In Europe, I discovered during my many years abroad, governments mostly controlled television. Citizens were fed a steady diet of official information through government-owned or dominated channels.
During those years, I learned to appreciate America's media freedom. When that freedom is under attack, as it frequently is, I've known which side to take.
A few years ago, Newt Gingrich and his band of Republican ideologues opened fire on the Public Broadcasting Service, accusing it of bias and threatening to withdraw public funding from it. In short, they wanted it to be like the European systems I'd known – official voices of the state.
The public outcry was so severe that Gingrich backed down with barely a whimper. A private citizen now, he calls his attack on PBS a mistake.
In 1996, Fox News was invented by an expatriate news mogul named Rupert Murdoch. I'd seen what Murdoch did to the British newspapers he bought, moving them somewhere to the right of the queen, and saw what he did to The New York Post, which became a staunch Gingrich supporter.
But what would Murdoch do with a national U.S. cable news network?
Eight years later, we have the answer: He has made Fox News the official Bush network, an extension of the White House press office.
Murdoch has made money with his formula, laughing all the way to the bank. But it's not news he purveys, it is propaganda. America doesn't need a European-style government network because we have Murdoch and Fox.
Fox News is under attack.
A new study by the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR, documents how Fox's main news show lists so far to the political right that it rarely even invites women or nonwhite guests to its program. To Fox's claim that its rightward tilt counterbalances a leftward tilt of other media, FAIR states:
"Previous FAIR studies have found that, across the supposedly 'liberal' media, Republican sources dominate – and Fox simply skews even farther to the right."
This week, FAIR's jabs at Fox are overshadowed by some haymakers apparently landed in a new documentary film by Robert Greenwald called "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism." The film, partly funded by a liberal political group called Center for American Progress, includes interviews with former Fox employees and internal memos showing how Fox distorts news coverage to conform to owner Murdoch's views.
"Outfoxed," which comes out on DVD this week and which I have not seen, is extensively reviewed in this week's national press. The Los Angeles Times, for example, reports that former CIA officer Larry Johnson states he was dropped by the network as an analyst after criticizing the Bush administration. The New York Times prints memos from the film from a Fox News executive instructing employees how to report on the Iraq war.
Last fall, I reported a study done by a University of Maryland research group documenting how Fox viewers held more "misperceptions" about the Iraq war than people who obtained their news from any other source.
Using a sample of 3,334 respondents, Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes asked three questions: (1) Do you believe evidence was found linking Iraq to Sept. 11? (2) Do you believe weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq? (3) Do you believe most world opinion supported the war?
Fox viewers held more of these misperceptions (80 percent) than viewers of network news (average 62 percent), nearly twice as many as readers of newspapers and four times as many as people who relied on PBS/NPR.
Ironically, not even all the government-owned media networks in Europe skew the news as much as the privately owned Fox. In Britain, the BBC, for example, has a self-governing charter that protects it from the kind of government interference Gingrich and friends sought for PBS.
The BBC led the way last year in investigating the Blair government's actions leading up to the Iraq war, and though criticized in the Hutton report for being overzealous in its criticisms, its charter was not changed or weakened. Murdoch newspapers led the charge to weaken the BBC.
Most European nations – with the exception of former Soviet ones – are moving away from official news. In America, however, Murdoch, who has many friends in Washington and is extending his news empire by expanding his cable and satellite ownership, provides viewers with an official Republican channel.
It may be successful and it may be patriotic, but it is not news. You don't have to watch it very long to realize that these people are peddling propaganda, opinion dressed up as fact. They have invented a clever motto – "fair and balanced" – to distract viewers from the reality of their Orwellian doublethink, defined as keeping the contradiction in mind as one says the opposite.
Fox News eliminates the need for thinking, reducing complex issues to the simple right-wing orthodoxy Murdoch has discovered as his formula for making money. It represents a stark break with American news traditions.
© Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co