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The Real 'Fake News' | The Nation

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The Real 'Fake News'

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And then I had this dream that my whole family were just cartoon characters and our success had led to some crazy propaganda network called Fox News.
--Bart Simpson

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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The architects of our foreign-policy disasters would prefer we simply forget the past.

When the Democratic presidential candidates, led by John Edwards, pulled out of the March debate that was to be co-sponsored by the Nevada branch of the party and Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page rendered the story thus: "The left blogosphere thinks the most popular cable-news network leans too far right, and so Democrats should not legitimate it by appearing." That's true as far as it goes--unusually so, given the source--but it does not go nearly far enough. For one thing, Fox is not a real news network. Just look at its reaction to the Democrats' refusal to play ball with them. On The Beltway Boys, Morton Kondracke likened Nevada Democrats to Communist propagandists. Bill O'Reilly found similarities between "radical" Nevada voters and Nazis. The channel's vice president, David Rhodes, accused Nevada Democrats of being "controlled by radical fringe out-of-state interest groups." As Media Matters's Eric Boehlert pointed out, "Of course, a real news organization wouldn't issue a nasty statement like that, nor would it give the statement exclusively to Matt Drudge, which Fox News did."

As the scrupulously fair-minded reporter Ron Brownstein notes, "Through its language, its news decisions and its hosts--[Fox] generally functions more like a cog in the Republican message machine than as a conventional news organization that attempts to abide, however imperfectly, by the traditional standards of (yes) fairness and balance."

Fox, like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Washington Times, is a conservative counterestablishment institution designed to ape the functions of the real thing, doing double duty by firing up the troops with custom-crafted ideological spin, "analysis" and phony scholarship while confusing the rest of the world with nonsense disguised as news. Fox's journalistic transgressions are legion and need not detain us long here. A 2004 Center for Media and Public Affairs study found that at the height of the presidential campaign, just 13 percent of Fox News panelists' comments on Democratic candidate John Kerry were positive, compared with 50 percent for Bush. As Fox London bureau chief Scott Norvell has put it, "Even we at Fox News manage to get some lefties on the air occasionally and often let them finish their sentences before we club them to death and feed the scraps to Karl Rove and Bill O'Reilly."

Much of the MSM has played along with the Fox charade. The Wall Street Journal went so far as to publish a correction when a reporter termed the network "sympathetic to the Bush cause and popular with Republicans." And with the exception of a few combative on-air counterattacks--most notably by Bill Clinton and Barney Frank--so too have liberals and Democrats, offering themselves as bit players in Bart Simpson's nightmare. The network has made a specialty of promoting what might be termed "even the New Republic liberals"--that is, liberals who specialize in bashing liberals and liberalism. As Alex Koppelman demonstrated on Salon, Fox frequently features the likes of Susan Estrich complaining that Al Gore has gone "off the deep end" when he lays bare the Administration's deception in the "war on terror." Pat Caddell whines that only "the real fringe of this party" wants to unseat Joe Lieberman. And, of course, barely a night goes by that nasty Alan Colmes doesn't punch poor Sean Hannity in the knuckles with his face.

Fox viewers, according to a study by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, become more misinformed about the world the more they watch the network. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report likely to be better informed than the average Fox News consumer. But the impact of Fox's brand of fake news is not limited to its own viewers. When the hapless Katie Couric recently misreported that Barack Obama "grew up praying in a mosque," she was parroting a discredited Fox report that had appeared three months earlier.

The question of Fox's malevolence is settled. What remains is a disagreement among liberals over an appropriate response. Some argue that liberals ought to refuse to participate at all because it is impossible to do so without playing by Fox's fixed rules. But by sitting it out, the counterargument goes, they are shutting themselves off from cable's largest audience, and inviting the accusation of fear and wimpiness. What's more, there's money involved. A political reactionary personally, Rupert Murdoch is an equal opportunity corruptor when it comes to promoting his media businesses. Murdoch's NewsCorp gave only $5,000 last year to the Congressional Black Caucus's political action committee, but it is listed as a "Patron and Sponsor" on the webpage of the CBC foundation. Even so, Democrats wisely decided to pull out of yet a second Fox co-sponsored debate in April.

As John Edwards explained when announcing his withdrawal, "There's just no reason for Democrats to give Fox a platform to advance the right-wing agenda while pretending to be objective." He also noted that he had appeared on the network more than thirty times. Edwards is right. The proper response to a Fox attack disguised as a question is, "Well, Brit, I appeared on this biased show of yours to set your viewers straight about the BS you and your fellow right-wingers have been handing them. Now here's the truth..." This might shame the station some and alert Couric's producers, among others, that they'd better lift their "news" from a better class of journalist next time. With the constant stream of right-wing and MSM abuse having gone unanswered for so long, it's way past time liberals introduced their adversaries to the concept of the left hook--aimed at the right mouth.

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