Murdoch's Fox News
It was the last Sunday in January, and Vice President Dick Cheney was making the morning talk-show rounds. On ABC, Sam Donaldson posed hard-hitting questions about the new Administration's failure to alleviate California's energy crisis, the wisdom of George W. Bush's proposed tax cut and John Ashcroft's elusive answers to questions during his confirmation process. On NBC, Tim Russert challenged Cheney on the President's plans for deterring a recession, his commitment to campaign finance reform and how Ashcroft's pledge to enforce the law on abortion squares with the President's antichoice positions.
And on Fox? Brit Hume and Tony Snow--two of the news channel's most conservative anchors--pitched softballs to the new Vice President, prodding him to denounce the Clinton Administration and positioning him to pronounce the energy crisis in California the product of federal clean-air regulations and evidence of the need for offshore oil drilling. About Ashcroft, in a soundbite replayed on Fox throughout the day, Hume asked: "Do you sense in some of the opposition to him, that his faith and his devotion to it is being held against him? And do you sense in that, perhaps, a kind of anti-Christian bigotry?"
It was a typical question on a typical Sunday on the Fox News Channel. Although its right-wing talk-show hosts like Bill O'Reilly have received copious press attention, the conservative slant of Fox's regular news coverage has not. And while much has been written about Fox's gaffe on election night involving George W. Bush's cousin (which some think caused the public to regard Bush as the legitimate winner), there's been far less focus on the blatant partiality of Fox's regular staff, contributors and guests. It all combines to create a calculated mouthpiece for the right that remains thinly veiled behind its misleading mantra, "fair and balanced." And Fox could have real influence: According to Editor & Publisher magazine, a TV monitor in the White House press briefing room that aired CNN throughout the Clinton Administration was recently switched to the Fox News Channel.
It takes only a few hours on any given day to see Fox's political predilections in action. The Cheney interview, for example, began an ordinary Sunday of conservative cheerleading. Fox Washington correspondent James Rosen, covering the controversy over the Ashcroft nomination, portrayed the Senate opponents as political opportunists "venting" to appease their constituents. The features were no different. A segment about an effort to teach religion in public school was promoted repeatedly with the teaser: "Are we as a nation more or less spiritual today than we were twenty-five years ago? Are we a country that is losing faith?" Viewers were asked to call in answers. Later that same day, a tabloid-style piece on teen abuse of crystal methamphetamine was a virtual banner ad for right-wing policies of strict law enforcement and lengthy incarceration; in the approximately quarter-hour segment, drug treatment or addiction's causes were never once mentioned.
Such slants should come as no surprise, given the cast Rupert Murdoch has chosen to run Fox News Channel, the latest venture of his News Corporation. At the top is Roger Ailes, a onetime strategist to Presidents Nixon, Reagan and the elder George Bush. Ailes's lineup of talent, in addition to Hume and Snow (the latter a former chief speechwriter for the elder Bush), includes David Asman, former Op-Ed editor at the Wall Street Journal, and Sean Hannity, whose personal website features links to Rush Limbaugh's show and the National Rifle Association. Frequent Fox contributors include Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard; Monica Crowley, former assistant to Nixon; Jim Pinkerton, former Reagan and Bush staffer; John Podhoretz, editorial page editor of the New York Post and former Reagan speechwriter; and John Fund, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board and collaborator on Limbaugh's political diatribe, The Way Things Ought to Be.
Of course, paying lip service to its "fair and balanced" refrain, Fox is careful to include token moderates on its talking-head shows. But the middle of the road is routinely pitted against the ultraconservative. So-called liberal contributors, who are at best centrists, include NPR's Juan Williams and Mara Liasson and Roll Call's Morton Kondracke. Murdoch has never been shy about using his news outlets, which include the New York Post and The Weekly Standard, to disseminate his politics. What's particularly insidious about the Fox channel, though, is that Murdoch has gone out of his way to cloak its politics in slogans like "We Report, You Decide" that lull the audience into believing it's hearing not a conservative viewpoint but the unadulterated truth.
The heights of distortion are reached on prime time. Since December, The O'Reilly Factor, a shout-show starring Bill O'Reilly, has been a top-rated talk show on cable, frequently surpassing MSNBC's Hardball With Chris Matthews, Rivera Live and even CNN's Larry King Live. O'Reilly is a step up from Rush Limbaugh--better looking and more reasonable--but he's an equally staunch conservative. The evening of January 16 was typical. To debate the controversial Ashcroft nomination, O'Reilly pitted the powerful Christian Coalition's Pat Robertson against Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of an obscure Wisconsin-based atheist advocacy group. When Gaylor expressed concern about Ashcroft's position on abortion, O'Reilly cornered her into making the irrelevant pronouncement that she wouldn't personally support anyone for public office who was antichoice. Now O'Reilly could dismiss her entirely: "That's an extreme view, Miss Gaylor, so you're an extremist." And so, by implication, was everyone else who opposed Ashcroft's nomination.