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Scott Larson

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Fox in the media hen house?

Yes, I know. This week’s missive was not, strictly speaking, up on the old web site on time. I pride myself on the fact that I am not often late with these things—a pride I wallow in, hoping to ignore the fact that other people post to their web site daily if not hourly. Still, the old weekly column imposes a certain amount of discipline in an otherwise chaotic life. Anyway, there is a good reason why I am late—one that is strangely similar to the reason I was late six months ago. But more about that next week.

More than two years ago I lamented the passing of the late-night discussion/comedy program Politically Incorrect. When Bill Maher’s somewhat irreverent chat show left the airwaves, I bemoaned the fact that I would probably not soon find another program that let people, both well-known and obscure, good-naturedly exchange honest views about the issues of the day—and have a few good laughs in the process. The dominant late-night shows (Leno, Letterman, O’Brien, etc.) do not feature discussion so much as interviews built around selling a movie or TV show or book. Discussion shows on the news channels, on the other hand, are invariably set up as debates, with participants totally on message with talking points in hand. No give or take there. Maher himself went on to another TV show, but I have never seen it, since it is not broadcast in the British Isles. And I don’t actually have high hopes for it anyway. What I have seen of Maher, since he became a TV martyr, suggests that he takes himself way more seriously than he used to and maybe should get one of those Get Over Yourself awards that he used to give to other people.

So, I did not really expect to find a replacement in my life for Politically Incorrect. But the real surprise is not that I did find a replacement but where I found it. Indeed, it will undoubtedly shock one or both of my readers to learn that I found it on, of all places, the Fox News cable channel. This is the same Fox News, whose biggest star, Bill O’Reilly (and by extension the entire channel), I once dismissed as “essentially right-wing ‘hot talk’ radio with pictures.” I still think that much of the channel’s format offers more heat than light, but I have discovered since I got my satellite dish nearly three years ago that there are one or two things worth watching on Fox News. FNC, as it happens, is the only American TV news channel I get that is not “localized” for Europe (as opposed to CNN International and CNBC Europe). It is no coincidence that my system carries Fox News, since both are owned mostly by Rupert Murdoch. As a serious expatriate, I can tell you that an unfiltered, unadulterated American news channel is essential. Without one, you cannot keep up on critical burning issues that are, sadly, underreported in the international press. These issues include things like what is happening with wife murderer Scott Peterson and that unfortunate young woman who disappeared in Aruba some time back.

Seriously though, I often find Brit Hume’s evening newscast worth watching, if only because it comes on earlier than the NBC, CBS and ABC newscasts—an important consideration in my time zone. Hume’s editorial slant is definitely conservative, and his analysts and experts skew to the right. But his report is an hour long and crams in a lot more hard news than do the major networks’ newscasts. His sound bites are longer and the reports have more background information. And don’t worry, I listen to way more National Public Radio than Fox, so I don’t think I’m getting brainwashed.

But what I really like is Fox News’s media criticism program on the weekend. There aren’t many programs on TV or radio that attempt to critique the media. The only other one that I know of is NPR’s On the Media, which I find myself referring to quite a bit in these columns. OTM, in standard NPR fashion, basically treats the media as a beat, so it includes news reports, analysis, opinion pieces and even the occasional comedy relief. But it doesn’t really seem to see itself as a media watchdog in the vein of say, the Columbia Journalism Review. For example, on the last program I heard before I first wrote this (aired October 14), I don’t remember hearing a word about the NBC reporter on The Today Show who went on air in a canoe in flood water that turned out to be ankle deep. But it gave significant time to the Bush administration’s embarrassingly staged “spontaneous” presidential conversation with troops in Iraq, essentially repeating information that the rest of the media had already aired nearly a week before. In other words, OTM legitimately critiqued the administration’s public relations effort but it didn’t seem to occur to the producers to comment on the coverage of the fiasco. Interestingly, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show (which perhaps should be considered a media criticism program as well) did a better job covering both of those incidents.

Fox News’s media program unpromisingly follows a tried-and-true cable news format. It features a panel of “liberals” and “conservatives” who debate questions of media coverage. The idea sounds tired and predictable, so it was a lovely surprise when the program actually turned out to be engaging and thought-provoking. A lot of the credit goes to host Eric Burns, who has solid credentials as a media analyst. The other thing it has going for it is its choice of panelists. They are not political operatives with lists of talking points in hand. In fact, they represent an interesting cross-section of opinion. Ostensibly representing the left are Jane Hall, a veteran journalist who is also a journalism professor, and author/media critic Neal Gabler. The right is represented by political columnists Cal Thomas and Jim Pinkerton. But the labels “liberal” and “conservative” don’t fully describe the individuals. Hall and Gabler both bring scholarly weight to their opinions, although Gabler is not above injecting his classical liberal political views as well. On the other side, Thomas represents the Christian right perspective whereas Pinkerton is from a libertarian strain of conservatism, guaranteeing that the two of them often disagree on what is proper to allow on TV or on the printed page. Overriding their various political views, however, are their journalistic values. On clear cases of journalistic integrity or government overstepping, the panel will usually be unanimous.

What makes the program an unexpected heir to Politically Incorrect is not only the fact that the discussions are authentic and not always predictable but also the participants’ quirky sense of humor. People do get testy from time to time over disagreements, but for the most part the group seem to enjoy each other despite their political differences. And there is an honesty you do not usually see in programs with similar formats, like CNN’s venerable Crossfire. One of the biggest surprises for me was an end-of-year program in which Burns asked each of the panelists to name the American newspaper that did the best job of providing information. As I recall, both Hall and Gabler mentioned The Washington Post, Pinkerton named USA Today and Thomas cited The New York Times, despite having frequently and roundly criticized it for “liberal bias.” That is candor you don’t often get from cable pundits.

You might well ask, why bother watching shows that cover media coverage, unless you are in the journalism field yourself? Well, I follow coverage of the coverage like Fox News Watch and Columbia Journalism Review because doing so is simply the best way to find out what is really going on. Journalists talking about how journalists do (or don’t do) their job usually spill a lot more of what they know than when they are merely writing or broadcasting for the masses.

-S.L., 3 November 2005

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