July 8, 2008

When Media Dodges Scrutiny We All Lose

The Brave New Films documentary "OUTFOXED" covered some of the ways that Fox has skewed its news coverage to support a political agenda, including how directives would come from the top to push certain ideas each day. But I don't remember that film going into such detail about what happens to reporters who report anything about Fox news.

Fox's defensive war on reporters was revealed yesterday in a New York Times article by Bob Carr entitled "When Fox News Is the Story."

I was amazed to hear how much Fox is run more like an ongoing political campaign than a news organization. This dovetails with OUTFOXED, but their approach goes beyond simply distorting news coverage. From Carr:

Once the public relations apparatus at Fox News is engaged, there will be the calls to my editors, keening (and sometimes threatening) e-mail messages, and my requests for interviews will quickly turn into depositions about my intent or who else I am talking to.

And if all that stuff doesn't slow me down and I actually end up writing something, there might be a large hangover: Phone calls full of rebuke for a dependent clause in the third to the last paragraph, a ritual spanking in the blogs with anonymous quotes that sound very familiar, and - if I really hit the jackpot - the specter of my ungainly headshot appearing on one of Fox News's shows along with some stern copy about what an idiot I am.

I don't think reporters should be immune from criticism, but there is legitimate criticism based on the standards of reporting and then there's defensive backlash based simply on Fox not liking any sort of scrutiny of its own organization. As vital as media is to a healthy running democracy, our media organizations should be subject to plenty of scrutiny. Part of Fox's success is based on its ability to suppress scrutiny by exacting a high personal cost for any reporter who dares shine a light in their direction. The threat of retaliation is a good motivator.

But is it real? Actually, I was surprised to see this come up the other day when I was watching a humor video on line. I can't recall the link now it was a sort of a "The Soup"-type TV criticism vlog, and the target was Fox host Greg Gutfeld. The guy making the vlog noted at the beginning that any time he mentions Fox News he gets complaints from the people who watch his blog. That took me by surprise. Really? I knew there were people who liked Fox, but apparently there are enough attack dogs for Fox that, above and beyond other news networks, criticizing them brings out the nastygrams.

In the quotation above, what does Carr mean when he writes "the specter of my ungainly headshot appearing on one of Fox News's shows?" It's not unreasonable to slap a headshot up during a TV news story. TV is a visual medium, after all. But, in practice, Fox does more than just show your picture. This, from a Media Matters story:

Fox News featured photos of Steinberg and Reddicliffe that appeared to have been digitally altered -- the journalists' teeth had been yellowed, their facial features exaggerated, and portions of Reddicliffe's hair moved further back on his head. Fox News gave no indication that the photos had been altered.

Click through to the story "Fox News airs altered photos of NY Times reporters" and check out just how much fun Fox had with the images of these two reporters whose crime against Fox was to report on the rising popularity of CNN during this election cycle. You have to see it to believe it.

And, really, attacking reporters for pointing out that your competition is gaining on you? That's not just defensiveness, it's some sort of personality or psychological disorder. Like media road rage.

The additional charge has been leveled that the alterations on one of the photos was anti-semitic, but I don't see a specific attempt at a Jewish caricature. Maybe I'm unfamiliar with Jewish caricatures, but to my eyes both photos got similar treatments (although the one did get special attention to the nose).

Fox has operated without enough scrutiny. I'm not talking about government scrutiny; the media should police itself. That's not to say that half the news broadcast should be taken up by media outlets attacking each other for ratings gains, but perhaps journalistic standards should be made more explicit, and the public should be made aware of them. If such a yardstick were familiar to the public, perhaps when media did not live up to that measure people would take an interest. And it is in media's best interest to self-police, because they risk becoming irrelevant in a world of expanding information choices, many of which are the brain equivalent of junk food.

An idea I had, which I think government could help with by providing funding, is to create educational resources regarding the role of a free media in society. They should be targeted to very young people, to at least get the basic concepts across. In fact, the model of "Schoolhouse Rock" would work really well for these lessons. Sure, you only learned some of the most basic things about the government from "Schoolhouse Rock" but at least you know what a bill is. And hopefully that there are three branches of government.

It's not productive to make media a dirty word, which has especially been the hobby of people on the other side of the facts. After decades of attack on the so-called liberal media, where is our "Schoolhouse Rock" to educate our citizens on the role of a free press and what journalism is?

(BTW - you can view OUTFOXED in its entirety on line here.)

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Posted by James at July 8, 2008 12:18 PM
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I HATE Fox. I just put this movie into my Netflix queue. So, thanks for the heads up.

Last night, we watched a 'headcast' by John Cleese where he lambasted Fox News as "Fox Prop" as in 'propaganda'. He also tore into Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush. However, he took his time in getting there, so that you didn't realize that he was going to do so until a good 15-20 minutes into the program. Great stuff!

Posted by: Kitten Herder at July 8, 2008 9:40 PM

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