Fox in Wolf's Clothing

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Rupert Murdoch's Fox News is now embroiled in a controversy with the Democratic Party over whether it should be allowed to sponsor Democratic presidential debates. Spurred in part by protests from MoveOn.org, the Nevada Democratic Party cancelled a debate, scheduled for August, that Fox was planning to sponsor. And the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has refused to sanction another debate for September in Detroit that Fox plans to sponsor with the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. John Edwards announced last week that he would not participate, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama followed suit early this week.

Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes--a veteran Republican operative who became famous for George H.W. Bush's slash-and-burn ad campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988--has cried political censorship. "There's a long tradition of news organizations, national and local, sometimes together, sponsoring presidential and other candidate debates." That's certainly true. But Fox's sponsorship brings something new to the table, and the Nevada Democratic Party and DNC were right to refuse them a seat. It has to do with the nature of news organizations and with what it means to be independent, non-partisan or, as Fox News likes to say, "fair and balanced."

 

Newspapers, which were the once the primary vehicle for political information, used to be highly partisan and untrustworthy, but when Adolph Ochs acquired The New York Times in 1896, he initiated a new kind of "non-partisan" journalism that was later mimicked by other major newspapers, including Eugene Meyer's Washington Post. In a statement issued in 1896, Ochs promised to "give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interest involved; to make the columns of The New York Times a forum of the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussions from all shades of opinion." Ochs's paper still had editorials, but he and his successors observed a distinction between news and editorial content.

The newspaper business in those days was highly competitive, but the emergence of radio and television decades later led to the advent of large news-entertainment conglomerates that enjoyed privileged access to public opinion. They resembled public utilities; they had to secure licenses from the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) and later the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). And to retain their licenses, they had to observe certain standards of behavior.

The Fairness Doctrine, which the FCC adopted in 1949 on the model of an earlier FRC rule, tried to put into effect Ochs's standards of impartiality. Broadcasters were required to air controversial public matters and to present conflicting views on them. The FCC didn't forbid the broadcasters to take editorial stands, even to endorse presidential candidates, but the large networks, acting on their own, adopted an overall principle of impartiality that was appropriate given their power over public opinion. Viewers and readers would continue to charge that a network or a newspaper's coverage was biased, but the commitment to impartiality meant that publishers and owners could not simply brush off these criticisms and were often forced to change their coverage.

Then came the conservative backlash of the early 1970s. The new right and neoconservatives argued that the array of non-partisan and independent institutions that had grown up over the last half century, which included think tanks like the Brookings Institution, policy groups like the Council on Foreign Relations, major nonprofits like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and the main newspapers and television networks were in fact "liberal" and were either openly or covertly aided the Democratic Party. The so-called "liberal media" became a particular target of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew during the 1970 congressional campaign. The conservatives didn't just confine themselves to beating up on The New York Times or CBS's Dan Rather. They tried to develop their own "conservative media." Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times came out of this effort. And so, too, on a much grander scale, did Fox News.

Fox News was founded in 1996 to counter CNN. Murdoch hired Ailes and a raft of other veterans of the Republican Party and conservative movement. Tony Snow, for instance, who had been George H.W. Bush's speechwriter, became a news anchor. Just as the Heritage Foundation or American Enterprise Institute adopted the outward appearance of Brookings, Fox and The Washington Times claimed to adhere to the same standards of independence and non-partisanship of CBS News or The New York Times. Fox billed its coverage as "fair and balanced." But, as numerous studies have detailed, Fox tilted its news coverage sharply to the right. Most recently, for instance, Fox News claimed that Democrats in Congress "were stymieing [George W. Bush's] requests for supplemental funding in Iraq," which was not true, but which reflected White House talking points, and described House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's trip to the Middle East (again, reflecting White House talking points) as "bungled shuttle diplomacy."

Fox officials take umbrage, of course, at any attempt to describe their reported as "conservative" or "pro-Republican," but occasionally, one of them has let the cat out of the bag. In the European edition of The Wall Street Journal two years ago, Fox's London bureau chief, Scott Norvell, wrote, "Even we at Fox News manage to get some lefties on the air occasionally, and often let them finish their sentences before we club them to death and feed the scraps to Karl Rove and [Fox talk-show host] Bill O'Reilly." Adolph Ochs would have fired a bureau chief for making a similar statement, and so would the presidents of most other major news networks. The FCC might have also looked askance, but, in 1987, Ronald Reagan's FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine. What remains is not a rule, but an informal understanding of how news organizations should operate.

Fox claims it should enjoy the prerogatives of that informal understanding--which would include being able to sponsor political debates by either party--but it violates it at every turn. It is not a news organization in the traditional sense any more than the Heritage Foundation is a traditional think tank. And that's the heart of the issue between Fox and the Democratic Party. Like Heritage, Fox News is an informal arm of the conservative Republican movement. And Democrats don't want Fox to be able to bolster its false claims of impartiality by pointing to its sponsorship of Democratic as well as Republican candidate debates.

 

But Fox is clearly not giving up. Having failed to win over the Nevada Democratic Party, it has now lured the Congressional Black Institute into a partnership. That probably wasn't hard. Over the last five years, Murdoch's News Corporation, which owns Fox, has been a major donor to that organization. But the refusal of the DNC and of Edwards, Clinton, and Obama to play along--and the rising criticism from black Democrats--shows that it is going to be hard for Fox to get its way. And that's all to the good.

There are, of course, liberals and conservatives who believe that there is no such thing as objectivity or independence and that what is needed is for networks and major newspapers to declare their allegiance and act accordingly. And it is true that objectivity is always partial and limited, defined by the existing balance of forces in society. In particular, it tends to filter out extremes on both the left and right. In October 2002, for instance, the newspapers and networks barely reported the existence of dissent to administration claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. That was because dissent was so faint and had few voices among major politicians.

But the promise of democracy rests on a reasonably informed public--and, in America today, that means the possibility that an average person (who doesn't have a Ph.D. in political science or the time or interest to read Foreign Affairs) can get at least a semblance of accurate information about the world from watching nightly news and reading a few stories in a daily newspaper. That depends very much on networks and newspapers attempting, however imperfectly, to offer fair and impartial coverage. If they abandon that effort, as Fox has done, then they threaten the basis of democracy--and not simply the Democratic Party.

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