Thursday, September 29, 2016

After the Fact IV: The Fallacy of “Fair and Balanced”

A seemingly simple phrase and a great nation cast into a toxic void

Fox News always seems to be in the news. The latest revelation is that the network’s vice president of public-opinion research, Dana Blanton, has given Sean Hannity a very public smackdown for using bullshit polls to claim a Republican victory in the Sept. 26 Presidential Debate. This only weeks after the polling-related on-air dust-up between Fox personalities Dana Perino and Mafioso impersonator Eric Bolling, and of course, the even more recent fall from grace of the network’s former czar, the 76-year-old fat man Roger Ailes.

The Fall of the Fat Man
We all know now that Ailes is in fact a notorious perp, having got himself up there high and mighty enough to think he could command his attractive, female, (invariably blonde) on-air talent to (I can only assume put blinders on and) provide him with sexual favors. Fox paid $20 million to one accuser, Gretchen Carlson, and issued a formal public apology. And now coincidentally or as a result, who knows and who cares, one popular anchor has jumped ship, a slew of others who had voiced support for Ailes are falling over each other to retract, and an exposé in New York Magazine has led to a possible lawsuit by Media Matters, a web outlet that Bill O’Reilly likes to call a “hate site,” but is really just one of the few that consistently call out the vitriolic and corrosive combination of half-truth and single-data-point opinion with which Fox pollutes the airwaves.

That’s a mouthful, for sure, and while it tickles to imagine Ann Coulter sitting in the corner of a Fox green room muttering, “Hey, what about me?”, none of this is really what I want to talk about. Why? Because we’ve seen this movie before. Fox News is just one of many arch-conservative bunkhouses constructed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation army, and we saw what happened when that army’s headquarters in the U.K. added to its already considerable rap sheet a sweeping set of phone hacking convictions that spanned more than a decade. Yes, that would be basically nothing. So we all know Fox will come out of this just dandy and will continue printing money for Murdoch and his boys, using the sweat and tears of working people the world over to grease the presses as it always has.

Misdirection and Menace

What I want to talk about instead is the Fox News tagline, “Fair and Balanced,” and the rhetorical misdirection and singular menace embedded within this phrase that, from the beginning, has been wielded by Ailes and Fox to make the network appear wholesome and professional when it is in fact doing the devil’s work. That work, and the extreme level of right-wing bias and supremely unfair and unbalanced Fox “reporting” is well-documented and doesn’t need rehashing. Just saunter on over to Wikipedia to find, in some level of detail, research studies and reports that empirically prove Fox's bias, internal memos and e-mail that show how that bias is driven down from executive desks to the on-air “correspondents,” and examples of deceptive photo and video manipulation by Fox producers.

Some of us haven’t forgotten how the covers were lifted off “Fair and Balanced” by Al Franken (now a U.S. Senator) in his 2003 book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, and Robert Greenwald in the 2004 Brave New Films documentary “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.” (The former, incidentally, led to a massive blunder by Fox, who decided to take on the venerable Franken in a copyright infringement suit that, despite the fact that Fox has successfully copyrighted “Fair and Balanced,” didn’t make it past the initial injunction. After the injunction to force the publisher to pull the book from circulation was summarily dismissed by U.S. District Court judge Denny Chin, Fox withdrew the suit. Chin called the injunction request "wholly without merit, both factually and legally," and later commented, "Of course, it is ironic that a media company that should be fighting for the First Amendment is trying to undermine it." At the end of the day, all the suit did was accelerate the release of Franken’s book and drive its sales through the roof.)

Origins of Historic Calamity

So the deceit inherent in “Fair and Balanced” is clear and well-documented, but menace? Yes, that’s a pretty strong word, but I think it applies, and here’s why. Fox entered the stage at a point in our history when 24-hour news networks were really getting down to the business of destroying the 4th estate. In the only profit-making industry that is guaranteed a right to exist by the U.S. Constitution, the delicate balance between truth-telling and money-making that had been painstakingly maintained for decades was immediately imperiled by 24-hour news. For me, the moment this became abundantly clear was the morning of the 9/11 attacks. I had just deplaned in Amsterdam that morning after a quick flight from Oslo and watched the coverage of the attacks on CNN in what was, in Holland, the early afternoon. This may be a controversial thing to say given the raw emotions that still surround the attacks, but I was appalled by CNN’s determination to deliver non-stop coverage despite the fact that they had absolutely no real, verifiable information to report. Here was Bernard Shaw standing before a camera on the roof of an adjacent building, spewing an endless string of wild speculation—the very thing we had been trained in journalism school not to do.

Onto this unmoored vessel of American broadcast journalism came Fox News, and thanks to the toxic combination of the 24-hour news format and Rupert Murdoch’s well-honed skill at finding embittered audiences—typically racists, misogynists, and xenophobes—and giving them what they want—something his tabloids throughout the Commonwealth had been doing for many years—that delicate balance between truth and profit is now a thing of the increasingly distant past. Fox has made no secret of the ratings war domination it has enjoyed pretty much since its inception, and its competitors have taken notice. As a result, profit-making is now king in broadcast journalism to such a degree that only the most indoctrinated and ambitious early-in-career practitioner can bring him- or herself to call it journalism at all. Whether it be the lies on Fox, the shoutfests on MSNBC, the comical virtual reality of CNN, or the C-suite celebrities on CNBC, broadcast news teams now seek to entertain us rather than inform or educate us, responding not to Fox’s lies, but instead to its unmatched ability to make money. So, Fox hasn’t destroyed the 4th estate by telling lies; it has done so by making lots of money doing it, and the tagline “Fair and Balanced” was the match to the fuel.

Dissecting “Fair and Balanced”

Breaking it down, the term fair is the mom-and-apple-pie word in the phrase: such an inarguable virtue—and, one would think, a foregone conclusion in news reporting—that even the least cynical among us automatically questions the fairness of anyone who feels the need to call themselves “fair” (just as we question a presidential candidate who, after bloviating his way through a childlike tantrum on a debate stage, declares that he has a “winning temperament”).

That said, it’s the second term, balanced, that does the real damage. It asserts that balance is in itself a virtue, expressed in Fox’s musical tagline as a parallel virtue to fairness, and wielded by Fox as a superior virtue to truth. And that’s where things get very nasty because the fact of the matter is, in the world of ideas, balance is not a virtue at all. A moment’s consideration transports us back to the 1930s and poses the question, what if Adolf Hitler’s ideas had never gotten access to the public consciousness of post–World War I Germany? A million eventualities would undoubtedly have flown forth in a Hitler-free Europe, and some of them might not have been good, but sparing humanity from the most senseless and brutal genocide in its long history most certainly would have counterbalanced the trains not running on time. And unfortunately, we don’t need to go back 70 or 50 or 30 years to find truly evil, horrible ideas. We’ve got plenty of them with us right here and now (many of them expressed with that aforementioned “winning temperament”).

The End of Integrity

I entered journalism school in 1979, a year before CNN introduced the 24-hour news format. In retrospect and without exhaustive study, it feels now like a pinnacle of journalistic integrity had been reached in those days, and there was nowhere to go but down. It had been just 11 years since Walter Cronkite had signed off of CBS News with a scathing, honest commentary on the Vietnam War, and just a few years since Woodward and Bernstein (and, perhaps more importantly, Ben Bradlee) had blown the covers off the Watergate scandal. In those days, we confidently accepted the idea that the news was somehow organically self-correcting: “The media is just a reflection of society,” we said. “The truth will rise.” And while we debated those ideas, and there were detractors, most of us rested assured that ours was a society that would always provide avenues to the truth for those who sought them, and that, as Martin Luther King said, “the arc of history bends towards justice.”

What we did not anticipate, though, was the toxic cloud of technology-fueled greed and political polarization that would descend on the country after the election of Ronald Reagan. We did not anticipate a world where an evil puppet master like Roger Ailes could enjoy impunity in the media landscape, and we certainly did not realize the depth of hatred that existed for the liberal ideas that had carried the day since the Great Depression. And we did not anticipate “Fair and Balanced,” a phrase that was not so much a tagline for a news channel as it was a commentary on the world that had existed before: The world of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite and Woodward and Bernstein, it said, was unfair and unbalanced, and needed to be corrected. And while I have no doubt Murdoch and Ailes are, in fact, people with no ideas, no solutions, no understanding, even, of the problems that face us, and that all of what they have done has been done in service to their own greed and that of their cohort in business and politics, we see now that their mantle has been seized by racist, misogynist, xenophobic patrons in a way that even they didn’t anticipate. And worse, now that their competitors in the 24-hour news game have joined Fox in its dirty work, putting profit over the people and the democracy they serve, American broadcast journalism has been utterly destroyed. In its place we now have the throbbing of a toxic void where the only way the truth can get through is to be rammed through on the decibels of a shrill voice, which, of course, reduces truth to an often inaudible wavelength in the constant din of noise.

You Can’t Smack What You Can’t See

I have no solutions for this, but I’m not without hope, because the fact is, the cockroaches are out in the open now, and while cockroaches rarely cede to a single swat, you can’t smack what you can’t see. With any luck, those in the political class who have been favored by Fox’s propaganda, those who have, in this strange election year, been forced to show their true cards, will fall prey to an electorate that will see the light and find its better angels. The fall of Roger Ailes and the coming rise of Barack Obama the writer, philanthropist, and social commentator—a period in his life and ours that could be even more impactful and beneficial to the republic than his remarkable eight years as our president have been—bolster my hope that the 4th estate will be transformed again, this time for the better.