Fox News Channel is twisting American politics in an unprecedented way, and too many members of the press still aren't getting it.
The White House has exposed Fox News for what it is: not a news organization, but a partisan political entity that is waging a war aimed at destroying the Obama administration and its progressive agenda. Fox's Glenn Beck said so himself last Friday, predicting that he would soon "take the administration down."
Despite such unambiguous proclamations and the truths about Fox that they reveal, many mainstream reporters and commentators, and even some progressive ones, have spent their time effectively circling the wagons around Fox by focusing their attention not on the network, but on the Administration's comments about it. The entire matter has largely been treated as a political game -- should the White House have so bluntly criticized the press, or will the tactic backfire?
"The Obama administration’s war on Fox News is dumb on multiple levels," wrote Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post. "The Obama administration really needs to get over itself," added John Nichols of The Nation. "[T]he motivations of the White House are clear," wrote Politico's Josh Gerstein and Mike Allen. "Fire up a liberal base disillusioned with Obama by attacking the hated Fox. Try to keep a critical news outlet off-balance." That same article quoted Project for Excellence in Journalism director Tom Rosenstiel: “You should beware of politicians playing press critic."
All of this completely misses the point. The issue is not whether it was a good idea politically for the White House to say that the emperor has no clothes. The issue is that the emperor actually has no clothes. In other words, the administration's comments about Fox News aren't the story. Fox News is the story.
And yet, during a recent press conference, ABC's Jake Tapper asked Robert Gibbs how Fox News -- "one of our sister organizations," as he put it -- is different from any other network. His question indicates the pervasive unwillingness among members of the media to officially kick Fox News to the curb of the press club. By legitimizing Fox News as a news organization, reporters and commentators are enabling the network to continue conducting a massive conservative political campaign under the guise of journalism. In the process, they are permitting Fox News to dominate the national discussion by spreading smears and lies -- smears and lies that become conventional wisdom. They are also defending an organization that has nothing but contempt for journalistic standards -- hence undermining their own profession and the public interest at the same time.
Criticizing Fox News has nothing to do with criticizing the press. Fox News is not a news organization. It is the de facto leader of the GOP, and it is long past time that it was treated as such by our nation's media.
The evidence supporting such a reality is overwhelming. To begin with, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes has described his station's confrontation with the Obama administration as "the Alamo." Fox News senior vice president Bill Shine said Fox was "the voice of opposition." In other words, the entire operation has an explicit political agenda, not just a few hosts. There is no separation between Fox News’ "opinion" programming and its "news" programs. Bret Baier's Special Report, the closest show Fox News has to a straight newscast, portrays Obama in a negative light 77 percent of the time, according to a recent study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
But the story goes well beyond the conservative bias Fox News has historically reflected. Like all major political entities, Fox News is now coordinating grassroots (or, more accurately, astroturf) political activities, lobbying for or against legislation, and fundraising for conservative causes. The network called April's protests "Fox News Tea Parties." It encouraged people to attend town halls last summer and then broadcast only the statements of those who opposed Democratic health care proposals. The 9/12 rally in Washington was the work of Beck, who claimed that 1.7 million people showed up (it was actually closer to 70,000). A video soon emerged of one of the station's producers coaching marchers before a live "report" from the scene.
Fox news routinely implores its audience to call Congress and oppose progressive legislation. Fox's Dick Morris and Mike Huckabee have both used Fox News airtime to encourage donations to conservative political action committees.
Again, these are unambiguous campaign activities, not the work of a news organization. It is no wonder that Fox's new website, FoxNation.com, has repeatedly cheered legislative developments it favors as a "Fox Nation Victory!"
Fox News relishes its newfound activism. "The conservative media is winning now," Bill O'Reilly said on September 17. "They're damaging the president of the United States." But the damage Fox News causes isn't just political. Every day, it undermines serious journalism, misleads millions of Americans, and distorts our national discussion on crucial issues. Fox News represents an attack on democracy itself.
Much of the channel’s "reporting" takes the form of obsessive and factually inaccurate efforts to smear progressive organizations and discredit Obama administration officials. To give you a sense of priorities: over a three-year period, shows hosted by Sean Hannity and Beck mentioned ACORN 1,502 times, saying it was a corruption scandal. By contrast, their programs mentioned Halliburton, KBR, Blackwater, Jack Abramoff, and Bob Ney 109 times combined.
Fox is currently conducting a witch hunt against administration members. After Van Jones resigned, Hannity told a crowd, "We got rid of one, and my job starting tomorrow night is to get rid of every other one."
Exposing improper conduct is one thing. Inventing it is another. Fox News breathlessly reported claims that an ACORN employee had murdered her husband without confirming the story. It wasn't true. Similarly, Hannity reported that Department of Education official Kevin Jennings had concealed the "statutory rape" of a high school student. It was soon revealed that the student was 16 at the time (the age of consent), and by his own account had not engaged in sexual activity with his fictitious assailant. Hannity never apologized.
Fake stories like these are what Fox News is built on. Health care reform will create death panels? False. Cass Sunstein believes in mandating that people become organ donors? False. John Holdren advocates for "compulsory abortion and sterilization," as Hannity put it? False. Fox reported them all as fact -- and the list goes on.
Never in American history has a media organization this powerful been so willing to misrepresent reality in order to achieve a political goal. The right-wing press ran a similar campaign targeting Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but for most of that time period, it lacked the national, real-time reach and impact Fox now possessed.
The impact of Fox News’ long campaign of misinformation should concern any citizen. Fox has repeatedly misinformed its viewers on everything from the non-existent connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda to the contents of health care reform legislation. Such misinformation can have serious consequences, and Fox News should be called out for propagating it.
There is nothing wrong with the White House standing up to its most powerful, unprincipled, and self-declared political opponent, one that clearly started this fight. And beyond politics, there certainly isn't anything wrong with exposing an organization that unapologetically harms our democracy by poisoning our national discourse with falsehoods on an hourly basis.
The channel knows what it's up against. "If they repeat this long enough," said Fox News’ Bernie Goldberg on Monday, "and often enough -- that Fox News is not a real news organization, it's an arm of the national Republican Party, it's not to be taken seriously -- if they say that long enough, it might become part of bloodstream of the American culture."
Fox News' own media analyst got the story right, while so many others in the media are still getting it wrong. For once, the channel was actually breaking news, even if it is merely the simple truth.
Follow Eric E. Burns on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mmfa