For more than half a century American TV was dominated by three networks – ABC, NBC, and CBS – all doing pretty much the same programming in competition with each other. Then along came cable. CNN, founded in 1980, offered round-the-clock news. Then followed Fox, in 1986, with a distinctly conservative take. And a decade later, from the liberal end, MSNBC.
It’s Fox that has proved most controversial, run for decades by its flamboyant chief Roger Ailes, and giving powerful support to Donald Trump, both as a candidate, and, especially, as President.
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It’s a year since Fox News dropped its slogan “Fair and Balanced.” Not because they wanted to confess to being unfair and unbalanced, but as part of a re-branding effort to ditch every memory of Roger Ailes. Ailes, long-time revered founder and, more recently, disavowed sexual predator. It had been his idea so it had to go.
What do these terms mean though, when applied to a private sector cable news company? It’s a free country, and specifically a free speech country. While Britain’s BBC has a legal obligation, backed by taxpayer funding, to be fair and balanced (though not everyone thinks it is), American private sector broadcasters can do pretty much what they like.
But does Fox over-step the mark? Night after night its suave, high-profile, commentators like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham assault the liberal elites and rally socially conservative opinion. Is it basically propaganda? That’s the claim of more than one recent book. But it’s not so simple.
The site Allsides.com, which conducts blind trials of bias in reporting, notes that “Despite all of the controversy and criticism, commentators, news anchors, and reporters at Fox News Channel have responded that news reporting and political commentary operate independently of each other, and have denied any bias in news reporting.” For example, Shepard Smith, chief news anchor, is known for his intensely critical questioning of conservatives.
Plainly to their surprise, Allsides’ own research suggests a more nuanced view of Fox. On three separate occasions they polled their network with anonymous headlines, and the response each time was that while Fox “leaned right”, Allsides’ earlier designation of the network as “far right” was simply wrong. In response, they decided that Fox, like MSNBC and CNN, needed two separate categories for assessment: opinion and news. In other words, on balance, Fox was no longer “far right” but merely leaning there.
Another approach is to ask how credible Americans find Fox versus other, more ‘mainstream’, media. According to research collected by the website Statista, Fox’s credibility profile is almost identical with that of ABC news.
Of course, private networks like CNN and MSNBC – and Fox – are free to play politics as they choose. The closest thing America has to a neutral BBC style broadcaster is NPR (National Public Radio) and PBS (the Public Broadcasting System, its TV equivalent) – funding is part public, part private, and its mission intended to be non-partisan.
Much like UK conservatives criticise a perceived left-wing bias at the BBC, conservatives in America have consistently claimed that their public outlets are liberal-biased. As a result President Trump recently pushed to eliminate the funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting altogether – the body that oversees both NPR and PBS.
I have some sympathy with this view. I have lived in the States for 28 years and have often enjoyed listening to NPR (which in British terms is remarkably similar to Radio 4). But when a politically controversial topic is under discussion, whether abortion or guns or immigration or welfare, I’ve never once heard ‘conservative’ views taken seriously. There are occasional conservative guests, which isn’t the same thing at all.
Which, of course, may help explain why Fox News is so popular (it is the most watched basic cable network). When thoughtful conservatives are pressed on why Fox leans right, they will answer something like this:
“Most reporters and editors are liberal… When you are liberal, and everyone else around you is as well, it is easy to fall into groupthink on what stories are important, what sources are legitimate and what the narrative of the day will be.”
Conservatives need their own NPR, which has a centre of gravity in conservative bias. In other words, Fox.
Except, that isn’t actually a quote from a conservative.
It’s from the former CEO of NPR, Ken Stern – who decided to explore conservative America after he stepped down. His exploration gave him some fresh perspective, not least the realisation that the media was, too often, doing a bad job of reflecting the lives of ordinary Americans. Writing about his travels in flyover America be notes:
“To a man (and sometimes a woman), they looked at media and saw stories that did not reflect the world that they knew or the fears that they had.”
Stern’s admission that the organisation most intended to be ‘neutral’ is anything but helps explain the vigour with which American conservatives have flocked to Fox. And Fox’s claim to be at least as “fair and balanced” as NPR. It is speaking to – and for – swathes of Americans who feel that ‘mainstream’ outlets ignore, or worse disdain, them.
In fact, in an essay for Time, Sally Kohn, a gay left-wing writer and former Fox commentator, neatly captures the problem:
“During my time at the network I came to realize how condescending I’d been in my views about not only the people who worked at Fox News but the people watching at home. And condescension is just a snooty form of prejudice; we are only condescending to those we feel are inherently beneath us.”
This all illustrates the filter bubble at the heart of American culture. Far more than European societies, the culture of the United States has long been divided in fundamental ways.
One reason is simply the size and diversity of the nation – Europeans often forget that the US is around the same size as the whole of the EU.
Another is the fact that it has fewer unifiers than European nations, from history to shared national media. And there’s no question that in recent years a series of issues, from abortion to gay marriage to immigration, have been ‘weaponised’ turned by both sides into red lines in national life.
What may, however, distinguish Fox from generally-liberal NPR and very-opiniated MSNBC is the fact that Fox is, slyly, called Fox News. The implication, of course, is that whether programming is presented as ‘news’ or ‘opinion’, it’s basically all News.
And perhaps that is the real problem. Americans have a range of commercial broadcasters that cater for their convictions, left and (thanks to Fox) right, but they may find it hard to distinguish fact from opinion.
I’ve been watching Fox all evening. As I write, it is the Shannon Bream show. It is plainly anchored on the Right, though less oppressively than Laura Ingraham’s an hour earlier – which was all border agents telling us how wonderful they are, just like Trump’s immigration policies.
Yet it’s hard to conclude that Fox is simply ‘propaganda’. Their ‘news’ is generally recognised as news, though they may be selective in what they report. And their ‘opinion’ may be hard-hitting, but at least it takes cognisance of views that are ill represented elsewhere.
And unlike NPR, they don’t pretend to be neutral.
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