A few words on what Fox News is.
The question has, of course, been debated forever. Fox says it is, as the name would suggest, a news network. Its critics say it is actually the propaganda arm of the Republican Party and that its highest loyalty is not to accuracy, fairness or other journalistic values but to the furtherance of the party line. Not that any sentient life form should need the help, but events have recently arranged themselves such as to make painfully obvious which view is truth and which is tripe.
As it happens, one of the biggest news stories of the past few weeks has been the phone hacking scandal that now ensnares media baron Rupert Murdoch. For those who somehow missed it, it involves revelations that reporters at Murdoch’s News of the World British tabloid routinely paid police sources for information and hacked into people’s cell phones, including that of a murdered 13-year-old girl.
That’s led to the shutdown of the 168-year-old newspaper, a spate of resignations and arrests, hearings in Parliament, rumored hearings in Congress and criminal investigations here and in the UK. This story is a gift from the news gods, and any news organization worthy of the name would jump on it like a trampoline. Most have. Fox has not.
The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism just surveyed reportage of the story in two time frames: July 6-8 and 11-15. In that period, according to Pew, CNN devoted almost 170 minutes to the story, MSNBC about 145. Fox? About 30. That bears repeating: One of the biggest stories of the summer gets, over the course of six days, a half-hour of attention from Fox “News.”
Now, let us be fair and balanced here. Fox is owned by Murdoch, and the last thing any news organization wants is to be in the awkward position of reporting on itself. To have to air that which might embarrass or damage colleagues or bosses is the definition of a no-win situation, especially since there will always be doubts, from within and without, about your ability to do so fairly. But when professionalism demands, this is what you do.
When CBS News’ report on President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard turned out not to be credible, CBS reported it.
When Jayson Blair hoodwinked and humiliated the New York Times, the New York Times reported it.
When NPR was mortified by a deceptively edited hidden camera sting, NPR reported it.
Fox’s failure to report — and allow viewers to decide — speaks volumes and offers definitive answer to the question of what Fox is.
It is the nation’s leading manufacturer of false outrage and fake fury — War on Christmas! War on Christmas! — the top supplier of bogeymen for those who need to feel terrorized in order to feel alive.
It is America’s No. 1 distributor of misinformation — Hide Nana! The death panels are coming! — a warehouse of conspiracy theories, junk history and dubious “facts” given credit by virtually no one who does not watch Fox.
It is a noisemaker, a box of cacophony from which reason will seldom emerge unscathed. And it is a bovine excreta machine.
But a news organization? No. That is a designation you have to earn.
Step 1: Report the news.
— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. firstname.lastname@example.org