Fox News: War? What War?

The Project for Excellence in Journalism just published the results of their study of news coverage for the first quarter of 2007. The breakdown of stories covered, and the amount of time dedicated to those stories, reveals the priorities of the three main cable news networks. The standout amongst the statistics is that Fox News broadcast significantly less coverage of the war in Iraq than MSNBC or CNN. In fact, Fox devoted less than half the airtime to the subject than MSNBC, whose coverage led the pack.

Percent of Newshole Devoted To Four Major Stories on Cable TV
Dec. 31, ’06 – Mar. 31, ’07

Iraq War Total 2008 Presidential Campaign U.S. Attorney Firing Anna Nicole Smith
MSNBC 31 14 8 6
CNN 25 7 4 4
Fox News 15 9 2 10
All Cable 23% 9% 5% 7%

There is probably no one who would dispute that the war in Iraq, and the Washington debates fueled by it, is the single most important news event of the year (and several preceding years). It dominated the media producing about three times as much coverage as the next most covered story. And yet Fox relegates it to an also-ran, preferring to spend nearly as much time on Anna Nicole Smith as on the war.

Fox also minimized the most serious parade of scandal that has faced the U.S. Justice Department since the Nixon Administration (see John Mitchell and the Saturday Night Massacre). Practically ignoring the scandal surrounding Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the firing of U.S. Attorneys by a partisanly-motivated Justice Department, the 2% of airtime Fox afforded the affair was half of what CNN gave it and a quarter of MSNBC’s scheduling.

The one area in which Fox excelled was in coverage of departed pin-up/heiress, Anna Nicole Smith. Fox’s coverage of Smith approximately doubled the coverage of CNN and MSNBC. Now we know why they had to leave the war footage on the cutting room floor.

These results are an affirmation of the Fox slogan, “We Report, You Decide,” so long as you leave out the first part. However, this may be consistent with their programming strategy which appears to be to drain their reports of as much substance as possible so that you are left unable to decide.

Update: The PEJ also released a study this week that measures the coverage of the presidential candidates. While there was more time spent on Democrats, don’t be too hasty drawing conclusions:

“…nearly two-thirds of the election coverage (61%) was specifically about candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. This was nearly three times those that focused on Republican candidates (24%). Another 13% dealt with both parties. […] conservative talkers, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage were the most Democratic focused of all-75% of their time on Democrats and only 13% focused mainly on Republicans.”

So while there was more “coverage” of Democrats, that extra focus really translates into more time bashing them. If you weren’t already confused, the right-wing media machine is more than happy to further muddy the waters.

O’Reilly Responds: ThinkProgress has a transcript of O’Reilly explaining that the reason Fox has less coverage of Iraq is because another bomb going off “doesn’t mean anything.” The rest of the transcript is equally as disgusting.

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The Daily Show To The Media: Be More Honest

In October of 2004, I wrote an essay entitled, “The Real Fake News.” It was premised on my observation that Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, commonly labeled “fake” news, provided more accurate representations of news events more often (and more compellingly) than the so-called “real” news. And conversely, the “real” news was rampant with plagiarists, fabricators, and shills of both the ideological and paid-for variety.

Since that time, The Daily Show’s popularity and reputation has grown and it continues to embarrass its establishment media elders. Its success is still largely misunderstood by most analysts. The most egregious error is made by those who view the program as political satire. While politics is a part of the recipe, it is not the main ingredient. TDS is, first and foremost, media satire.

Rachel Smolkin, managing editor of the American Journalism Review, has written an article that explores, “What the Mainstream Media Can Learn from Jon Stewart.” To some degree she grasps the conceptual territory covered by TDS, correctly holding that…

“Much of the allure of Stewart’s show lies in its brutal satire of the media. He and his correspondents mimic the stylized performance of network anchors and correspondents. He exposes their gullibility. He derides their contrivances.”

Smolkin could take it a little further by noting that even when politicians are being skewered, it is within the framework of how they are covered by television newscasts. The very structure of the newscasts themselves is often targeted by Stewart’s drollery. A particularly fertile subject is the disintegrating concept of “balance” as currently practiced. Smolkin quotes USC’s Annenberg School for Communication associate dean, Martin Kaplan, who poignantly articulates the problem with modern journalism:

“Every issue can be portrayed as a controversy between two opposite sides, and the journalist is fearful of saying that one side has it right, and the other side does not. It leaves the reader or viewer in the position of having to weigh competing truth claims, often without enough information to decide that one side is manifestly right, and the other side is trying to muddy the water with propaganda.”

Hub Brown, chair of the communications department at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, puts it even more succinctly:

“The truth itself doesn’t respect point of view. The truth is never balanced.”

How true. The truth always takes its own side, and without the slightest hint of partisanship. But, for some reason, reporters are reluctant to acknowledge truthfulness for fear of being branded as partisan. How did the media get so twisted as to believe that accepting reality as it is has come to be regarded as an expression of partiality? This is the attitude that is mocked by Stewart’s offspring, Stephen Colbert, when he declares that, “truth has a well-known liberal bias.”

To the extent that TDS has transended this problem, it is a beacon for the very reporters it is ridiculing. But rather than expect them to decipher the correct interpretation of these signals, I’ll let Smolkin sum it up for them:

“…the lesson of “The Daily Show” is not that reporters should try to be funny, but that they should try to be honest.”

Adoption of that simple advisory would produce a wholesale transformation of American media. If I could implement just one revision of contemporary journalistic practice it would be to liberate reporters from the absurd notion that they are proscribed from differentiating truth from fiction when covering controversial issues. In fact, I consider such differentiation to be an obligation of ethical journalism. The surreal irony is that this approach is understood and practiced by fake reporters on a comedy program, but not by their ostensibly real counterparts. We can only hope that this lesson will eventually seep through.

Murdoch’s Definition Of Independent

Ever since Rupert Murdoch announced his bid to acquire Dow Jones and its star property, the Wall Street Journal, people have been speculating as to how the new management would deal with the journalistic direction of the renowned newspaper. In an effort to quell a firestorm of anxiety, Murdoch quickly stepped up to assure all concerned that he had no intention of interfering with the paper’s editorial independence. Said Murdoch

“Apart from breaching the public’s trust, it would simply be bad business.”

It would be hard to elicit a more comforting endorsement of independence than that. It suggests an awareness of both public service and the inherent value of a free press. There’s just one problem: It’s Rupert Murdoch talking.

Thanks to a legal dispute currently playing out between Murdoch’s New York Post and former gossip columnist Jared Paul Stern, we have access to testimony that reveals precisely what Murdoch means when he refers to independence. Ian Spiegelman, a former Post staffer called as a witness for Stern, discloses the reality of life in a Murdoch-run newsroom:

“Spiegelman claims that Murdoch ordered his editors at The Post to kill any negative stories about President Clinton and his wife Hillary.” And if that’s not enough…“He also said that Murdoch ordered a story about a Chinese diplomat and his visits to a New York strip club to be killed because it might have angered the Communist regime and endangered News Corp’s broadcasting privileges in China.”

Ordering editors to kill stories does not fit any definition of independence that I have been able to uncover. This should put into perspective Murdoch’s professed interest in the public trust. And if you take seriously his quote above, then by his own standard he is engaging in bad business practices.

Contrary to his assurances, any news organization with Murdoch at the helm is very likely to be compromised in the same manner as the New York Post, the Fox News Channel, or any other News Corp. enterprise. These revelations should weigh heavily on the minds of the shareholders of Dow Jones and the staff at the Wall Street Journal.

Al Gore Assaults Reasoning Of Diane Sawyer

In an interview this morning with Diane Sawyer, Al Gore had to dodge the typical press fixation and speculation on his non-existent presidential campaign plans. His appearance was to promote the release of his new book, “The Assault on Reason“. The book’s content is largely concerned with the trivializing of public discourse, in politics and media, and how that presents obstacles to effective solutions to society’s problems. But that didn’t stop Sawyer from trivializing public discourse and throwing up her own obstacles. She asked Gore three times about his presidential aspirations, including one question that hinged his future plans on his diet and weight.

After some patient endurance of this nonsense, Gore finally let Sawyer know what he thought of her pseudo-journalistic style:

“Listen to your questions. You know, the horserace, the cosmetic parts of this – and, look, that’s all understandable and natural. But while we’re focused on, you know, Britney and K-Fed and Anna Nicole Smith and all this stuff, meanwhile, very quietly, our country has been making some very serious mistakes that could be avoided if we, the people, including the news media, are involved in a full and vigorous discussion of what our choices are.”

It’s fairly safe to assume that Gore’s advice went in one ear and out the other, seeing as there is probably very little brain mass in the way to impede it. And I would lay odds that Sawyer’s first question in any subsequent interview of Gore will be about whether he is running for president.

Video clip at Think Progress.

Sicko Gets Thumbs Up From…Fox?

Michael Moore’s new film, “Sicko,” got a critical boost today from an unexpected source. Roger Friedman, the Fox411 entertainment reporter, lavished praise on the film in his online column:

“Filmmaker Michael Moore’s brilliant and uplifting new documentary, “Sicko,” deals with the failings of the U.S. healthcare system, both real and perceived. But this time around, the controversial documentarian seems to be letting the subject matter do the talking, and in the process shows a new maturity.”

Maybe this is not really all that unexpected. Friedman also reviewed Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” saying…

“It turns out to be a really brilliant piece of work, and a film that members of all political parties should see without fail.” He continued, “…a tribute to patriotism, to the American sense of duty – and at the same time a indictment of stupidity and avarice.”

I wonder how Friedman managed to evade security at the Fox compound and seed the conservosphere with such disinformation. It appears he may have risen from a covert assignment at Murdoch’s New York Post before infiltrating the mother ship.

Friedman is not, however, out of danger. Having predicted last September that Sicko will be “a huge, huge hit…another cultural phenomenon,” Friedman, is directly challenging Fox’s heavy artillery, Bill O’Reilly, who has his own security force, and has already declared Sicko a failure that won’t make any money. Of course, O’Reilly also famously mis-forecast that the double-platinum selling, 5-time Grammy winning Dixie Chicks’ CD “Taking the Long Way” would flop.

We’ll know in a couple of months who prevails. My money is on Friedman.

Banksy Speaks For Me

Banksy is perhaps my favorite living artist in terms of message. His work is profound and inspiring. So are his words from this recent interview.

On the persistence of vision:
“I originally set out to try and save the world, but now I’m not sure I like it enough.”

On selling out:
“I love the way capitalism finds a place – even for its enemies. It’s definitely boom time in the discontent industry.”

My sentiments exactly!

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Rush Limbaugh: The Elephant In The Room

After last week’s Republican primary debate, Rush Limbaugh responded to a caller who commented on Limbaugh’s influence in Republican politics. Limbaugh agreed and declared that:

“I alone have the power to move the [Republican] base.”

That’s an audacious statement, to say the least. I would certainly concede that he can throw his considerable weight around in right-wing circles, but to claim that he “alone” has this power reeks of delusions of grandeur. And he wasn’t through:

“The exercise of my ‘power’ – it’s not something I’m really conscious of on a daily basis, but it would be foolish and silly for me to deny that I possess it […] It’s the elephant in the room. Why deny it?”

The elephant in the room is Limbaugh’s ego, which is so big that it obscures his view of reality, to say nothing of humility. It even obstructs his ability to see the semantic risk in referring to his corpulent self and elephants in the same paragraph. But you’ve got to give him credit for skillfully associating his famous girth and his mammoth ego and his jumbo imagination with the traditional symbol of the GOP, or Grand Ole Pachyderms.

The Cult Of Foxonality™

The Republican presidential primary debate threw off some interesting bones for chewing. I’m not talking about Rudy Giuliani’s exploitation of 9/11 at every turn, especially his smack down of Ron Paul’s refreshingly rational attempt to offer up a more complex explanation for terrorism than, “they hate us for our freedom.” I’m not talking about Mitt Romney’s pandering to sadists with his applause-bait on Guantanamo and torture. I’m not talking about John McCain’s ludicrous and insensitive promise to be “the last man standing” in Iraq, as if he were volunteering for active duty. And I’m not even talking about the graphics and sound effects that seem to have been lifted from broadcasts of professional wrestling.

What I find interesting is that 2.4 million people watched the GOP debate that aired on the Republican News Network (aka Fox).That is just slightly more than the 2.3 million viewers who watched the Democrats debate on MSNBC. But when Republicans debated on MSNBC, they only managed to pull in 1.7 million viewers. Maybe that was because it was on opposite the O’Reilly Factor which itself snared 2.3 million. So Fox drew the same size audience for their Republican debate as O’Reilly did when Republicans were debating elsewhere.

What this tells us is that a little less than two and half million viewers will show up to watch Fox in that timeslot whether there is a debate on or not. It also tells us that Fox viewers will turn out to get their O’Reilly fix even if there is a Republican debate on another network. [See update in comments].

What this does not tell us is why O’Reilly performs 35% better than a Republican debate on MSNBC. And we can only speculate as to why the Republican debate on Fox performs no better than their daily scheduled program. My speculation to both questions is that Fox viewers are married to the channel and couldn’t care less what’s playing down the dial. Their hypnotic attachment filters out all other sensory stimulation, even if it’s something that would ordinarily excite them.

One way of looking at this would be to acknowledge the success of Fox’s marketing strategy for having developed a powerful brand that inspires loyalty. But I prefer a more paranoid analysis. Most liberals (and objective observers) recognize the tight-knit relationship between Fox and the GOP. However, while we fret about the Murdoch/RNC cabal, we may be missing an even more frightening scenario. Fox viewers appear to be more loyal to Fox than to Republicans or conservatism. This misdirected allegiance bestows a far more influential authority onto a media entity than ought ever to be considered. It suggests that the bombastic demagogues that Fox has shaped into celebrity anchors truly do weigh down their transfixed disciples.

Are Fox viewers more attached to their tele-mentors than to the party and politics they profess? The evidence suggests that this may be so. People who might ordinarily be considered reliable party stalwarts are straying from the pack to trail behind Fox pundits who have come to criticize the administration on issues like Iraq, immigration, and the federal budget. Granted, the criticism is emanating from an even further right stance than the DC GOP has taken, but the result is the same: It’s the Foxebrities that are leading, not elected representatives of the people.

Some may take the view that the people are voting with their remotes, but you have to wonder where all of this could end. Television personalities are still built by marketing and promotion, not principle. If Paris Hilton can command the chunk of media real estate that she does, then clearly intelligence, insight, talent, and vision, are irrelevant in determining who viewers admire. And when admiration swells to idolization in the political realm, how far down the road will fans follow the flickering object of the affection? And how far will the Pundicrats ask their flock to go?

Bill O’Beale: “I’m mad as Hell!”

Paddy Chayefky’s “Network” introduced us to Howard Beale, a new model newscaster that implored his audience to cast off their docility and think for themselves. But today’s Fox version would likely produce Beale’s polar opposite who would only inspire a feverish fealty to himself and his omnipotent infallibility. That is indeed a foreboding picture of a bleak future. Do we have the time and/or will to steer away from it? Or is it already upon us?

To YouTube Or Not To YouTube

As a follow up to my article yesterday on press freedom which reported the Pentagon’s order barring soldiers from using YouTube, MySpace, and other social networks, there were a couple of notable stories published today:

DoD Flip-Flop: YouTube Banned, But Watch It.
“One day after the Pentagon banned US military personnel worldwide from accessing the wildly popular YouTube Web site via DoD computers and networks, the weekly electronic newsletter of the US-led Multi-National Forces-Iraq (MNF-I) today makes a banner appeal for US forces and others to watch MNF-I’s new YouTube channel.”

Warner Blasts Pentagon Internet Move.
“There is nothing more important to the men and women of the armed forces than to have that connection to home,” said [Sen. John] Warner, who served in the U.S. Navy. “I will be looking into it today.”

Talk about your mixed messages.

The Fear Of Censorship

John Roberts has been CNN’s senior national correspondent and its anchor of the awkwardly-named This Week at War (sounds like a VH1 Top 20 Countdown). He was recently named a new co-host of CNN’s American Morning. In his former position at CBS he served as the network’s White House correspondent and was embedded with Marines during the invasion of Iraq. Now, in an interview with Broadcasting & Cable, this experienced and connected professional speaks out about the handling of the coverage of the war in Iraq and, despite his participation, he has some rather unflattering critiques of what transpired.

In the article, Roberts concedes that the media was unprepared to properly cover events on the ground and should have been more vigilant in the run-up to the war. But by far the more notable observation that Roberts imparts is one that reflects on current coverage:

“If we showed people the full extent of what we see every day in Iraq, we would either have no one watching us because they couldn’t stand to see the pictures, or we would get so many letters of complaint that some organization would come down on us to stop.”

With current polls showing that two thirds of the American public are already opposed to the war in Iraq, the notion that we have not yet reached the nadir of our disapproval is somewhat unsettling. Especially if the reason is that, as Roberts contends, the “full extent” of what the press sees every day has been withheld from us by a media establishment that is afraid of mail and of losing viewers. And I get no consolation from Roberts’ informing me that things are much worse than I ever imagined.

Indeed, the pictures that are presently darkening our TV screens with bloodshed, blasts, and blackened smoke, are enough to sow depression in the most optimistic amongst us. But that is not sufficient reason for responsible journalists to soft-peddle even a harsh reality. In an open democratic society, citizens need to be fully informed because, contrary to the monarchal delusions of President Bush, we are the deciders. If exposure to the truth produces more dissatisfaction, it is not up to editors and programmers to shield us from our own tender sensitivities. That is not the way to cultivate an informed electorate. That is not the way to promote Democracy.

The public’s appetite for this war has steadily declined over the past four years and would likely have declined further and faster had the news been presented impartially and honestly. In fact, we might never have gone to war in the first place if the vigilance of which Roberts spoke had been practiced at the outset by a conscientious and ethical press corps.

There are two problems (at least) with Roberts’ statement above. One is that he gives too much weight to the notion that Americans don’t have the stomach to manage the nation as our Constitution requires. The other is that his fear that “some organization” would put a stop to honest, unfettered reporting, resulted in that fear becoming manifest. The fear of censorship produced censorship and the people were deprived of knowledge. The only organization that profited from this suppression is an administration that was predisposed to execute a war of aggression and preferred to avoid the pesky interference of the will of the people.

To paraphrase Roberts:

If we, the people, show the full extent of what we see and feel every day about Iraq, they would know that we are watching, and they would get so many letters of complaint that our organization of citizens would come down on them to stop suppressing the truth; stop embracing unscrupulous pseudo-leaders; and stop this god-awful war.

This practice of Nanny Journalism is all too common in American media. They think we can’t handle the truth. But it’s funny (by which I mean pathetic) that they keep coming back after the fact to confess their mea culpas.