One night last week I turned on Hardball just as John Sununu was saying, “Let me make one point, and I hope I can make it in a nonpartisan way.” Hasn’t he heard? The big lesson of this election is that objectivity is dead. As Jack Shafer recently wrote in Slate, journalists start with a hypothesis and either find the evidence to support it—or don’t. We’re all biased! In post-election days, everyone in the media world seemed to be slipping out of neutral mode.
Everyone, that is, except Rupert Murdoch, who was busy defending Fox News Channel against charges of bias. Fox calls itself “fair and balanced,” but on the night of November 7, Fox election man John Ellis talked on the phone with cousins Jeb and Dubya Bush, then called Florida for Dubya around 2 a.m. A week later, Ellis’s actions were reported in The New Yorker, whereupon he was accused of a conflict of interest and releasing confidential polling data.
Ellis denied doing anything unethical, but the perception of bias touched a raw nerve at Fox. On his popular talk show, Bill O’Reilly bitched that Ellis had damaged his own credibility, while Murdoch stood fast, telling shareholders that there was “absolutely no partisanship” at Fox News. Apparently, Murdoch revels in bias at the New York Post—it’s a tabloid, after all—but recognizes that broadcasters must pay lip service to old-fashioned notions of fairness.
This raises a larger question: If bias is inevitable, what’s to stop the reporters and businesses who control the airwaves from slanting the news to serve their mutual self-interest? “The election coverage is a microcosm of everything wrong with American journalists,” says Brian Karem, a former investigative reporter for Fox TV affiliate WDAF in Kansas City and, more recently, author of Spin Control. “Instead of being disinterested observers, we’re right there in the thick of it with those in power. It’s all one big, happy club.”
Karem quit WDAF in 1998, after the station “watered down” his exposé on Dursban, a pesticide made by the Dow Chemical Company. Based on his experience, Karem believes Fox is partial to big business. “It’s incredible that they think of themselves as a news organization,” he says. “They slant the news and they do it their way. Rupert’s never been objective about anything in his life. The only thing he respects is the almighty dollar sign.”
Serving the public interest used to be a broadcaster’s sacred mission. The principle was still kicking around in 1996, when Congress made room on the broadcast spectrum for digital TV, in exchange for a promise that broadcasters would sacrifice a commercial opportunity now and then. But Fox broke that promise last month when it decided to run the premiere of Dark Angel instead of the first presidential debate.
If public interest is so passé, why is Murdoch still slinking around under the veil of neutrality? Probably because he’s a shrewd man who will do what it takes to ward off unwanted regulation. His parent company, News Corp., is still based in Australia. To avoid being accused of foreign ownership of U.S. broadcast companies, he became a U.S. citizen. When critics said he shouldn’t own a TV station and a newspaper in the same city, he argued that saving the New York Post from bankruptcy was a public service. And he has argued that creating a news channel helps fulfill his public service obligation to the FCC.
But another motive was at work when Murdoch launched The Weekly Standard in 1995. “Rupert is a conservative, and he thinks conservatism must prevail in America,” explained then deputy editor John Podhoretz. No doubt it was conservatism that inspired Murdoch’s book company to offer Newt Gingrich a $4.5 million advance, and conservatism that inspired him to begin offering $10,000 awards to writers in the tradition of the late Eric Breindel, who Murdoch has called “a courageous conservative voice at a time when it was distinctly unfashionable.”
To be sure, Murdoch’s broadcast business is a huge success, here and abroad. Fox Television has grown from six TV stations in 1986 to 22 this year. Fox News Channel, aimed at the cable market, is turning a profit after just four years, and ratings are off the charts.
But you can hardly say FNC is neutral. The cable channel was founded by Roger Ailes, a veteran of many Republican presidential campaigns. Insisting that his contributors be “fair and balanced,” Ailes scored by hiring the well-regarded Brit Hume and Bill O’Reilly and by creating a Crossfire-style talk show for (younger) conservative Sean Hannity and (older) liberal Alan Colmes.
On any given day, Fox News trots out libs like Geraldine Ferraro and Eleanor Clift, but everyone knows they are tokens in a conservative regime. A review of bios on the Fox News Web site reveals a preponderance of conservative pundits, including a former assistant to Richard Nixon (Monica Crowley), an activist in the Independent Women’s Forum (Amy Holmes), a former op-ed editor at The Wall Street Journal (David Asman), at least two former Reagan and Bush White House staffers (Jim Pinkerton and Tony Snow), the executive editor of The Weekly Standard (Fred Barnes), and that trifecta of extreme rhetoricians, John Podhoretz, Dick Morris, and John Fund. As Eric Boehlert wrote in Salon last week, “Who needs a vast right-wing conspiracy when you’ve got a vast right-wing network?”
“Every news journalist has a bias,” counters a Fox spokesperson. “The trick is not to allow that bias to creep into what’s being presented on the screen.”
To protect his biased empire, Murdoch has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars wooing influential members of Congress, including Louisiana Republican Billy Tauzin, who is chairman of the House subcommittee on communications. Some people were surprised last week when Tauzin, a champion of deregulation, began calling for an investigation of election coverage. But Tauzin has cleverly turned the charge against Fox on its head, accusing the other networks of showing a liberal bias when they called Florida for Al Gore.
Contemplating the state of news today, ex-Fox reporter Brian Karem doesn’t pretend to be objective. “Look under a rock,” he says, “and you will see the satanic face of Rupert Murdoch grinning like a Cheshire cat. Murdoch doesn’t know what ethical journalism is. He’s been single-handedly responsible for the lowering of standards and the obscuring of news and entertainment on TV. Murdoch doesn’t know the strong, rich traditions of a free press in this country. He is anathema to the democratic process. I look forward to the day his corporate empire is broken up and sold on the auction block like so many used cars.”
Next week: A closer look at Karem and a team of investigative journalists who feel that Fox edited their stories in a biased fashion. Fox vigorously denies their allegations.