by Dave Zornow
“Here’s the top story we’re following at this hour: For the first time, there’s definitive proof that Fox News, the U.S. cable network that claims to be ‘fair and balanced,’ is neither fair nor balanced. Next up this hour: Experts say temperatures will drop when winter comes. And finally: Eating regularly is key to good health. Stay tuned for more details.”
OK, maybe these aren’t great revelations. But Fox News’ coverage of Comedy Central’s “Restore Sanity/Keep Fear Alive” rally on October 30 is worthy of a second look. The story posted on their Website stands in stark contrast to the pieces published by other media outlets, both liberal and conservative.
Disputing Fox News’ “fair and balanced” slogan is a “man bites dog” kinda story. However, it’s instructive to both lovers and haters of the leading cable news operation because the 1996 launch of Fox News in 1996 is one of the most significant events in cable new history, second only to Ted Turner’s 1980 creation of CNN. So an analysis of how a leading — albeit controversial — news network frames a story can tell us a lot about their journalism. And the people who watch the network.
Here are a few “leads” written by the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Washington Times, the Associated Press, Fox News and the Christian Science Monitor. See if you can tell which one fits the Fox News narrative.
Source #1: “Two of America’s best-known television comedians drew tens of thousands of people to a rally on Saturday that was part variety show, part Halloween celebration and part political rally to call for common sense before Tuesday’s congressional elections. Satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, hosts of late-night cable TV shows, poked fun at politicians and media for stoking partisan fervor.”
Story #2: “They came from far and near, some wielding signs and hoping to attract a little attention, others just to watch the show. But what seemed to unite the tens of thousands who converged on the National Mall on a sunny Saturday in Washington for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was a genuine desire to push back against the strong rightward tilt of the 2010 midterm campaign.”
Story #3: “In an election season characterized by loud divisions between the left and the right, Saturday’s crowded Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear marked an ironic uprising by those who want to turn down the volume. Three days before midterm elections, tens of thousands of people packed the National Mall to listen to Comedy Central satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, looking for a laugh and a chance to display their disenchantment with what they say is the bitter tone of the nation’s political discourse.”
Story #4: Just three days before pivotal midterm elections, comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert threw a “sanity” rally in the shadow of the Capitol that organizers insisted wasn’t about politics. But there were political undertones to Saturday’s event as the two Comedy Central hosts entertained a huge throng stretched alongside the National Mall by poking fun at the nation’s diversity and its ill-tempered politics. Stewart is popular especially with Democrats and independents, a Pew Research Center poll found. Colbert of “The Colbert Report” poses as an ultraconservative, and the stage Saturday was stacked with entertainers associated with Democratic causes or Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Story #5: In the shadow of the Capitol and the election, comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert entertained a huge throng Saturday at a “sanity” rally poking fun at the nation’s ill-tempered politics, fear-mongers and doomsayers. “We live now in hard times,” Stewart said after all the shtick. “Not end times.”
OK, pens down. Which one did you pick? Maybe it was easy — or maybe it wasn’t.
The pro-business, right leaning WSJ, owned by the same News Corp company that owns the Fox News Channel, wrote “In an election season characterized by loud divisions between the left and the right…”
The Christian Science Monitor published “They came from far and near, some wielding signs and hoping to attract a little attention, others just to watch the show.”
If you chose “Just three days before pivotal midterm elections, comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert threw a “sanity” rally in the shadow of the Capitol that organizers insisted wasn’t about politics. But there were political undertones to Saturday’s event as the two Comedy Central hosts…” you found the Fox in the cable news hen house.
Strangely, the Washington Times, a conservative counterweight to the Washington Post, used the the AP story without sending a reporter to the rally (“In the shadow of the Capitol and the election, comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert entertained a huge throng…”) Which makes you wonder: if their reporter couldn’t afford the $5 Metrocard to get to the Washington mall, things must be REALLY tough in the newspaper business…
Finally, Reuters wrote “Two of America’s best-known television comedians drew tens of thousands of people to a rally on Saturday that was part variety show…”
(One honorable mention that didn’t make this list: “whilst” surveying foreign news reports for their take on the event, I ran across the The Guardian blog of Richard Adams. His Jon Stewart rally ‘as it happens‘ entry provided an amusing play by play of the event as it unfolded from the vantage point of an outsider looking in. It was very funny with lots of wry Brit observations about American culture.)
What makes the Fox story unfair and unbalanced? Journalists are trained to report what is “new” when reporting the news. Glen Beck’s August rally was news because a conservative political pundit gathered thousands of his followers on the Washington Mall in the same location on the same day as Martin Luther King made his “I Have A Dream” speech. If you were there and didn’t that wasn’t your story, you must have had an another agenda. That *was* the story. The day was about GB and his ability to muster his masses to the Washington Mall. It was an unprecedented event because it had never been done before by a cable TV celebrity — until Saturday.
Using the same logic, Saturday’s story was about how between 60,000 and 250,000 people gathered on the mall (Stewart put the number at “millions” as a pre-emptive strike for those who would try to compare his rally to Beck’s) to see two TV celebrities in the company of Discovery’s The Mythbusters, The Roots, The OJays, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Sam Waterson, Tony Bennett, Jeff Tweedy, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Ozzy Osborne and the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. Among many others.
If there was a political message, it was relatively weak. Telling everyone to think for themselves and stop believing everything you read on Websites, see on cable news and hear on talk radio isn’t exactly a revolutionary manifesto. It may have been a little hard to write that sentence if you worked on the copy desk at Fox, CNN or MSNBC — the three networks that dominated the mocking clips shown by Jon Stewart — but you’d have to be an idiot to have missed that point. Or, perhaps had an agenda that reinterprets the concept of fair and balanced journalism.
In the second sentence of the Fox News story, the network reported that “there were political overtones…poking fun at the nation’s diversity and ill-tempered politics.” Actually, Stewart and Colbert weren’t poking fun at the nation’s diversity, but at the tendency of the news media to characterize events by who shows up. Fox seemed to deliberately miss the point that the Comedy Central kids were poking fun at news pundits who tune the facts to fit a particular news narrative targeted to their core audience. Writing “news” which rings of truthiness but doesn’t try to capture what happened isn’t news – that’s entertainment.
Which is OK. The “fair and balanced” phenomenon in journalism is fairly new. Biased reporting in newspapers has a much richer history that predates the concept of fair and balanced journalism.
Fox News is to the 65+ audience what MTV is to 18-34’s: a consistent stream of content which tells people in a demo niche what they want to hear. Both networks have relatively small audiences which exert an oversized influence on the American culture. Both Fox News and MTV are extremely good at what they do: aggregating a high concentration of similar people to resell to advertisers. MTV gets heat because they don’t play music videos anymore; Fox gets heat before their definition of news isn’t what many regard to be fair and balanced. It’s a marketing disconnect which occurs when a cultural icon behaves differently than “we” think they should.
Fox News may not be “news” in the tradition of Walter Cronkite and Ed Murrow. But I bet that William Randolph Hearst would be impressed.
Stewart and Colbert are right when they suggest you shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV. As long as that healthy skepticism includes Comedy Central, we should all be ok.
- Fox News Freaks Out Over Stewart/Colbert Rally, PoliticusUSA
- Can Fox News be ‘fair and balanced’ if News Corp. gives to Republicans?, CSMonitor.com
- Rally For Sanity: They Also Want Their Country Back, Mediate.com
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