Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Toto Tugs the Curtain

Michael Tomasky at The Guardian pokes holes in the humbuggery that is Fox News.

Britons may be familiar with Rupert Murdoch, but I don’t think the UK has a beast quite like the American Fox News Channel. Celebrating its 11th year on the air, Fox is a breathtaking institution. It is a lock, stock and barrel servant of the Republican party, devoted first and foremost to electing Republicans and defeating Democrats; it’s even run by a man, Roger Ailes, who helped elect Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior to the presidency. And yet, because it minimally adheres to certain superficial conventions, it can masquerade as a “news” outfit and enjoy all the rights that accrue to that.


And so, for a decade and more, Fox has got away with an amazing thing: it can call itself a “straight” news channel even while everyone knows it’s not. It’s a great little racket. Every so often, a Toto comes along and tugs at the curtain – earlier this year, for instance, the Democratic presidential aspirants agreed that they would not participate in any debates hosted by Fox because there was no point in getting up there and being asked questions merely for the purpose of providing footage that the eventual Republican nominee could use against them. But these moments have been rare.

Last week brought an event with the potential to change all that. Judith Regan, a former Fox host perhaps best known in the UK as the, um, brains behind the OJ Simpson If I Did It mediapalooza, has sued her former employer for wrongful dismissal.


Let’s linger over that for a moment. Two executives of a major news organisation may have told a citizen to lie to federal investigators to protect a presidential candidate. It’s a stunning charge. If proven someday, Fox will no longer be able to hide behind the fiction that it’s a neutral news outfit.

In the meantime, Democrats should ratchet up their refusal to pretend that Fox bears any relationship to news. I’ve always felt they should just boycott the network en bloc. One can be pretty confident that if the situation were reversed – imagine a cable channel that was known as a Democratic house organ and run by, say, Bill Clinton adviser James Carville – Republicans would have done something like that long ago. I asked Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic speaker, about this last Friday, and she just replied wanly: “I think we have to reach out to all the viewers out there.”

I guess I didn’t really expect her to say more on the record. But if the day ever comes that Fox is no longer allowed to have it both ways, Democrats won’t have to keep playing along with the rabbit-hole fiction that Fox is a genuine news-gathering operation.

If they did, you can be sure that Fox will come up with some “balanced” panel discussion and include some token liberals who will serve as window dressing, much as the New York Nationals serve as the opposing team at a Harlem Globetrotters “game,” all pondering why the Democrats don’t want to play along.

As for a Democratic version of Fox, apparently some think that CNN is the DNC house organ. Oh, right; like Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs are shining examples of liberalism. Howard Kurtz sucks up to the trivial and the celebrity pundits like a goopy teenager reading Tiger Beat, and if Wolf Blitzer and his lame performance at the debate in Las Vegas was supposed to be supportive of the Democrats, the party has got to find a smarter hack to plant at the network.

Frankly, I don’t know why Fox doesn’t just come right out and brag about being the conservative network. It’s not like it would startle anyone, and all this sham about “fair and balanced” just makes it that much more phony: when you have to tell someone you’re unbiased, it begs the question. The only reason that I can think of that Fox doesn’t own up to it is because they couldn’t play the victim when people accuse them of being exactly what they are.