The Fox News Effect

The Fox News Effect

This is your brain on two weeks of non-stop Fox News.


Editor’s Note: A survey of habitual Fox News viewers by Fairleigh Dickinson University revealed that they become poorly informed about current events. But mere statistics fail to reveal the causes of this effect. Does habitual Foxwatching, for example, trigger some kind of brain trauma or cellular loss akin to Alzheimer’s disease? Or is the damage emotional and psychological, like PTSD? To study the Foxification Effect, we commissioned Marvin Kitman, a professional television critic who covered the box for thirty-five years at Newsday, to serve as a guinea pig in an experiment.

The terms were these: the subject would go on a strict Fox News diet for two weeks and record its effects on him. At the end of the experiment, he would submit a report of his experience and his conclusions about how Fox News achieves the effects it has had on the millions of unfortunate Americans who make up its devoted audience. His study would then be sealed in a time capsule for six months, after which it would be published here. This way we could test the accuracy of the network pundits.

We can report that Kitman apparently suffered no permanent damage from his ordeal, though we continue to monitor his case. You can’t be too cautious about these experiments. Recall the filmmaker in the documentary Super Size Me, who ate only McDonald’s meals for thirty days. He ended up overweight and with heart palpitations. Or the heroic doctors in Dr. Walter Reed’s experiment (shown in the movie Yellow Jack), who let themselves be bitten to prove that mosquitoes were the carriers of yellow fever. They ended up dead.

Herewith, the relevant excerpts from Marvin Kitman’s Fox News Diary.

On Monday, September 12, at 5 o’clock, Fox News’s rating was increased by one. My first reaction: where the hell is Glenn Beck? I was actually looking forward to seeing this journalist who I had been hearing was out there where the buses don’t run. But he was gone.

It was widely reported that Beck was fired by Roger Ailes for being too extreme, or what we progressives commonly call “all that right-wing crap.” All that right-wing crap has been replaced by a news show called The Five, which consists of five people sitting around a table talking simultaneously. What the Fab Five was talking about, I was to discover as the week wore on, were the highlights of the right-wing crap:

§ There is a liberal mob in control of the Senate and the White House trying to force things down our throats, like jobs.

§ The Republicans have been prevented from fixing the nojobsjobsjobs situation by the Democrats, who appeared to have invented over-regulation and over-taxation. Furthermore, the president’s jobsjobsjobs bill is appalling.

§ They discussed Michele Bachman’s stategy in the coming GOP debate on CNN, and shrewdly concluded that most viewers would be watching Monday Night Football.

I think that’s what they were saying. With five people all yelling at the same time, it was hard to understand them. Five newspeople all arguing might not work as communication, but it is the closest I’ve seen to a real libertarian news show.

One night four of the panelists—Greg Gutfeld, Eric Bolling, Dana Perino and Andrea Tantaros—agreed on one thing: that only the Republicans are trying to solve the Obama-created recession. Their solution: cut the deficit and don’t cut tax breaks for the rich. And the Democrats were blocking their effort. The dissenter on The Five was a political consultant named Bob Beckel. A member of the majority had ridiculed him for being on his cellphone talking to his bookmaker. Beckel accused his tormentor of being on Red Bull or some other high-energy drink.

By Wednesday, what was really exciting the think tank was the fight in New York’s 9th Congressional District, a Brooklyn-Queens borderline Democratic bastion. This was the special election, taking place the next day, for the hot seat vacated by Anthony Weiner, the man who had made the front pages of the New York Post for twelve days in June and whose jockey shorts will someday be enshrined in the Smithsonian beside Monica Lewinsky’s thong. An uncharismatic Democratic Party hack wearing a yarmulke, named Weprin, was being challenged by Republican stalwart Bob Turner, a former TV syndication executive whose claim to fame is having started The Jerry Springer Show. The majority agreed that a victory for a presumptive Representative Turner could be the biggest thing to happen in Washington since Abraham Lincoln went to Congress in 1847.

I was only listening with part of my brain when suddenly, out of all the verbal chaos, a strange word popped out: “Solyndra.” I eventually learned that this referred to a solar panel maker that seemed to be in some kind of fiscal hot water, proving that corruption and cronyism were rife in the Obama White House.

Whenever his colleagues later mentioned Solyndra, Beckel would cover his ears with his hands, shut his eyes and pretend to sleep. Maybe he needed a shot of Red Bull.

* * *

Brett Baier, the single anchor of The Special Report With Brett Baier, at six o’clock, looks like a real newsman, not an actor playing one on TV. Square-jawed like Dick Tracy, he was more insidious. I could actually understand him.

By and large, the first half-hour of Baier’s report passed for a regular news show. The administration is supplying guns to the Mexican drug cartels so it can trace the bad guys, but the bad guys are keeping the guns… The Post Office is losing $10 billion… One in six Americans is living below the poverty line… And it’s all Obama’s fault. Baier did report that one of the eight dwarfs in the Republican presidential debate debacle was ahead in the polls. Yes, folks, it looks like Michele Bachmann will be the nominee. Baier reported that the Brooklyn-Queens border plebiscite was a national referendum on the Obama presidency. Then he brought up the Solyndra business.

And I had thought those five o’clock news clowns were horsing around when they talked up the importance of Solyndra. Now Baier confirms that it’s a “growing controversy.” A big Democrat fundraiser was backing the company. Despite the company’s assurance to the Obama administration that the solar panel business was going well, it filed for bankruptcy. The Washington Post uncovered interoffice e-mails that pointed fingers at Obama administration officials.

Baier walked across the stage to another set, where a panel of authorities had been assembled to give their opinions about the growing controversy over Solyndra. Every Fox News show seems to have a panel. I began to think the cable news network has so-called authorities from academia or conservative think tanks cryogenically frozen in the basement of Fox News Channel headquarters on Sixth Avenue. As needed, they are thrown in the microwave and thawed out in time for a debate with Charles Krauthammer, or any of the 135 in-house “on air personalities” on the Fox payroll for news emergencies requiring their analysis.

I had my doubts about the nefariousness of the Obama administration’s investment. After all, solar energy is a risky business. Everybody in Silicon Valley knew Solyndra picked the wrong technology in making solar panels. It isn’t the first company to guess wrong about new technology. What did Baier’s panel think about the growing controversy? “Lot of smoke,” Krauthammer said.

Afterward, it hit me that this may have been a secret signal telegraphing all Fox News show producers that this is the story du jour.

The Fox Report With Shepard Smith, the seven o’clock news, is the network’s showcase news hour. Meaning no disrespect to the dead, Shep is the Walter Cronkite of Fox News journalism. His report runs down the same news as Baier’s did. He does season it with humor. Reporting an uproar about SpongeBob SquarePants being a socialist agent, Shep quips, “This guy is on opposite us! Take him off!”

There’s breaking news tonight about the GOP presidential race. High-profile endorsements. Tim Pawlenty for Romney, Governor Bobby Jindal for Perry. Correspondent Carl Cameron analyzing Perry’s Social Security blooper on the previous night’s candidate debate. “One man’s clarification,” the witty Shep opines, “is another man’s flip-flop.”

With zest, Shep tackled the day’s big story: the growing controversy about Solyndra. More details have emerged about how the administration was bilking American taxpayers by investing in a green project. The more we learn about it, Shep in his ingratiating way was suggesting, the more Solyndra might be the big scandal we had been expecting (hoping for) since 2008. “And now you know the news,” Shep cheerfully signs off for the night.

The news-watching nights rolled on… Gradually, they merged in my mind like a dream. Or perhaps a nightmare, for I discovered that the Fox News Channel likes to frighten people. Nobody is more terrifying than Bill O’Reilly. No matter who the competition has sent in—the fearsome muscleman Anderson Cooper at CNN, the increasingly frenzied mad genius Keith Olbermann—no matter how many stakes progressives have tried to drive into Bill O’s so-called heart since 1996, nothing could stop the The O’Reilly Factor.

“You are about to enter the no-spin zone,” O’Reilly begins. “The spin stops here,” he later warns. Well, yes. Watching The O’Reilly Factor is like being in a laundromat with all the machines in the spin cycle. It’s all spin. O’Reilly’s spin.

The anchorman begins feeding the quarters into the machine this night with his opening segment, a regular feature he calls “Talking Points” about what irritates him. Tonight it’s that menace to society, Paul Krugman. Apparently, he wrote a blog for the New York Times the day before implying that some patriots were exploiting 9/11 commemorations for political motives. In O’Reilly’s opinion Krugman was even worse than a terrorist, besides being a scoundrel and a traitor. Not that O’Reilly doesn’t believe in free speech. Krugman can write whatever he wanted, O’Reilly handsomely granted.

With Krugman disposed of, Bill got back on message: the growing controversy over Solyndra, which he called “Enron Two,” implying it was up there with the worst scandals in history. The part of my brain still left after thirty-five years as a TV critic remembered some history I had learned at CCNY and asked, How does Solyndra compare with the Credit Mobilier scandal of 1873? Rutherford B. Hayes stealing the election of 1876? President Harding’s poker-playing friends who pulled off the Teapot Dome Scandal of 1923? Let’s see—all Republican administrations! How about Cheney and Halliburton?

Next comes the debate, which is always the highlight of O’Reilly’s Hour of Power. This faceoff, usually with some left-wing nut (on this night it was Alan Colmes, who is to the right of Snooki), gives Bill a chance to display his mastery of debater’s tricks, such as arguing the “facts” even when his are wrong. Another ploy is the Rhetorical Sidestep. When he is behind, he changes the subject. And then the Fast Cutoff: when he seems to be losing an argument, he says, “Well, that’s your opinion. Thanks for coming in.” As if he wasn’t presenting his opinion in the No Spin Zone.

I have a friend, a college graduate, now a headhunter on Wall Street, who thinks she will get a more balanced view of the news by watching not only O’Reilly but Sean Hannity. Now I see why: the Hannity news at nine o’clock offers diversity. Where O’Reilly is semi-demented, Hannity is a total madman. The only thing balanced about him is the part in the middle of his hair.

Tonight’s episode was promo’d as “The Road to 2012,” an in-depth analysis of the Republican primary race. The roadkill turned out to be “The Anointed One.” The anchorman can’t even bear mentioning Obama by name. What was the Anointed One up to today? You guessed it: the growing controversy about Solyndra. Hannity saw this scandal as another example of The Green Menace, and he proceeded to indict the whole ecology movement, and global warming, for which I think he blames the Chicago thugs who have taken over the administration.

Then Hannity thawed out another package of Authorities, whom he labels The Great American Panel. They listened as Hannity formulated the right side of the night’s big debate after a brief rundown of the other news.

Greta Van Susteren, Esq., anchor of On the Record With Greta Van Susteren, looked different from the last time I’d seen her, on CNN. Then I remembered reading that when she landed her job in 2002, she said she was so excited about the chance to do good journalism at Fox, she’d had a face-lift. Greta got “the get” of the night with her first guest—Sarah Palin! Well, not exactly. Sarah is on her porch in Wasilla, from which she keeps an eye on Russia, while Greta is still in the studio, from which she can see her Nielsen ratings going up.

It was not surprising that the hottest unannounced candidate in the GOP presidential primary gave Greta the laurel. Palin is a Fox News analyst on the same bench as such objective analysts as Karl Rove.

The big question, what all Fox News fans wanted to know: would she be running for president? If anyone could get her to open up, it would be ex–criminal defense and civil trial lawyer Greta. Under tough questioning Palin revealed that she was still talking it over with her friends, loved ones, trusted advisers and accountants. Could it be that she wanted to see how much money could be squeezed out of the star-struck media before withdrawing from the race? I don’t know. Nobody asked.

* * *

By the end of my stint as a hired Fox News–watcher, my takeaway was, first, that the Democrats invented corruption.

Second, regardless of different formats or different anchors, whatever else was going on in the world of news, each show featured the same big story. When I watched, it was the growing controversy about Solyndra.

How do the news people at Fox know what the big story of the day is? you might ask. They just look at the earlier Fox News shows. If they flag it, it must be important. Anyway, by the time the night is finished, it will be the big story. In fact, by the next day, or sooner, it goes viral, showing up on other networks and in the newspapers. Opinion-makers elsewhere are reluctant not to use it for fear of being judged “out of touch.”

How does Fox get its big story of the day? Several ways. I remember one coup regarding the Department of Agriculture official who gave a speech that made her seem racist. A video excerpt had fallen into Fox’s hands over the transom, as they say, and by the end of the day of repetition on Fox and elsewhere the official had been fired. That was enterprising investigative journalism at its finest.

When the whole speech was played, however, it turned out that the fired official actually had been making a strong civil rights statement. Somebody had performed a contextectomy. It was a clear violation of the Geneva Convention on TV Journalism, which calls for telling the whole truth, not just half or a quarter.

How could that story have gotten legs? It wasn’t true. Yes, but the more you repeat something on TV, the truer it becomes.

Third, I learned how people are Foxified: it comes from watching too much Fox News over a period of time. They fall asleep watching reruns of O’Reilly and Hannity, starting at 11 or midnight. Instead of turning into a cockroach like the guy in the Kafka story, they wake up as a right-wing ideologue, or as we progressives call them, nuts.

Now I understand what Ailes and his diabolical mind-benders are up to. At the Fox News Channel, they treat the news as a script. A more apt slogan than “Fair & Balanced” would be “Fox News—Based on a True Story.”

But that’s not being objective, you say. Sorry, there’s no such thing as objective journalism. Objectivity is a sham. Every time you pick one story from the smorgasbord of news coming in, you’re making a selective judgment. When Uncle Walt used to claim, “And that’s the way it is,” Ayn Rand, Ralph Nader, the Smothers Brothers (either Tom or Dick) could say, “No, that’s not the way it is.”

Fox News is news with an attitude. It’s proud to be American news with a lot of flag-waving. It’s aimed at angry people who see good factory jobs disappearing overseas. It finds stories its audience didn’t even know they should be angry about until Fox News called their attention to them. Fox News is aimed at people who feel left out. People who feel the left-wing media controlling TV news don’t serve them the way talk-radio news does. It’s only a niche, but Roger Ailes has driven an eighteen-wheel Mack truck through it. And it’s all the Anointed One’s fault.

If you don’t like the attitude, the point of view, the opinion, you switch the channel. That’s the way it is with newspapers or magazines. That’s the American way.

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