Recently, Rolling Stone did a piece about Fox News: “The network, at its core, is a giant soundstage created to mimic the look and feel of a news operation, cleverly camouflaging political propaganda as independent journalism.” Yet many FNC viewers see other networks as political propaganda camouflaged as independent journalism. I see FNC as a parody of the concept of independent journalism. Its conservative bias is less subtle than other networks’ left leanings, but like them it presents an authoritative, objective surface. The difference is that other networks pretend not to be biased, and FNC just pretends to pretend.
I don’t think people should go to Fox seeking objective truth, but I don’t think they should go to other stations for that purpose, either. A lot of effort went into creating the trappings of independent journalism, which then gave the political biases of independent journalists great authority. That authority has waned in recent decades, and Fox News represents the great triumph of an alternative narrow-mindedness and dogmatism. RS doesn’t criticize Fox against a standard of individual pursuit of truth; it treats news consumers as passive, which means their only hope is to be fed the “objective truth” by a non-Fox network. RS criticizes Fox against a standard of “objective journalism” that really just conceals left-leaning biases.
For instance, RS claims “[Fox News] helped create the Tea Party, transforming it from the butt of late-night jokes into a nationwide insurgency capable of electing U.S. senators.” For Rolling Stone, the Tea Party ought to be a joke; an “objective” news organization would treat them as one.
It’s one thing to say that FNC observed the Tea Party and decided that it was good business, or politics, to hitch its wagon to the movement, to make its broadcasting consistent with the developing anti-establishment mood. But is there really nothing that’s happened in the last few years that would cause people to become anti-establishment? Is there nothing that government has done that violates at least some people’s long-held assumptions about what government ought to do? RS doesn’t even consider these possibilities.
I agree that conservative propaganda exists, but think that like liberal propaganda, it responds and attempts to shape attitudes people already have; it doesn’t create these attitudes out of nowhere. RS actually acknowledges this at one point, contradicting the main theme of the article: “Ailes knows exactly who is watching Fox News each day, and he is adept at playing to their darkest fears in the age of Obama,” the Stone intones before informing us that 84 percent of Hannity’s viewers believe that government does too much (who could have guessed?) “’He’s got a niche audience and he’s programmed to it beautifully,’ says a former News Corp. colleague. ‘He feeds them exactly what they want to hear.’”
So when RS wants to use a poll as evidence of FNC giving people what they already want to hear, they do this. But when they want to use a different poll as evidence that FNC causes people to believe things, they do this: “The result of this concerted campaign of disinformation is a viewership that knows almost nothing about what’s going on in the world. According to recent polls, Fox News viewers are the most misinformed of all news consumers. are 12 percentage points more likely to believe the stimulus package caused job losses, 17 points more likely to believe Muslims want to establish Shariah law in America, 30 points more likely to say that scientists dispute global warming, and 31 points more likely to doubt President Obama’s citizenship.”
Apart from the way RS interprets similar polls differently throughout the same piece depending on what story they want to tell, there are a number of problems with this. To begin with, correlation is not causation. People who are more likely to be open to birtherism are surely more likely to watch FNC, but that doesn’t mean the network itself promotes birtherism. I haven’t seen it doing so, and you’d think RS would have mentioned it if that were the case.
Secondly, the article only cites polls of conservative “misinformation.” If you’re trying to see what audience is most misinformed, wouldn’t you poll liberal and conservative false beliefs?
Finally, who’s to say someone thinking the stimulus caused job losses is misinformed? Agreeing with progressives doesn’t mean you have a well-formed reason for your opinion, and disagreeing with them doesn’t mean you have a poorly-informed opinion.
Another indication of RS’s view of objectivity comes in their treatment of the Willie Horton ad- Roger Ailes’ “dirtiest move.” For RS, the ad is an example of Ailes using television “to skew public perception.” Again, Rolling Stone has an idea of what public perception ought to be. But Willie Horton, objectively speaking, did what he did. Nobody disputes this. Rather, Rolling Stone doesn’t think we should have a certain opinion about this.
For RS, it was “a precursor to the modern Tea Party” when Ailes “conspired with the tobacco companies to unleash angry phone calls on Congress- cold-calling smokers and patching them through to the switchboards on Capitol Hill”; RS presents widely accepted engagement in the political process, such as protesting and calling one’s Congressman, as a sinister conspiracy when people do it for purposes they do not approve of. And, again, it assumes that grass roots activism, at least conservative grass roots activism, is inauthentic and cannot stem from people’s “real” beliefs and interests.
Rupert Murdoch, we learn from RS, attempted in his pre-Fox News days to create “a 60 Minutes-style program that, under the guise of straight news, would feature a weekly attack-and-destroy piece targeting a liberal politician or social program.” But 60 Minutes itself is known for going on the attack against its subjects, and few people seem to think this is sinister. When they do it, it’s “hard-hitting journalism.”