Fairly Unbalanced

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I challenge anybody to show me an example of bias in Fox News Channel.
—Rupert Murdoch, Salon, March 1, 2001

Years ago, Republican Party chairman Rich Bond explained that conservatives' frequent denunciations of "liberal bias" in the media were part of "a strategy" (Washington Post, Aug. 20, 1992). Comparing journalists to referees in a sports match, Bond explained, "If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is "work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time."

But when Fox News Channel, Rupert Murdoch's 24-hour cable network, debuted in 1996, a curious thing happened: Instead of denouncing it, conservative politicians and activists lavished praise on the network. "If it hadn't been for Fox, I don't know what I'd have done for the news," Trent Lott gushed after the Florida election recount (Washington Post, Feb. 5, 2001). George W. Bush extolled Fox News Channel anchor Tony Snow — a former speechwriter for Bush's father — and his "impressive transition to journalism" in a specially taped April 2001 tribute to Snow's Sunday-morning show on its five-year anniversary (Washington Post, May 7, 2001). The right-wing Heritage Foundation had to warn its staffers not to watch so much Fox News on their computers because it was causing the think tank's system to crash.

When it comes to Fox News Channel, conservatives don't feel the need to "work the ref." The ref is already on their side. Since its 1996 launch, Fox has become a central hub of the conservative movement's well-oiled media machine. Together with the GOP organization and its satellite think tanks and advocacy groups, this network of fiercely partisan outlets — such as the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and conservative talk-radio shows like Rush Limbaugh's — forms a highly effective right-wing echo chamber where GOP-friendly news stories can be promoted, repeated and amplified. Fox knows how to play this game better than anyone.

Yet, at the same time, the network bristles at the slightest suggestion of a conservative tilt. In fact, wrapping itself in slogans like "Fair and balanced" and "We report, you decide," Fox argues precisely the opposite: Far from being a biased network, Fox argues that it is the only unbiased network. So far, Fox's strategy of aggressive denial has worked surprisingly well; faced with its unblinking refusal to admit any conservative tilt at all, some commentators have simply acquiesced to the network's own self-assessment. FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) has decided to take a closer look.

Coming next, drug-addicted pregnant women no longer have anything to fear from the authorities, thanks to the Supreme Court. Both sides on this in a moment.
—Bill O'Reilly (O'Reilly Factor, March 23, 2001)

Fox's founder and president, Roger Ailes, was for decades one of the savviest and most pugnacious Republican political operatives in Washington, a veteran of the Nixon and Reagan campaigns. Ailes is most famous for his role in crafting the elder Bush's media strategy in the bruising 1988 presidential race. With Ailes' help, Bush turned a double-digit deficit in the polls into a resounding win by targeting the GOP's base of white male voters in the South and West, using red-meat themes like Michael Dukakis' "card-carrying" membership in the ACLU, his laissez-faire attitude toward flag-burning, his alleged indifference to the pledge of allegiance — and, of course, paroled felon Willie Horton.

Described by fellow Bush aide Lee Atwater as having "two speeds — attack and destroy," Ailes once jocularly told a Time reporter (Aug. 22, 1988): "The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it." Later, as a producer for Rush Limbaugh's short-lived TV show, he was fond of calling Bill Clinton the "hippie president" and lashing out at "liberal bigots" (Washington Times, May 11, 1993). It is these two sensibilities above all — right-wing talk radio and below-the-belt political campaigning — that Ailes brought with him to Fox, and his stamp is evident in all aspects of the network's programming.

Fox daytime anchor David Asman is formerly of the right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial page and the conservative Manhattan Institute. The host of Fox News Sunday is Tony Snow, a conservative columnist and former chief speechwriter for the first Bush administration. Eric Breindel, previously the editorial-page editor of the right-wing New York Post, was senior vice president of Fox's parent company, News Corporation, until his death in 1998; Fox News Channel's senior vice president is John Moody, a longtime journalist known for his staunch conservative views.

Fox's managing editor is Brit Hume, a veteran TV journalist and contributor to the conservative American Spectator and Weekly Standard magazines. Its top-rated talk show is hosted by Bill O'Reilly, a columnist for the conservative WorldNetDaily.com and a registered Republican (that is, until a week before the Washington Post published an article revealing his party registration — Dec. 13, 2000).

The abundance of conservatives and Republicans at Fox News Channel does not seem to be a coincidence. In 1996, Andrew Kirtzman, a respected New York City cable news reporter, was interviewed for a job with Fox and says that management wanted to know what his political affiliation was. "They were afraid I was a Democrat," he told the Village Voice (Oct. 15, 1996). When Kirtzman refused to tell Fox his party ID, "all employment discussion ended," according to the Voice.

Catherine Crier, who was perceived as one of Fox's most prestigious and credible early hires, was an elected Republican judge before starting a career in journalism. (Crier has since moved on to Court TV.) Pundit Mara Liasson — who is touted as an on-air "liberal" by Fox executives — sits on the board of the conservative human-rights group Freedom House; New York magazine (Nov. 17, 1997) cited a Fox insider as saying that Liasson assured president Roger Ailes before being hired that she was a Republican.

Who would be the most likely to cheat at cards — Bill Clinton or Al Gore?
—Fox News Channel/Opinion Dynamics poll (May 2000)

The most obvious sign of Fox's slant is its heavily right-leaning punditry. Each episode of Special Report with Brit Hume, for example, features a three-person panel of pundits who chat about the day's political news at the end of the show. The most frequent panelist is Fred Barnes, the evangelical Christian supply-sider who edits the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard. He sits proudly on the rightward flank of the Republican Party (and often scolds it for slouching leftwards).

The next most frequent guest is Mort Kondrake, who sits in the middle of the panel. Politically, Kondrake falls at the very rightward edge of the Democratic Party — if not beyond it. As he famously explained in a 1988 New Republic essay (Aug. 29, 1988) he is a Democrat who is "disgusted with the Democratic Party" and whose main reason for not defecting to the Republicans is that they "have failed to be true to themselves as conservatives." (He was referring to Reagan's deficit spending.)

Rounding out the panel is its third-most-frequent pundit, Mara Liasson, who sits on the opposite side of the table from the conservative Barnes, implicitly identifying her as a liberal. But her liberalism consists of little more than being a woman who works for National Public Radio; she has proposed that "one of the roots of the problem with education today is feminism" (Talk of the Nation, May 3, 2001); she declares that "Jesse Jackson gets away with a lot of things that other people don't" (Special Report, June 21, 2000); she calls George W. Bush's reversal on carbon dioxide emissions "a small thing" (March 14, 2001), campaign finance reform "an issue that ... only 200 people in America care about" (March 19, 2001) and slavery reparations "pretty much of a non-issue" (March 19, 2001).

Less frequent Special Report panelists include conservative Washington Times reporter Bill Sammon, centrist Fortune writer Jeff Birnbaum and NPR host Juan Williams. Williams, the only guest who could plausibly claim to be a liberal, was so outraged over attacks on his friend Clarence Thomas, he declared that "liberals have become monsters" (Washington Post, Oct. 10, 1991), denouncing the "so-called champions of fairness: liberal politicians, unions, civil rights groups and women's organizations." Indeed, Fox's crew of "liberal" pundits seems almost calculated to be either ineffective left-of-center advocates or conciliatory moderates. Ironically, perhaps the only Fox commentator who consistently presents a strong progressive perspective — that is, critical of corporate power and militarism, and sympathetic to progressive social movements — is FAIR founder Jeff Cohen, a weekly panelist on the weekend media show Fox News Watch.

Meanwhile, Barnes and Kondracke — the conservative Republican and conservative Democrat — make up the entire political spectrum on Fox's weekend political show, The Beltway Boys, where they are generally in agreement as they discuss the week's news.

Even Fox's "left-right" debate show, Hannity & Colmes — whose Crossfire-style format virtually imposes numerical equality between conservatives and "liberals"— can't shake the impression of resembling a Harlem Globetrotters game in which everyone knows which side is supposed to win.

On the right, co-host Sean Hannity is an effective and telegenic ideologue, a protege of Newt Gingrich and a rising star of conservative talk radio who is perhaps more plugged into the GOP leadership than any media figure besides Rush Limbaugh. (Hannity reportedly received "thunderous applause" when he spoke at a recent closed-door House Republican Conference meeting that is usually closed to the media — U.S. News & World Report, May 7, 2001).

On the left is Alan Colmes, a rather less telegenic former stand-up comic and radio host whose views are slightly left-of-center but who, as a personality, is completely off the radar screen of liberal politics. "I'm quite moderate," he told a reporter when asked to describe his politics (USA Today, Feb. 1, 1995). Hannity, a self-described "arch-conservative" (Electronic Media, Aug. 26, 1996), joined Fox when the network was started, and personally nominated Colmes to be his on-screen debating opponent (New York Times, March 1, 1998). Before the selection was made, the show's working title was Hannity & Liberal to Be Determined — giving some idea of the relative weight each host carries, both on-screen and within the network. Fox sometimes sends a camera down to Hannity's radio studio during the network's daytime news programming, from which he holds forth on the news of the day. Needless to say, Colmes does not receive similar treatment.

I think what's going on is the Democratic lawyers have flooded Florida. They are afraid of George W. Bush becoming president and instituting tort reform and their gravy train will be over. This is the trial association's full court press to make sure Bush does not win.
—Fox News Channel anchor John Gibson, Dec. 9, 2000

Fox has had trouble at times hiding the partisanship of its main news personalities. In 1996, while already a Fox anchor, Tony Snow endorsed Bob Dole for president in the Republican National Committee magazine Rising Tide (New York, Nov. 11, 1997). A former speech-writer for the elder Bush, Snow often guest-hosts the Rush Limbaugh show and wrote an unabashedly conservative weekly newspaper column until Fox management recently pressured him to drop it to avoid the appearance of bias (Washington Post, May 29, 2001).

At the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, Snow — ostensibly present as a journalist covering a news event — jumped onstage to give a speech to the Republican Youth Caucus after organizers asked him to fill in for a speaker who couldn't make it. (He was later reprimanded by his bosses.) Trent Lott, whose speech directly followed Snow's, began with a cheer of "How about Tony Snow in 2008?" (New York Daily News, Aug. 2, 2000; Federal News Service, Aug. 1, 2000).

Just three days earlier, near the GOP convention, Bill O'Reilly gave the keynote speech at David Horowitz's conservative "Restoration Weekend" event, where he was introduced by Republican congress member Jack Quinn. Fox's Sean Hannity also spoke at the gathering, described by the Washington Times (June 30, 2000) as the "premier political event for conservative thinkers." O'Reilly has had Horowitz on his show six times — to talk about everything from National Public Radio's "left" bias (Dec. 20, 2000) to Hillary Clinton's "sense of entitlement" (June 22, 2000) to Horowitz's book on race relations, Hating Whitey (Oct. 4, 1999).

There's a certain sameness to the news on the Big Three (networks) and CNN. ... America is bad, corporations are bad, animal species should be protected, and every cop is a racist killer. That's where "fair and balanced' (Fox's slogan) comes in. We don't think all corporations are bad, every forest should be saved, every government-spending program is good. We're going to be more inquisitive.
—John Moody, Fox News Channel's senior vice-president for news and editorial (Brill's Content, 10/99)

Some mainstream journalists have suggested that Fox's "straight news" is more or less balanced, however slanted its commentary might be. "A close monitoring of the channel over several weeks indicates that the news segments tend to be straightforward, with little hint of political subtext except for stories the news editors feel the "mainstream' press has either downplayed or ignored," wrote Columbia Journalism Review's Neil Hickey (March 4, 1998). The fact that Fox's "chat consistently tilts to the conservative side," wrote the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz (Feb. 5, 2001), "may cast an unwarranted cloud on the news reporting, which tends to be straightforward."

When a New York Times profile of Fox News ran with a headline calling it a "conservative cable channel" (Sept. 18, 2000), the paper quickly corrected their "error" the following day, explaining that in "attributing a general political viewpoint to the network, the headline exceeded the facts in the article."

Putting aside the question of what genuine "balance" means, there are undoubtedly a few reporters in Fox's Washington bureau — such as White House correspondent Jim Angle — whose stories are more or less indistinguishable from those of their counterparts at the mainstream networks.

But an attentive viewer will notice that there are entire blocks of the network's programming schedule that are set aside for conservative stories. Fox's Web site offers a regular feature on "political correctness" titled "Tongue-Tied: A Report From the Front Lines of the Culture Wars," whose logo is a scowling "PC Patrol" officer peering testily through a magnifying glass. It invites readers to write in and "keep us up on examples of PC excess you come across."

Recently the network debuted a weekly half-hour series — Only on Fox — devoted explicitly to right-wing stories. The concept of the show was explained by host Trace Gallagher in the premiere episode (May 26, 2001):

"Five years ago, Fox News Channel was launched on the idea that something was wrong with news media — that somehow, somewhere bias found its way into reporting. ... And it's not just the way you tell a story that can get in the way of the truth. It's the stories you choose to tell. ... Fox News Channel is committed to being fair and balanced in the coverage of the stories everybody is reporting — and to reporting stories you won't hear anywhere else. Stories you will see only on Fox."

Gallagher then introduced a series of stories about one conservative cause after another: from white firefighters suing Boston's fire department for discrimination, to sawmill workers endangered by Clinton-Gore environmental regulations (without comment from a single supporter of the rules) to property owners who feel threatened by an environmental agreement "signed by President Clinton in 1992." (The agreement was actually signed by George Bush the elder, who was president in 1992 — though that didn't stop Fox from using news footage of a smiling Bill Clinton proudly signing an official document that was supposed to be, but wasn't, the environmental pact in question.)

Fox's news specials are equally slanted: Dangerous Places (March 25, 2001), a special about foreign policy hosted by Newt Gingrich; Heroes, an irregular series hosted by former Republican congress member John Kasich; and The Real Reagan (Nov. 25, 1999), a panel discussion on Ronald Reagan, hosted by Tony Snow, in which all six guests were Reagan friends and political aides. Vanishing Freedoms 2: Who Owns America (May 19, 2001) wandered off into militia-style paranoia, suggesting that the U.N. was "taking over" private property.

There is a formula to Fox's news agenda. "A lot of the people we have hired," Fox executive John Moody explained (Inside Media, Dec. 11, 1996) when the network was launched, "have come without the preconceptions of must-do news. There are stories we will sometimes forgo in order to do stories we think are more significant. The biggest strength that we have is that Roger Ailes has allowed me to do that; to forgo stories that would be "duty' stories in order to focus on other things."

These "other" stories that Moody has in mind are what make up much of Fox's programming: An embarrassing story about Jesse Jackson's sex life. The latest political-correctness outrage on campus. A one-day mini-scandal about a Democratic senator. Much like talk radio, Fox picks up these tidbits from right-wing outlets like the Washington Times or the Drudge Report and runs with them.

To see how the formula works, consider the recent saga of right-wing activist David Horowitz and his "censored" anti-slavery reparations ad. When some college newspapers refused to carry the ad, and some campuses saw protests against it, the case instantly became a cause celebre on the right. It was the perfect story for Fox: the liberal academic establishment trampling on the free speech of a conservative who merely asked that his views be heard. Within less than a month, Horowitz was on nearly every major Fox show to discuss the issue.

Former CBS producer Don Dahler resigned from Fox after executive John Moody ordered him to change a story to play down statistics showing a lack of social progress among blacks. (Moody says the change was journalistically justified — New York, Nov. 11, 1997.) According to the Columbia Journalism Review (March 4, 1998), "several" former Fox employees "complained of "management sticking their fingers' in the writing and editing of stories to cook the facts to make a story more palatable to right-of-center tastes." Said one: "I've worked at a lot of news organizations and never found that kind of manipulation."

Jed Duvall, a former veteran ABC reporter who left Fox after a year, told New York (Nov. 17, 1997): "I'll never forget the morning that one producer came up to me, and, rubbing her hands like Uriah Heep, said, "Let's have something on Whitewater today.' That sort of thing doesn't happen at a professional news organization." Indeed, Fox's signature political news show, Special Report with Brit Hume, was originally created as a daily one-hour update devoted to the 1998 Clinton sex scandal.

The media are not disposed toward Republican presidents — any Republican president — and really never have been.
—Brit Hume, Fox News Channel managing editor (Washington Post, Sept. 25, 2000)

Fox is sometimes forced to juggle two identities — Republican and conservative — that are not always the same. A recent example was the standoff over the downed American spy plane in China. Following appearances on Special Report by conservatives William Kristol (April 9, 2001) and Fred Barnes (April 11, 2001), who were critical of Bush for his unexpectedly conciliatory handling of the crisis, Fox (April 13, 2001) was quick to run a slew of letters from outraged Republican viewers accusing the pundits of trying to "undermine a president of their own party." They "never cut him a bit of slack," one viewer wrote. "Who needs Dan Rather when you have Mr. Kristol to bring down our president?"

Fox's sensitivity to Republican complaints came into the open during the 2000 presidential campaign when Tony Snow was the target of a barrage of criticism from posters to the far-right Web site FreeRepublic.com, who accused him of being too negative about the Bush campaign in his columns and on Fox News Channel.

Snow responded to the Freepers, as the site's conservative contributors call themselves, with a long and detailed apologia, highlighting every pro-Bush aspect of his work in excruciating detail. Discussing his syndicated conservative column, he wrote: "I have found over the years that the best way to be friendly to any politician is to be honest. Having said that, I've hardly been hostile to Bush in recent columns. Yes, I have criticized him this year, but no serious reader could possibly believe Gore has gotten the best of the exchange."

In response to a writer who was irate at a video clip showing a Bush gaffe, Snow replied: "Yes, we carried a Bush gaffe at the end. It was funny, not damaging to the candidate."

And perhaps most tellingly, he described the strategy he had recently used on Fox News Sunday (Sept. 10, 2000) to interview a pair of guests about the presidential campaign — the first an aide to Bill Clinton, the second the Republican governor of Pennsylvania:

"We opened with a tough interview of John Podesta, taking Clinton to task for a series of things (including hate crimes legislation) and asking some tough questions about Gore's energy and health-care policies.

"Tom Ridge came next. We tried to get him to fire away at Clinton/Gore corruption. He wouldn't do it. We tried to get him to urge a more openly conservative campaign by Bush. He wouldn't do it. If you have complaints about such matters, I suggest you write the Bush campaign, not Fox News Channel."

In other words, Snow admits he was trying to put the Democratic guest on the defensive about Clinton — while goading the Republican into playing offense against Clinton. (The episode is a perfect example of Fox's notion of balance: attacking Democrats and liberals on substance while challenging Republicans and conservatives only on tactics.) In closing the memo, Snow wrote, "Parting thoughts: I made fun of the United Nations." He concluded, "I have a hard time finding anything in that lineup that Freepers would consider treasonous."

Fair and balanced, as always.
—Fox News slogan

Some have suggested that Fox's conservative point of view and its Republican leanings render the network inherently unworthy as a news outlet. FAIR believes that view is misguided. The United States is unusual, perhaps even unique, in having a journalistic culture so fiercely wedded to the elusive notion of "objective" news (an idea of relatively recent historical vintage even in the U.S.). In Great Britain, papers like the conservative Times of London and the left-leaning Guardian deliver consistently excellent coverage while making no secret of their respective points of view. There's nothing keeping American journalists from doing the same.

If anything, it is partly the disingenuous claim to objectivity that is corroding the integrity of the news business. American journalists claim to represent all political views with an open mind, yet in practice a narrow bipartisan centrism excludes dissenting points of view: No major newspaper editorial page opposed NAFTA; virtually all endorsed U.S. air strikes on Iraq; and single-payer health care proposals found almost no backers among them.

With the ascendance of Fox News Channel, we now have a national conservative TV network in addition to the established centrist outlets. But like the mainstream networks, Fox refuses to admit its political point of view. The result is a skewed center-to-right media spectrum made worse by the refusal to acknowledge any tilt at all.

Fox could potentially represent a valuable contribution to the journalistic mix if it admitted it had a conservative point of view, if it beefed up its hard news and investigative coverage (and cut back on the tabloid sensationalism) and if there were an openly left-leaning TV news channel capable of balancing both Fox's conservatism and CNN's centrism.

None of these three things appears likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

This article originally appeared in Extra! The Magazine of FAIR — The Media Watch Group.

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