28 June 2011

Jon Stewart vs. Fox News

With its cable-news competitors disappearing in the rear-view mirror, it appears that Fox's biggest rival is now Jon Stewart's crew at The Daily Show.

Stewart has struck a nerve over at Fox, and I'm glad he has. His recent interview with Chris Wallace is the second time in recent weeks I've seen Stewart face down a Fox News personality and come away unscathed. Both Wallace and Bill O'Reilly claimed that they were asking questions, in part, to "understand" Stewart better. But frankly, the fact that either man can't seem to understand their guest -- especially Wallace, who is probably the best Sunday morning host of the post-Russert era -- demonstrates a thickheadedness as to precisely what role Stewart actually plays in public life, and more critically, a massive blind spot to the shortcomings of their employer.

Not surprisingly, neither Wallace nor O'Reilly has been able to rebut Stewart's charge that Fox is a sharply ideological organization that uses real journalists like Wallace as mere window dressing.

Frankly, it's impossible to view Fox News as simply a news organization. Certainly, Wallace and Shep Smith are tremendous journalists. They are among the best -- if not the best -- at what they do. But Fox's business model is not built around them. Bill O'Reilly consistently has the highest-rated show on cable news. Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck are routinely in the top five, and Greta van Susteren is often sixth or seventh. Bret Baier's program (rated #2 behind O'Reilly), a hard newscast for the first half-hour, turns into a hyperpartisan talk show during the last 20 minutes. Fox still gives a massive platform to Mike Huckabee and at one time, employed five potential Republican presidential candidates (Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and John Bolton).

If Fox didn't hold itself out as "fair and balanced," and simply embraced the fact that it is a deeply ideological organization, I doubt Stewart would care much. For instance, MSNBC runs out a comparable lineup of partisan hacks (Schultz, Matthews, O'Donnell, Maddow) every night, and those shows are likewise that channel's biggest draws. Creating a biased product is not itself objectionable, but when that organization goes out of its way to squeal about the bias of other news outlets (how many times a day do you hear the term "mainstream media"?) it's outrageous and hypocritical. To its credit, MSNBC doesn't bother pretending to be objective. This is embodied by its slogan, "Lean Forward," an obvious nod to the term "progressive."

Attempting to rebut Stewart's charge that Fox is a deeply ideological organization, Wallace told Stewart that Roger Ailes gives no marching orders from above. But what Stewart missed when responding to Wallace is that Ailes doesn't need any. The Obama-era Fox News Channel is built on the back of deep-seated partisanship. True, objective journalists -- Wallace, Smith and to a lesser extent, Baier -- are not the moneymakers. Rather, the primetime lineup is where Fox gets its identity and generates its revenue. Hannity was elevated from the co-host of a left/right debate show to arguably the face of the network after his mousey liberal counterpart was given his walking papers. Beck's weepy populist shtick was well-known when Ailes hired him away from Headline News. The "all-star" panels on Baier's show are always, without exception, heavily slanted rightward. And the revolving door of established Republican politicians on Fox's payroll speaks for itself. To Wallace's argument, of course there aren't company-wide memos. Ailes' hiring decisions more than suffice.

Conor Friedersdorf, in writing about the Stewart/Fox battle, pointed out the most glaring difference between Fox and its main antagonist, the New York Times, is that Times publisher Bill Keller will appear anywhere, anytime, to discuss the factual integrity of his reporters' stories. Can anyone imagine Roger Ailes taking to the airwaves to address some of the things Glenn Beck has said?

Certainly, one has to read "mainstream" outlets such as the Times with an eye toward ideological bias of the reporters and editors. There's no doubt about that. But Fox is another animal entirely, fabricating entire storylines -- the Ground Zero "mosque," or rapper Common getting an invite to the White House, or "death panels" -- on purely ideological grounds. The Times doesn't do that. Fox does it regularly.

Whether it started with the Clinton impeachment or the acrimony of the 2000 election, we are simply in a different news era. Each organization has its own biases, and the 24/7 availability of news on both TV and the internet has allowed people to pick and choose their sources. Fox News does journalism a disservice by holding itself out as a purely objective media organization only interested in delivering the hard facts to its customers.

Regardless of what you think of his ideological predispositions -- and frankly, I don't care for them -- Jon Stewart is exactly right.

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