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Morning Feature – The Fox Effect, Part I: ‘Fair & Balanced’

February 23, 2012

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – The Fox Effect, Part I: ‘Fair & Balanced’

A law school classmate once told me: “I don’t believe in fairness. I believe in justice.” His explanation helped me understand conservatism. (More)

The Fox Effect, Part I: ‘Fair & Balanced’

This week Morning Feature looks at the just-released book The Fox Effect, by David Brock, Ari Ravin-Havt, and the staff at Media Matters for America. Today we consider the Fox News motto ‘Fair & Balanced’ through conservative frames. Tomorrow we examine their emerging role as a Republican Party campaign organization. Saturday we conclude with Fox News’ consistent and too-often effective six-step strategy for attacking opponents, including the authors and Media Matters.

About the authors: David Brock is the founder of Media Matters, and the author of five books including his memoir Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative. Ari Rabin-Havt is the vice president of research and communication at Media Matters.

“We are the balance.”

In an interview last year with Howard Kurtz, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes explained what the network means by its ‘Fair & Balanced’ motto:

Every other network has given all their shows to liberals. We are the balance.

It wasn’t the first admission that Fox News see themselves as the “counterweight” to a supposed “liberal bias” in other media. But Ailes echoing Rush Limbaugh’s dictum of “I AM equal time” was revealing in two ways. First, it exposed – in attempting to justify – the network’s explicit bias. Perhaps more important, it highlights the inspiration for and business model of the entire network.

Fox News is sometimes described as “the conservative CNN,” but that’s a mistake. CNN was modeled after existing network news organizations, with bureaus staffed by CNN reporters covering major national and worldwide stories, and local broadcast partners providing most other coverage. It was set up to be a 24-hour version of NBC, CBS, or ABC news.

But as the authors discuss in the opening chapters on Roger Ailes’ and the network’s histories, Fox News was modeled after conservative talk radio. The focus would not be on gathering news: sending out reporters to interview sources and pore through stacks of documents. Instead the focus would be on talking about news. Fox News hosts rely primarily on stories reported by other news outlets or released by conservative or Republican think tanks and activists. If it’s true that “some people say,” and if the story fits Fox News’ agenda, their hosts will talk about the story on the air … even if they suspect the story is false.

“… a premise that privately I found rather far-fetched.”

Consider the charge that President Obama is a socialist. In August of 2009, aboard a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, Fox News D.C. managing editor Bill Sammon spoke to a group of supporters who had paid from $11,800 to $37,600 per couple to spend 12 days hobnobbing with an all-star cast of conservative journalists and scholars. In that speech, Sammon said:

Last year, candidate Barack Obama stood on a sidewalk in Toledo, Ohio, and first let it slip to Joe the Plumber that he wanted to quote, “spread the wealth around.” At that time, I have to admit, that I went on TV on Fox News and publicly engaged in what I guess was some rather mischievous speculation about whether Barack Obama really advocated socialism, a premise that privately I found rather far-fetched.

Rick Santorum immediately echoed the charge, and did Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin a few months later. The charge of socialism has since become a staple GOP talking point, repeated by Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and – while ducking the word itself – Mitt Romney.

It’s not just political stump material. Jonah Goldberg at the neoconservative Commentary magazine asked “What Kind of Socialist Is Barack Obama?” Indeed a Google search of {Barack Obama socialist} finds over 16 million hits, and a June 2010 Democracy Corps poll found that 55% of likely voters said the term “socialist” described President Obama “well” or “very well.”

Yet as Socialist magazine editor Billy Wharton explained in 2009, President Obama has repeatedly advocated market-based solutions, rather than seizing industries and running them as public utilities. The socialism charge is indeed “rather far-fetched” … and Sammon admitted he knew that when he began pumping the charge on Fox News.

“I don’t believe in fairness. I believe in justice.”

My law school classmate and I were debating a student government proposal that would require all organizations funded through mandatory student activities fees to be open to all students. The only exception in the proposed rule was for academic honors groups with established GPA requirements. My classmate insisted that his group would admit only students who signed a statement of Christian faith. I argued that his group received funding from the entire student body, through the mandatory fees. He said that didn’t matter. I asked if students should be able to specify that their fees not be used for his group. He rejected that idea … at which point I noted that he had demanded a right to withhold his student fees from groups that served alcoholic beverages at their functions.

“Your argument is hypocritical,” I said.

“It’s only hypocritical if I said I believed in fairness,” he replied. “I don’t believe in fairness. I believe in justice. And justice is found only in God’s law.”

“As you interpret it,” I said. “So for you, justice means simply: ‘I win.'”

Much to my surprise, he agreed, and for me that story was echoed in this passage from The Fox Effect:

Fox’s strategy revolved around the theory that there was an audience of news consumers being underserved in the marketplace – people who lived between New York and Los Angeles, who waved their flags with pride and saw the world through a prism of right and wrong. Fox built a dedicated audience, directly responding to this emotional chord. In their minds, Fox was biased – toward America. While other networks cared about fairness, Fox cared about winning, both as a network and as a country. Just as the attacks of September 11 gave the Republican Party a wedge issue to pound Democrats with, Ailes would use the event to pound CNN. As we moved further away from the September 11 tragedy, this “pro-American” position simply morphed into a pro-Bush position and a pro-Republican position. This is exactly what the network’s conservative audience desired. [Emphasis added]

In the conservative mindset, Fox News is indeed ‘Fair & Balanced’ – fair to Republicans and balanced against a supposed “liberal media” they perceive as hostile to Republicans. And as we’ll see tomorrow, by 2010 they had become a Republican Party public relations organization … and a central player in the Republican Party power structure itself.


Happy Thursday!

  • addisnana

    How enlightening! Your conversation with your law school classmate may just help me to figure out how to not be scratching my head when talking with a conservative. There is something weird about an argument that says, “I win. God says so.”

    Lately most of the Santorum bashing has been coming from right leaning media. Hmm.

    • NCrissieB

      There is definitely something weird about such arguments, addisnana, at least for progressives. Remember Jonathan Haidt’s research on the different moral equations of progressives and conservatives. My classmate believed this issue was “a matter of right and wrong” and that “right doesn’t have to play fair with wrong,” thus the special privileges that he and his group demanded were “justice.”

      That same reasoning underlies conservative defenses of “American exceptionalism,” “preemptive war,” torture … and the Fox News concept of ‘Fair & Balanced.’

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • Gardener

    Thank you for this!

    • NCrissieB

      You’re welcome! 🙂

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • winterbanyan

    This was illuminating to me. Yes, all of us progressives know that Fox is anything but “fair and balanced” but that’s perceiving it through an entirely different lens. What a revelation!

    I just wish they couldn’t call themselves Fox News, but had to instead call themselves Fox Talks. Because that’s all they do.

    I had a rather jarring moment back in 2008 when my dad, who only watched Fox News and was such a fan of O’Reilly that he had an O’Reilly doormat and ballcap, announced to me that he was sure Obama would win the election. Sitting in the midst of Republican country, drowned by those “commentators” I wondered how he had managed to reach that conclusion. Fox must have slipped up somehow. 😉

    I also noticed how Fox darkened Obama’s skin in video clips. Your conclusion is right: it’s not about being fair as most of us would see it, but about winning in any way possible.

    • NCrissieB

      When progressives hear “fair and balanced,” most of us imagine news that presents verifiable facts or, when the facts are unclear, giving the disputing sources (roughly) equal time and holding them to the same standards of evidence and analysis. In legal theory terms: “notice and fair hearing.”

      But that’s not what Fox News executives or their viewers understand in the motto ‘Fair & Balanced.’ They understand that phrase to mean “fair” to Republicans and “balanced” against the rest of the supposed “liberal media.”

      Why? Because they believe Republicans are factually and (more important) morally right … and “right does not have to play fair with wrong.”

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

      • winterbanyan

        And that, frankly, is scary.

      • Jim W

        [F]actually and (more important) morally right

        discusses technical theories and faith theories.
        Republicans seem to have made a practice of reinforcing faith theories and dismissing technical theories which Progressives find appealing.

        • NCrissieB

          Shweder’s moral ontological causes correspond to one element of the Just World Hypothesis. In that worldview, everything happens for a reason and the reason may be a moral failure with no apparent causal relationship to the event. Consider:

          John and Bob were both unemployed and have similar educations, similar work backgrounds, and similar family lives. Both have kids who play in the local youth soccer league. The difference: John is a volunteer coach in the league and always attends his kids’ games, while Bob drops the kids off at soccer and goes back home to mow the lawn and do other garden chores. John just found a job, while Bob is still looking. Why?

          That paragraph doesn’t provide enough information to justify a conclusion, but we can easily tell a convincing story of John being a better father and ‘deserving’ the job more. In a truly Just World, there would be some causal element that John did and Bob could have done. But in Realworldia, the reason may be nothing more than John getting to that job interview ten minutes sooner because Bob lives ten minutes farther away from that employer.

          Good afternoon! ::hugggggs::