It’s not just the Fox, it’s the sheep’s clothing

The New York Times’s new public editor worried recently that the paper is perceived as liberal; she advised trying to address that problem. Like NPR’s bid to shed the “liberal-media” epithet by shedding Vivian Schiller, like Walter Isaacson’s attempts to cleanse CNN of it by paying a visit to Trent Lott, this is doomed to fail. Thanks in no small part to Roger Ailes.

Ailes, when he set out to create a cable network with a point of view, was clearly filling a market need. But his real brilliance lay in the motto he chose: “Fair and balanced.” The outlet designed to serve conservatives was inoculated at birth from charges of bias by claiming that it alone was free of that taint.

A few years into Fox News’s existence — on the occasion of an award being given to Fox’s leading newsman, Brit Hume — I suggested a public discussion about the merits of this new (for the U.S.) kind of journalism, The Washington media were so dog-whipped by the “liberal-media” lashings that nobody wanted to own up to noticing that Fox was conservative. But the reticence protected no one. The “liberal-media” accusations have only grown, as the public editor’s column reminds us.

Ailes himself must have been amazed at his success: Not that having a point of view would appeal; not that having that POV be conservative, to serve Americans who felt they didn’t see themselves in media. What distinguished it all was the masquerade of being something other than what it was, until it didn’t need to masquerade any more, and a new kind of journalism was firmly entrenched – including the spawning of other POV media such as MSNBC.

Fox New still does it best, as this research shows: “Fully, 60% of Fox News viewers describe themselves as conservative, compared with 23% who say they are moderate and 10% who are liberal, according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center. By contrast, the ideological makeup of CNN viewers (32% conservative, 30% moderate, 30% liberal) and MSNBC viewers (32% conservative, 23% moderate, 36% liberal) is far more mixed.”

Unsurprisingly, the skill with which Ailes’s inventive cable channel carried out its work (helped along by its self-proclaimed uniqueness as an exemplar of fairness) has had an impact on the nation’s political environment. And it has had another impact too, the one I find most worrisome: Its allegiance to point of view seems to trump its allegiance to facts. According to Politifact, about 60 percent of the Fox claims checked in their study were rated Mostly False or worse. (By comparison, 80 percent of the claims made by CNN were rated Half True or better.) Or see this research on how Fox News viewers do worse on factual questions than those who watch no news at all

Perhaps this is why Megyn Kelly became a hero, during her coverage of presidential election results in 2012, simply by questioning a fiction being clung to by Karl Rove. When a reporter is deemed courageous for pursuing a fact over the view of a favored ideologue, it says something about the network’s normal regard for facts.

Meanwhile, over the years, mistrust in media more broadly has grown ever higher. Interestingly, this plays out differently across the political spectrum.

Obviously, your (and my) own point of view determines what we think about the impact of Ailes’s achievement on politics and on media. But if you think, as I do, that our future relies on a significant number of Americans’ believing that they want the closest thing they can get to the truth, this is clear: From the moment Ailes’s new creation sailed forth under that cunning motto, he has been leading us ever farther away from that target.

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