Issue 4 - Spring 2007 - The Big Issue
THE FAIR AND UNBALANCED TRUTH
Fox News gets one thing right
BY AARON HAMBURGER
I’m not your typical Fox News viewer. I’ve voted Democrat in every election since I became eligible to vote. I’ve given money to MoveOn.org and demonstrated against the war in Iraq. I’m for gay marriage, legal abortion, and morning-after pills on demand, not to mention legalization of drugs. I’m against corporate welfare, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and just about all the policies of our current president. And yet, during Israel’s recent Lebanon campaign, I found myself increasingly tuning into Fox’s “Fair and Balanced” newscasts for comfort.
I can see them now as I type: the peppery Fred Barnes, the blustery Bill O’Reilly, the disdainful Brit Hume, the surly Charles Krauthammer, the same rogues’ gallery of newscasters and pundits I’ve sneered at for telling me global warming is “a matter of debate” or for assuring me that things really are going well in Iraq. And yet, when scores of Katyusha rockets fell on northern Israel, these same men seemed reasonable, even insightful — their opinions models of complexity and depth. As they spoke, I instinctively shared their wary mistrust of figures such as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, and anyone else with a name that sounded remotely French.
Like many American Jews, I get my back up when the subject is Israel. “Did you see the news?” a friend asked me last summer as the Lebanon campaign began. Before I could answer, he went on, “I’m so sick of Israel.” Many Jewish people I’ve been e-mailing with lately — even ones who are non-observant, have never given a dime to Israel, and would be all too glad to see two states living side by side west of the Jordan River — have noted a certain eagerness, even glee, among friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who have criticized the Jewish state. It’s as if we’re afraid the rest of the world is only pretending to accept us, and that at any moment they could, like Mel Gibson, let down their guard and reveal their true feelings of hate.
Alone among the major news outlets, Fox News has figured out an approach that soothes just these kinds of sensitivities. Unlike journalists on the other networks, you rarely hear Fox newscasters say “the two sides” when referring to Israel and Hezbollah, as if a nation and a terrorist group could be called equivalent. When referring to the horrific scenes that resulted from Israeli attacks, Fox talking heads such as John Gibson, Sean Hannity, and John Kasich also stressed the fundamental difficulties of fighting a war against a group that hides behind women and children. And when the prime minister of Lebanon offered the seemingly reasonable solution of monitoring the south of his country with 15,000 Lebanese soldiers, Fred Barnes savagely punctured this trial balloon by comparing the mismatch of the weak Lebanese army against Hezbollah to a high school football team trying to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But then suddenly these same men change the subject to how there really were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or how if gay marriage were legalized, the result would be that, in the words of Bill O’Reilly: “Polygamists could marry, triads could marry, you could marry your mom.” Then I have two choices: change the channel to MSNBC or vomit.
The longer I watch Fox, the more I have to ask myself, how is it possible that I can hold the same views as these people on even one issue? How can I believe that Fox is right on Israel and everyone else is wrong?
The conclusion I’ve come to is that there are two issues of bias at work here. The first is a bias in the mainstream media: not a pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian bias, but a pro-surface bias. The mainstream media are very good at transmitting dramatic pictures and reading quotations from official statements exactly as they are written, without any interpretation or even context. Casual news viewers are shown video footage of the powerful Israeli war machine bombing and shooting, and of pathetic Lebanese and Palestinian victims raising their arms to the sky in despair; they are not shown weapons hidden in mosques. They are shown a tearful Lebanese prime minister begging for peace and a businesslike Israeli prime minister in a cold voice ordering continued warfare; they are not shown six years of rocket attacks on Israel, coming from Lebanon, with little attempt by the Lebanese government (or the Syrian government, for that matter) to stop the violence. They may be shown the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Israel, but they are not shown Palestinian leaders, who may have denounced these bombings in English for the worldwide press, praising the bombers in Arabic to their own people; Palestinian schoolteachers spreading anti-Semitic poison in schools; and a global network of financing to aid and abet those suicide bombers.
The reason we see a different picture from Fox is that Fox, too, has a bias — a bias toward all conservative causes, one of which happens to be Israel. If Israel were giving out free candy to kids with cancer, Fox would have no need to show the “other side of the story” (Your foreign aid tax dollars being wasted on ruining the teeth of children! Next, on The O’Reilly Factor!), but when Israel wages war, Fox is careful to balance the pictures of tearful refugees with coverage of the roots behind the current conflict, and in that way it has proved more complex on this particular issue than its competitors.
The fair and unbalanced truth is that the news coming out of Israel is difficult to understand, and so the way we ingest our news must also out of necessity become more complex. No longer can we all tune into Walter Cronkite every evening and trust him to tell it like it is. It seems we have to pick and choose our sources, not only issue by issue, but even story by story. So when it comes to Israel, I’ve ultimately decided to check in on Fox, and then, for a more complete picture, to start channel-surfing. &