Fairly Unbalanced

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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.

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