Fox News Is an Oxymoron

“So what do you think of Trump?” my eighty-eight-year-old father-in-law, Arnie, asked.

Internally, I winced. I am under standing orders from my wife, reinforced by kicks to my shin under the table, to never discuss politics with her dad. Then I remembered she wasn’t there. Besides, he asked my son, not me.

“He’s the most unqualified human to ever hold office,” Michael said.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Arnie said with a knowing smile. “His business experience . . .”

“ . . . doesn’t qualify him for public office,” Michael interrupted. “Besides which, he is a shitty businessman who goes through bankruptcies faster than Italy goes through governments.”

“Well, bankruptcy is smart business practice,” Arnie said.

“Grandpa, you sat there and told us over and over in 2008 that we shouldn’t vote for Obama because he didn’t have enough experience in government and now you are defending Trump who has no experience at all. You have got to quit watching Fox News.”

Where had I heard that before? Oh, yeah, Dana Zimbleman’s recent essay “Lazy Arguments: On Right-Wing Media Bashing.” The conversation between my relatives continued for a while, but I thought about Zimbleman’s response to people who tell her to stop watching Fox News. While there are a few good points in the essay, such as the poor quality and lack of introspection among certain left wing news sources, its tone was more like the whiny “snowflake” pieces that conservative media like to make fun of. I really hadn’t planned to respond to it, but here I am.

The problem is not simply her continued dependence on rhetorical devices, it’s also her poorly constructured argument. But I get ahead of myself. The real issue is the news source itself, i.e. television. Studies that date back to the 1960s demonstrate that television is a lousy source of news. First, because of the limited amount of information that can be delivered. One 30 minute news broadcast contains fewer words than the front page of most newspapers. Worse still is TV’s dependence on the visual element. People are more affected by, and therefore remember, the pictures more than the accompanying words. Current studies show that people who watch Fox News or listen to Rush know less about what’s really going on than people who don’t watch TV news at all, and, in spite of their poor performance, they have a higher level of certitude that they are better informed than their peers.

Another major problem with television news is what they don’t show. Cameras have a limited frame that ignores context. Worse still is the fact that limited air time means many important stories get ignored. Added to the mix is the fact that newsrooms have been pushed into making a profit over informing the public for the last several decades. The old saying, “If it bleeds it leads,” now drives story selection. Throw in celebrity news (also demanded by viewers) and the audience learns more about Angelina Jolie’s latest adoption rather than the conditions of war, drought, and famine that led to the child needing a new home in the first place.

Twenty-four hour news channels are the worst. Rather than scouring the world or even the nation for additional stories, Fox, MSNBC, and CNN keep a stable of personalities to trot out and yell their opinions about whatever topic is trending for that particular 24-hour news cycle. Many of these people are self-proclaimed experts who are chosen for visual interest over actual insight. Much of what these news organization label as news is really just verbal WWA matches. In Bill O’Reilly’s long overdue farewell speech, he bragged about having one of the most successful and entertaining news programs in history. If we define success as audience size and network profits then he’s partially right. But his show was never a news show. It was an interview program and soapbox for his opinions. It was his forum to bully people and show how much smarter he was than everybody else. It had more in common with Kabuki Theater than real news. It was heavy on entertainment, but light on facts. To be fair, the actual news portions on Fox, delivered by Shep Smith and Chris Wallace, are actually pretty good. But they make up only a small fraction of the daily broadcast.

Zimbleman’s piece wants to make the argument that Liberals are closed minded and incapable of objective thought: “Liberalism has sadly become a knee jerk ideology.” Yet she ignores the same tendencies in right wing media. Her use of the “Liberals controlled the media for years” trope is straight out of right wing media in general and FNC in particular. This oft-repeated “truth” ignores both facts as well as numerous studies of media biases. Such studies show that while all media is biased, and most journalists have college degrees which tends to put them on the left end of the political spectrum, all media biases are not created equal. From Walter Cronkite to Tom Brokaw, the “lame stream media” has upheld standards of objectivity that includes calling out their brethren (e.g. Dan Rather and Brian Williams) when they get it wrong.

What happens when Hannity, O’Reilly (“I won several Peabody Awards?”), or Limbaugh (“I never called Chelsea Clinton a dog.”) get caught in outright lies? They plead that they are entertainers and shouldn’t be held to the same standards of truth as real journalists. But don’t take my word or the media studies as the truth. Zimbleman’s progressive friends don’t need Media Matters to learn the truth about Fox News (one of her logical fallacies.) They just have to read the testimony of Rupert Murdock or Roger Ailes’ book. They can read what current and former FNC people have to say which is that Fox News has two corporate goals: 1. Make money 2. Push Murdock’s conservative agenda. These goals override all ethical concerns including the sexist corporate culture.

Show me evidence that CBS, NBC, ABC, or CNN have a stated corporate agenda of advancing Liberal causes. Newspapers have editorial boards with self-proclaimed biases but even they fire reporters who lie and newspapers retract stories when they are wrong. O’Reilly couldn’t even make an apology to Congresswoman Waters without laughing so hard his words became meaningless. The biggest problem with Fox is not their level of deception, but that they are so financially successful that other media are copying them. CNN’s leader, Jeff Zucker, is on record as pushing politics as sports in order to attract more viewers. CBS’s Les Moonvees stated that even though he thought Donald Trump was bad for the country, Trump was ratings gold. How is that Liberal bias? The “lame stream media” gave Trump over a billion dollars of free publicity. And most of it was examining his tweets rather than anything of substance. Trump couldn’t have been elected without the mainstream “Liberal” media.

And when will Fox get labeled as mainstream media? They already are the most watched news channel. As noted, other media outlets are either copying them, or in the cases of Alex Jones and Mark Levine, trying to outdo them. Doesn’t that make Fox mainstream news media? Modern television news did not provide the kind of reporting that uncovered Watergate, Iran/Contra, or Operation Fast and Furious. The only television programs doing that kind of reporting anymore are the BBC, Al-Jazeera, and PBS. I can guarantee Zimbleman’s friends and colleagues found other sources of information to turn them away from the mendacity of Fox and company.

It’s not that Zimbleman’s friends are smarter than her or her rocket scientist buddy (false authority). It’s that they understand that the marketing folks driving right wing media (especially FNC) are incredibly well-trained and talented at what they do. Telling someone to stop watching Fox News is like telling someone to stay away from three card Monte dealers on the street. No matter how smart you are, you will get fooled. Exhibit A is Zimbleman’s assertion that female activists were going to throw used tampons at Texas State legislators. That bovine related material was first floated by the legislators to justify trampling on the rights of citizens to protest, and then disseminated by the media (both right and left.)

Need more evidence? How about Rush Limbaugh’s attack on school lunch programs? The Conservative intellectual foundation of his argument was that parents are responsible for feeding their kids. But he knew that wouldn’t convince his audience that it is okay to let kids go hungry just because their parents are alcoholics, drug addicts, or the working poor. So instead he attacked the cost of a lunch. This incident took place on his TV show. Rush dumped out a paper sack that contained a PBJ sandwich, potato chips, an apple, and a carton of milk. He then showed the receipt and claimed the cost of this “nutritious lunch” was 25 cents when prorated. He even bragged that he had bought the materials himself at the store on his lunch hour. Again, don’t take my word for it, look it up on LexisNexis.

Seems innocent enough, right? What if I told you that the actual cost of this lunch was approximately $1000? You’d probably think I’m crazy, but the true cost of any product is not just the material but the labor. And labor is always more expensive. In this case, an hour of Limbaugh’s time was $1000. I know this because that’s what he charged some ditto heads to speak in Pueblo. Lunch ladies don’t make that kind of money. Still, $1.73 per lunch (the price increase that Limbaugh was complaining about) seems like a bargain. How many people were fooled by this stunt?

I commend Zimbleman for looking at other news sources besides so-called Conservative media. I use the term so-called because true Conservatism has been replaced by reactionaries who I think would disgust Reagan, et al. For the record, the only TV news I ever watch is FOX. That’s all my father-in-law ever has on, and the break room TV at work usually has it on as well. The path for truth-seekers involves using both the right and the left side of the road. Unfortunately, by her own admission, she and fellow Conservatives look to FOX for confirmation bias for their views rather than truth. Where is an updated William F. Buckley’s Firing Line when we need it?