Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Being Fair to Fair and Balanced Fox News

I was first exposed to the findings of a recent study about how Fox News viewers are more misinformed than those who get their news from other sources here. Obviously, the source,, a site advertising itself as "The Internet's Chronicle of Media Decay," might have reason to be biased against Fox, so I clicked on the link to the study itself (read about it here, complete with links to the whole study and its methodology, if you're interested). This was more balanced, in the sense that it paints a clearer picture of political bias based on party affiliation. Democrats were inclined to believe certain falsehoods, and Republicans were inclined to believe different ones. Still, the verdict on Fox News is not good. While other news sources believed things that were questionable, like the notion that the US Chamber of Commerce spent millions collected from foreigners on Republican candidates (something that's unknowable since donors identities are secret), viewers of Fox News believed a host of falsehoods at higher rates. Now, one can certainly quibble about which of these falsehoods is more significant. I was tempted to rush headlong into those tall weeds. But then I thought about my own motivation, and took a step back. Why does it bother me so much that people of both parties are willing to accept misinformation as fact? Is this intentional on the part of the media outlets, or is it a byproduct of telling one side of the story and letting people's biased imaginations fill in the gaps? And why should I spend my energy, at Christmas time no less, blasting a particular news outlet with whom I disagree.

Today I came across this piece from the LA Times (which had been published back on the 17th of December) and it answered one of my questions. Is the deception on the part of Fox intentional? Yes. As the article points out, a leaked memo from Fox's Washington editor, Bill Sammon, instructed his talking heads, not just the pundits but the reporters, to always refer to the "public option" as the "government option" or "government-run health insurance". Is that just spin in the opposite direction? Arguably so. But then he also sent this one: "We should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question." Now, that's not spin. As the Times piece points out, scientists and, well, any layman on the street or pundit behind a news desk, can dispute the interpretation of this data. Some can say it's part of a natural warming period unrelated to human action, and then try to explain why they know better than Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. Global Change Research Panel, the International Arctic Science Committee, and the 32 national science academies of various countries that have all concluded that the warming is real and is the product of human action. Sure, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists eventually came around to the same conclusion, and no scientific body of national or international standing now disputes this, but there are still individual scientists who do. Maybe all the big scientific organizations are wrong. It is possible. A person can dispute that. Of course, people have the right to stick their fingers in their ears and scream that the Earth is flat, the moon is made of cheese, the sky is purple with green polka-dots, and the government of Kenya is so advanced that they identified one newborn baby as super-human and sent him to Hawaii, complete with two false birth announcements in local papers, because they knew he would grow up to be the president of the Harvard Law Review, a dismal failure as a Congressional candidate, then a U.S. Senator, and then a secret spy who'd been elected President of the United States. People can choose to believe whatever the hell they want, regardless of logic or evidence to the contrary. But if a source of news is going to intentionally misrepresent hard data rather than its interpretation, it should put that fingers-in-ears nutter on screen and call itself Batsh-t Crazy Network, or Intentionally Lying Network. But then, if it was the Intentionally Lying Network, it could call itself anything it wanted, right? It could call itself Fox News. And if people want to watch that, why should that bother me?

Of course, the pat answer is that those people vote, and their decisions affect me and the people I care about. Trite but true. I thought about railing in just that vein about the danger of a democracy in which a large percentage of the people choose to be willfully misinformed. But it was Christmas, a holiday amalgamated from the Roman Saturnalia and the Norse Yule by Christians who couldn't stamp out all the pagan reveling, so they slapped their new name on it and called it theirs. And it's great. Not only do millions upon millions of Americans not know that the holiday is placed in the calendar out of cold, cynical calculation, or that the Bible never mentions 3 Kings from the Orient, not only do they not know why they have a tree inside their houses, or socks above their fireplaces, or a magical old man completely unrelated to the ostensible rationale for the holiday, but they don't care. And when I see my son's face as he reads the tag on the gift from Santa Clause on Christmas morning, I can't blame them at all. Christmas is wonderful.

And that brings me to my conclusion about Fox News: If people want to be deceived, if thinking about things as dour as Global Warming is too depressing, while feeling rage at the location of a Mosque in New York puts a special spring in their step, who am I to say they shouldn't be allowed that? We all have our delusions, and they help us get through the day. One of my favorite quotes comes from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote, "If there were a verb meaning 'to believe falsely,' it would not have any significant first person, present indicative." That is to say, I cannot say I currently believe something which I know to be false. But I could say I choose to watch Fox News and believe what I hear there, and it seems that's the same thing. Now, that's not to my taste for political reasons. Perhaps if there were a true alternative, a network which deceived me into thinking there is a brilliant and evil cabal making a coordinated effort to cause all the things I believe to be wrong in the world, and a countervailing band of equally brilliant but struggling grass-roots heroes who are fending off all the things that go bump in the night, perhaps I would choose to watch that. I love novels about great heroes standing up to the seemingly unassailable forces of evil, and I choose to read my politics into those just as I'm sure the other half of my fellow Americans read the opposite politics into them. And I pat myself on the back for really "getting it" just as they do. If the book is popular enough, both right and left can join together to create a great thwacking round of applause for ourselves. But to generate a similar sound in the genre of fake news we need different networks, and, despite missteps reported by the study, it's clear that the left has really failed in that it's taken to criticizing the right for factual errors, thus eliminating the possibility of truly competing in the field of fantasy journalism.

Let's be fair to Fox; they have figured out something the left just doesn't seem to get. People are not motivated by data. It does not get them to vote a certain way, to turn on a particular station, or to sit through a commercial. When I watch the news (which is increasingly rarely) or go to my computer to read it, I admit that I do it not because I want to find information, but because I want to feel informed. Those are not the same thing. I also want to find data to solve problems (or have the information to form opinions no one cares about but me, but that's the same motivation with a diminished result). News, if done properly, can fulfill these goals. But if I wanted to be scared? If I wanted to be angry? I could turn to the tepid network newscasts, with their own biases (NBC is owned by the world's largest arms manufacturer for godsakes, and ABC is owned by Disney) and be told that everything is basically fine as long as we keep buying more guns and going to Disneyland. How disappointing. Or I could turn to Fox News, learn about the vast left-wing conspiracy to make us all atheist cogs in a communist machine, and get really pissed off and have the bejeezus scared out of me.

Sure, it's partisan, but I don't think that's the end game. Back when I used to watch Fox News in an attempt to achieve some mythical balance in my viewing, one thing that struck me was how often Bill O'Reilly made explicit mention of his ratings. He didn't mention the number of Republicans in Congress, or the number of red states, or the statistics on church attendance half as often. Fox News, more than anything, is devoted to making people watch Fox News. They are very smart people, and know that calling yourself "Fair and Balanced" helps promote that goal, while actually being fair or balanced (which are not the same thing) would undermine it. And really, can you blame them? I'm not a big fan of romance novels, but I seriously doubt that, moments before the stud with the gleaming pects rips open the heroine's bodice, he addresses the reader with a reminder that the book is just a fantasy. Fantasy is the point.

So here's a Christmas toast to Fox News: Keep up the good work, liars. You make those of us who want to get our novels published jealous of your ability to peddle in fiction. Kudos. But stop leaking those memos. It's ruining the illusion.

And here's to those who purport to be real journalists: I see why you have been so tepid in your response to the dissembling on Fox News. Nobody likes the guy who sits in the dark theater during the horror movie and whispers, "It's not real, you know." But at some point the lie is a part of the story, and you have a responsibility to cover that, too, even if people find it boring at first. Because repetition works. Just ask Fox News. And at some point, people will start to get angry when any serious person quotes Fox News. And anger works. Just ask Fox News. In fact, I'll bet people would even sit through your commercials for luxury cars and Viagra just to see a really thorough, data-driven, "fair and balanced" smack-down of Fox. Or you could just put your fingers in your ears and scream that Fox News isn't actually deceiving anyone. Hell, that works for them. But if you decide to stay mum regarding the deceptions over at Fox News, don't let that memo leak out. It's embarrassing.

1 comment:

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