The Murdoch effect
Kansas City Kansan, April 6, 2004
At the end of a recent "60 Minutes" show on CBS, Leslie Stahl reported they have received a great volume of mail over an interview with whistleblower Richard Clarke. She said the mail was pro and con over the interview with the former White House counter terrorism adviser, but mostly con. One viewer sent a message that really gave me pause: "Why can't you be as fair and objective as the Fox News Network?"
What? That network has become a joke in journalism circles.
It purveys more propaganda than news, with much of the latter obviously slanted to please the reactionary political zealots who make up the majority of its viewers. Of course, it is liked by such people because it reinforces their views rather than informing them in a true objective manner that would clash with their cherished beliefs.
It should be remembered that the Fox network is owned by Rupert Murdoch who owns a worldwide newspaper empire, including the once esteemed New York Post. Some say he has left a stain on American newspapers through his invention of the supermarket tabloids, first conceived in England and imported to the United States where they now flourish.
The New York Post was founded by former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton in the late 1700s. It was a non-sensational tabloid for several decades in the 20th century under Dorothy Schiff, but now has taken a form that would make old Alex blush.
You would be hard-pressed to find any significant national or world news in the Post, which has largely taken on the look and contents of a supermarket tab. Its contribution to American journalism lore is its headline, "Headless body in topless bar." Now that would be eyecathing in a news box. But give the public what it wants and they will turn out, as Red Skelton once remarked about the throng that attended the funeral of a much disliked Hollywood executive.
The fans of Fox News are the kinds of folks who like to call themselves "conservatives," as if that is a title that commands respect. They listen to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly on radio, and also watch the latter on TV. These commentators can do no wrong to their fans, who reject any criticism of Limbaugh's use of drugs. But Murdoch is the key. Consider the source, as many wise people have said. His network slants the news to please right-wingers who can't stand the truth.
Up next is a radio network for liberals, called Air America, hosted by two former Saturday Night Live comedians, Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo. Franken is also an author who has written left-leaning books, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right," and "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot." His show will be called "The O'Franken Factor," a takeoff on the O'Reilly Factor on the Fox network. As far as I can find out, the new network has no local outlet so far.
So, in a sense, we are seeing a type of return of the party press that thundered in the early days of the 20th Century and before. Every major and minor party had printed outlet for their screed. This is not particularly a good thing. It took decades to develop the kind of responsible news reporting that is as close to objective as possible.
One problem was that the general public never quite understood this. If a straight news story doesn't reflect the prejudices of a reader, there are complaints.
I remember one day on the desk at The Kansas City Kansan when I got calls from three different angry readers. One accused us of being Democratic, another of being Republican and a third of being Communist. I figured we must be doing a good job to spark such anger at our reporting.
The public often confuses the reporting in the news sections with the opinions on the editorial pages. If you support something in the latter, you must slant your stories to coincide, they reason. But media slanting doesn't always affect the public. In the 1930s, most major news organizations were Republican. They railed against Franklin D. Roosevelt at every presidential election.
He won all four times.
-- Bert Campbell is a retired associate editor of The Kansan.