The Real Problem with Fox News

A case study

On Thursday night, Fox News anchor Bret Baier was Jon Stewart’s guest on The Daily Show. The two men went back and forth about whether Fox is predominantly conservative opinion programming or straight news, with Baier contending that “viewers can discern between news and opinion,” and Stewart countering by noting that the opinion anchors and conservative columnists such as Charles Krauthammer appear on news shows.

Stewart suggested that Fox’s tendency to mislabel opinion as news is what differentiates the network from other, more traditional news sources. But that’s the least of it. The more important distinction is the conservative slant and essential inaccuracy of much of Fox’s news reporting itself. Stewart conceded Baier’s premise that because Fox has reporters stationed in Middle Eastern hot spots their reporting on world affairs is above reproach. It is not.

Take, for example, this video, also from Thursday, which shows multiple Fox News hosts gleefully announcing that health reform champion Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) wants his home city to seek a waiver from the Affordable Care Act, and that Weiner’s statements prove the law is too cumbersome. In fact, if you watch his comments in full, it is abundantly clear that Weiner is in no way suggesting that the law imposes too many burdens on localities. He simply praises the law’s flexibility and says that if localities can independently fulfill the same objectives of expanded coverage and reduced cost, then they should be alowed to do so.

This episode exposes two core problems with Fox’s supposedly “fair and balanced” news coverage. The first is the simple inaccuracy demonstrated by the blatant misrepresentation of Weiner’s position. The second is the bias of story selection. Why does a congressman from the minority party with no leadership position making a statement at a think thank event on a possible move by a locality warrant multiple news segments? Only because Fox can present it as a victory for conservative ideology. No unbiased observer could possibly have concluded that Weiner’s statements deserved repeated discussion in the midst of three foreign wars, instability throughout the Middle East, a nuclear accident in Japan, high unemployment, and major battles over the federal budget in Washington.

There are real consequences to this kind of biased and misleading entertainment packaged as news: viewers come away believing things that just aren’t true. According to a 2003 study by the University of Maryland, Fox News viewers are more likely than consumers of any other news source to believe demonstrably false statements. Respondents were asked to assess the veracity of claims such as “evidence of weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq” and “Iraq was directly involved in carrying out the attacks of September 11.” Fully 80 percent of Fox News viewers believed at least one of the three such statements they used, compared to only 23 percent of fans of NPR, which Fox constantly attacks for its supposed liberal bias.

Being a network with a lot of, even exclusively, conservative opining is a perfectly valid choice for Fox to make. There is nothing wrong with opinion journalism that openly proclaims itself to be just that. But pretending to do straight reporting while choosing stories and dishonestly presenting nuggets of information in order to advance a political agenda perniciously undermines the work of the entire press and ill serves American democracy.

You can view the interview in full on the Daily Show website.

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Ben Adler is a staff writer for Grist and a contributor to CJR. Tags: , , , , ,