“Regular Fox watchers were, depending on the issue, between three and seven times more likely than public-network audiences to harbour factually incorrect beliefs”

Fox – the naked truth

5 October 2004 | The Guardian

by Zoe Williams

It’s rare for Fox, Rupert Murdoch’s American news channel, to admit that a story is total fabrication, but a recent report on John Kerry was so wild, and its falsity so easily verifiable, that an apology was the only option. The story was written by Carl Cameron, who has been following Kerry’s campaign trail. He attributed to him this remark: “I’m metrosexual – [Bush is] a cowboy,” following it with a swift, if curious, left hook to the candidate’s sexuality by saying that he liked manicures.

In my wishy-washy liberal way, I can’t see either comment doing much damage to Kerry’s standing among the right-thinking electorate, but the fact remains that he never said these things. In its apology, Fox claimed that the reporter was acting out of “fatigue and bad judgment, rather than malice”, which is hilarious in itself. Imagine Andrew Gilligan saying: “I would have been more careful, only I was just too tired.”

Bad judgment is self-evident, since this was never going to pass unchallenged; and yet the vignette demonstrates so well why rightwing bias is considered the comic, likeable face of partisan American infotainment, while the leftwing is thought so humourless. The misreporting works on so many levels – for the numbnuts who find “metrosexuality” a fancy, urban way of saying “poof”, no amount of complaints from Kerry, nor apologies from Fox, is going to make any difference. Those who believe Kerry was libelled, yet don’t like him, will delight in his tangles as he tries to refute the remarks without alienating supporters who see nothing wrong with being metrosexual.

Those who support Kerry, believe in accurate reporting and resent the slurs still find themselves in a sticky position: what, after all, do these quotes mean? They mean Kerry’s a little bit gay. Is there anything wrong with being gay? Well, of course not, except Kerry isn’t. Well, if there’s nothing wrong with it, and he isn’t anyway, what’s wrong with a little joke?

There’s no similar squeeze the left could put on George Bush – they could call him dumb, but nothing would trounce Bush’s own verbal pratfalls. They could call him an ex-alcoholic or a Bible-bashing nut-nut, and he’d put his hands up and only make people like him more. But the truth is, even if the left found the most cunning lie in the world to spread about Bush, as a culture it lacks the devil-may-care, pubescent mischief that characterises the right.

The main beef leftwing commentators have with rightwing stations, particularly Fox, is that they don’t trouble themselves with the truth – not even a Republican spin on the truth; they simply muddy all issues to such a degree that opinion and fact become indivisible and, as a result, all opinions achieve equal validity. For the left, then, facts are paramount, and to mimic the rightist habit of false attribution would be entirely to undermine the crux of the argument. Over time, this has given them a reputation for being long on rectitude and short on fun.

Mostly, Fox is no fun either – it’s boring, repetitive junk, full of weird euphemistic language and tips on how to get pet smells out of your car. But often it is compelling, simply because its position-taking is so naked, so unrelated to proven truths, so coarse and, above all, so lacking in logical rigour that it thrills you with amused outrage, like playing Monopoly with someone who eats the money. This is the channel that tried to retitle “suicide bombers” as “homicide bombers”, worried that “suicide” might make viewers sympathise; when an expert refused to adopt the new term, on the basis that all bombs were homicide bombs unless they missed, Fox stopped using him.

A recent poll cross-referencing viewing habits with political awareness found that regular Fox watchers were, depending on the issue, between three and seven times more likely than public-network audiences to harbour factually incorrect beliefs (such as “weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq”). Such a fantastical version of the concept of “news” is only compiled by such polemicists as Al Franken and Robert Greenwald (whose documentary, Outfoxed, has a US cinema release after its astounding sales on Amazon). So it’s not as if the rightwing US media is engaged in an unchallenged monologue, and frankly, it wouldn’t be anything like so funny if there weren’t evidence that other people were also gawping at it in wonder.

But in the end, the qualities that the leftist media envies and despairs at – not the brash populism, but the gleefully casual disregard for the truth – will sink it. Lies like Cameron’s make Fox ever more cartoonish. And as cartoons go, it’s never going to be as good as The Simpsons.

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