street to blow out his tires? How far can he drive on the rims? Most important, why is this a national story? And why is a report on nuclear disarmament talks being interrupted to cover it? Is this news for people who find Deal or No Deal too intellectually taxing? And why, when we do return to regular programming, is there a little box in the corner of the screen to show you exactly how things are going back in Van Nuys?

But that's Fox for you. When it's trying to be serious, it's laughable. When it's trying to be light and breezy, it's like a railroad spike in your frontal lobe.

The sad part is, this lowest-common-denominator approach to journalism is working. Whatever else you want to say about him, O'Reilly's right when he says his show is crushing his competition. The easy response to that is it doesn't matter. After all, what do ratings really have to do with running a respectable newsroom? But it does matter. We should all be concerned when so unworthy an enterprise triumphs -- whether in the marketplace or, even more crucially, in the marketplace of ideas. In this introductory chapter, we've given just a few examples of Fox's unbound hubris, stupidity, tawdriness, fear mongering and not-so-subtle bigotry. Ah, it is but an aperitif. We hope you'll follow us to the feast, where we'll serve up the full smorgasbord of crazy, insipid, inane, oafish, dishonest, didactic, quasi-entertaining delights that together make up Murdoch's nightmare. As they say in the publishing world, if you like Bill O'Reilly, you'll love Fox News.

Now, if you were able to hop in a time machine and go back 12 years to warn the people of 1995 about Fox, and they asked you to describe this dreadful new phenomenon, you'd probably say, "It's as if you approached G. Gordon Liddy and the Entertainment Tonight crew and asked them to go cover the war in Bosnia." Indeed, this is where the sacred of old-school journalism meets the profane of pop-culture disinfotainment. Truly, Edward R. Murrow would not be amused. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be.
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