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Stuck inside Republican hell with the ‘fair and balanced’ Fox News Channel

SHORTLY AFTER NOON this past Tuesday, Fox News Channel anchor Rick Folbaum played the latest television ad put together by the ironically named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Among other things, the commercial depicted the 1971 protest at which John Kerry discarded his combat ribbons. "How can the man who renounced his country’s symbols now be trusted?" the narrator intoned portentously.

Folbaum then turned to his two guests. First up was Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift, a liberal, who allowed, "I think it was a powerful ad," but pointed out that it sought to ignore the entire history of the Vietnam War and the widespread opposition it engendered. But syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, an archconservative, was having none of it. He said that Kerry had "betrayed the comrades he left behind," and added that the senator should be asked, "Have you no shame?" Folbaum joined in, sneering of Kerry, "Is he going to have to go on The Daily Show and talk to Jon Stewart about it?"

It was, in many respects, a quintessential Fox News moment, bringing together several of the strands that have marked this week’s blatantly biased coverage of the Republican National Convention. First, it provided still more free publicity to the Swifties, a discredited group whose vile accusations about Kerry’s war service have been undermined by the official records, the testimony of Kerry’s crewmates, and, in many cases, by their own past contradictory statements. Second, it paired a reasonable liberal against both a hard-right ideologue and a far-from-neutral anchor. Finally, it promoted an us-against-them view of the world, invoking the dread liberal-media conspiracy in the form of Jon Stewart, who would no doubt perform his nefarious dark magic to resuscitate Kerry’s sputtering presidential campaign.

"Fox is there basically as the bully boys of the airwaves," says Danny Schechter, executive editor of MediaChannel.org. "The attack machine used to be in the parties or in the think tanks. Now the attack machine is on the air. Fox’s role is to legitimize this and promote it."

Fox has become what most Americans think of when they think of 24-hour cable news. Begun in 1996 by the international media baron Rupert Murdoch as a "fair and balanced" (that is, conservative) alternative to the supposedly liberal mainstream, Fox’s ratings now routinely swamp those of its two rivals. According to the trade magazine Broadcasting & Cable, Fox attracted some 3.87 million viewers for Monday night’s convention coverage, far exceeding CNN (1.26 million) and MSNBC (854,000).

If a modern national political convention is strictly a made-for-television event, then surely a Republican convention is a made-for-Fox extravaganza. To a remarkable degree, Fox marches in lock step with the Republican Party. According to a study by the liberal media-watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, the guest list on Special Report with Brit Hume — among the most, uh, fair and balanced programs in the Fox line-up — was 83 percent Republican and 17 percent Democrat. The bombastic Sean Hannity likes to sign off by counting down the days to George W. Bush’s fervently hoped-for re-election, a practice documented to hilarious effect in the recently released film Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. (Unfortunately, Outfoxed omits the fact that Hannity's hapless liberal foil, Alan Colmes, does the same with Kerry.) Moreover, Fox has appropriated the symbols of American patriotism as shamelessly as the GOP has, depicting a fluttering American flag in the upper left corner of its screen and proclaiming itself "America’s Newsroom."

"I thought going into this we would discover what we all knew — that Fox News is a conservative news network, with an opinion relative to a conservative look at the world," Outfoxed director/producer Robert Greenwald said in a recent interview with the Web site IWantMedia.com. "But what I found is more troubling, more upsetting, and more critical to democracy: Fox News is a Republican news network. It takes a Republican line, which is different from a conservative line."

I am not unfamiliar with Fox. But, like most restless news junkies, I tend to catch it in bits and pieces. This week, I decided to try something different: to stay away from New York and the crowds and the media tent and all that and, instead, to watch the convention as it was intended. As infotainment — produced by the Republicans’ most sycophantic network.

I would watch the GOP on GOP-TV.

THE FOX NEWS Channel’s programming is divided into two distinct subsets. The first consists of shows recognizable as television journalism, but with a conservative edge. The most prominent are the aforementioned Special Report with Brit Hume and Fox News Sunday, hosted by Chris Wallace, Mike’s kid. The second is the prime-time line-up — trashy, glitzy, confrontational programs that owe more to talk radio and tabloid TV than they do to, say, the spirit of Edward R. Murrow. These consist of The O’Reilly Factor, hosted by puffy-faced populist Bill O’Reilly; Hannity & Colmes, in which right-wing know-it-all Sean Hannity nightly trounces his meek liberal co-host, Alan Colmes; and On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, hosted by a CNN refugee who is single-handedly trying to keep public interest in the Scott Peterson case alive, at least until William Kennedy Smith can be brought into court.

On the shows that feature some actual journalism, there are at least a few standards in place. Thus, on Fox News Sunday this past weekend, when House Speaker Dennis Hastert insinuated that billionaire liberal George Soros may have gotten some of his money from "drug groups," Wallace stopped him cold. "Excuse me?" Wallace interrupted, looking astonished. When Hastert hemmed and hawed about "legalizing drugs" and "ancillary interests," Wallace interjected, "You think he may be getting money from the drug cartel?" Hastert replied, "I’m saying we don’t know. The fact is we don’t know where this money comes from." Wow. Hastert should get a job writing ad copy for the Swifties. Wallace could have pressed him harder, but at least he didn’t let Mr. Speaker’s sleazy aside go unchallenged.

Wallace tends to play it straight. Hume, cagier and more ideological, plays a cuter game. Though Hume would never indulge in the shoutfests that dominate prime-time Fox, he’s been flogging the swift-boat story for all it’s worth (or, rather, for much more than it’s worth), and hailing the "new media" — the Internet, talk radio, and, of course, Fox — for keeping it alive when those nefarious liberals in the mainstream ignore it.

Hume also has a panel of regular commentators in which the conservatives — as is the habit with Fox — are both more numerous and more forceful than the liberals. The right-leaning Fred Barnes, Morton Kondracke, and Bill Kristol are sharp, fast, and emphatic, whereas the left-leaning Mara Liasson and Juan Williams are accommodating and (to use a word that has become a pejorative among Republicans) nuanced. This week, Kondracke went so far as to say that Kerry deserved the Swifty attacks because he’d made his Vietnam service the centerpiece of his campaign, and because Retired Rear Admiral William Schachte — who charges that Kerry should not have received one of his three Purple Hearts — was a credible witness. No one challenged Kondracke on whether Kerry deserved to be lied about (which is, after all, what the senator and his supporters contend), and no one mentioned that there is considerable evidence suggesting that Schachte wasn’t even present when Kerry was injured, Schachte’s newly minted claims notwithstanding.

The rancid soul of Fox News, though, lies not in its news programming but, rather, in its talk shows — especially The O’Reilly Factor and Hannity & Colmes. Never in the history of television news has there been anything like them. O’Reilly, an arrogant bully, likes to yell at his guests and tell them to "shut up." Hannity & Colmes is akin to a professional wrestling match, a pre-scripted morality play in which right (that is, right-wing) triumphs over wrong every time. It is these shows, more than any others, that have made Fox News the ratings king — and that have, in the process, attracted viewers to its unique brand of conservatism.

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Issue Date: September 3 - 9, 2004
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