Home | Opinion | Columnists | Mark Mellman

Hounding Fox News coverage

Journalists strive to report the news, not to be the news. So Fox News should have been a bit embarrassed to headline a story that ended with the Nevada Democratic Party canceling Fox’s sponsorship of a pre-caucus debate.

Then again, Fox is not a typical news organization. There are first-rate journalists at Fox, committed to accuracy, objectivity and fairness. However, as a network, Fox’s prime commitment is to the triumph of conservative politics, not to a well-informed public. From hiring hosts to selecting stories to framing questions for discussion, Fox demonstrates its dedication to advancing the ideological interests of the right.

As former Fox reporter/anchor Jon Du Pre put it in the documentary “Outfoxed,” “We weren’t necessarily, as it was told to us, a newsgathering organization so much as we were a proponent of a point of view … we were there to reinforce a constituency.”

Conservatives retort that other media project a liberal bias, while Fox presents a needed counterweight. The liberal bias of network news is debatable; that Fox regularly reports false and inaccurate stories designed to drum up support for their candidates and causes is beyond serious dispute.

Can you imagine other networks allowing, let alone encouraging, their anchors to utter statements like “John Kerry has Kim Jong Il on his side ... North Korea loves John Kerry” as part of a newscast?

Conservatives counter, citing CBS’s report on President Bush’s National Guard service, based on documents that were likely forgeries. However, the test of institutional bias is not whether mistakes are made, but rather how the organization responds to those errors. CBS launched an investigation, led by a former Republican Attorney General, while dismissing one of America’s most respected journalists and four others.

What evidence, forged or otherwise, did Fox rely on in asserting that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) attended a Muslim madrassah? If CNN could go to the school and give the lie to the report, why couldn’t Fox? What outside panel was empowered to investigate how Fox could have aired such an outrageously inaccurate report? Who was fired for the inflammatory falsehoods?

A study by a University of Maryland center concluded, “Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions” about Iraq. For example, in 2003, 67 percent of those who relied primarily on Fox wrongly believed the U.S. “found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al Qaeda terrorist organization.” Only 40 percent of those who relied on print media harbored this illusion, debunked thoroughly by the 9/11 Commission.

Instead of providing “fair and balanced” reporting, Fox has created an audience ignorant of the facts, but fully supportive of management’s ideology.

An audience that decides for itself, based on “fair and balanced” coverage, ought not to reach monolithic conclusions. Yet, in our 2004 polling with Media Vote, using Nielsen diaries, we found that Fox News viewers supported George Bush over John Kerry by 88 percent to 7 percent. No demographic segment, other than Republicans, was as united in supporting Bush. Conservatives, white evangelical Christians, gun owners, and supporters of the Iraq war all gave Bush fewer votes than did regular Fox News viewers.

None of this argues for a boycott of Fox. While harboring no illusions, Democrats should try to communicate on Fox and through every other channel. I appear as a guest and will continue to, in the unlikely event they invite me again. However, if Fox wants the legitimacy afforded by official sponsorship of Democratic debates, it needs to become a relatively objective news organization, not a dispenser of partisan cant.

Mark Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.