A Fox in the Hen House

When I was a sophomore at Arizona State University, my English teacher assigned a research paper that was a significant part of our grade. I only remember two of the requirements. First, it had to be relevant to my major (journalism). Second, I had to cite reputable, scholarly sources to back up my thesis. When I met with my teacher and told her my idea: American mainstream media demonstrates a liberal bias when reporting the news, she strongly encouraged me to choose another topic. "You won't be able to prove it," she told me. As it turned out, she was wrong. I not only earned an A on my paper, I convinced her I was right.

Now, can I convince you?

I'm not Biased ... YOU Are! 

Let's start with those who see things from the other side of the spectrum...with what is probably the most popular stance on the issue today:

Turn off FOX News!

You've seen this bumper sticker, right? Or one like it. Most of them suggest people who watch FOX News are crazy, stupid, inbred, country bumpkins, morons, illiterate, racists and all other manner of wicked evilness. At the very least they are conservative -- which means they just are not very well educated.

Don't believe me? Type "FOX News is " into Google. The top results I found were:
  • biased
  • isn't news
  • entertainment
  • bad
  • propaganda
Or here's another idea, the next time you're in a crowd, tell someone you saw something on FOX News. My guess is that someone will feel compelled to tell you that you just can't trust anything they say on Fox News.

It's lies! All lies!

So here's a big shocker: the Turn off FOX News campaign is backed by several progressive organizations, including Credo Action. You can buy one of their anti-FOX bumper stickers from Northern Sun, whose tag line is "products for progressives since 1979" or from Cafe Press, where there is a list of products expressing anti-FOX sentiments. (Cafe Press also offers anti-liberal sentiments, in case you were wondering, including this beauty):

The amazing thing to me about the Turn off FOX group is that they don't just want you to stop watching FOX News at home -- they want you to complain about it being broadcast in bars, airport lounges and restaurants. They suggest that you boycott public places that air FOX News. (I thought progressives were AGAINST censorship.)

So where does all the FOX hatred come from? What is so insidiously evil about FOX News?

Source: Media Research Center
To understand, you have to start with the hen house. When I was a kid, there was no cable television. There were the so-called alphabet news programs: ABC, CBS and NBC. And ever since Walter Cronkite took off his glasses and editorialized, condemning the Vietnam war, it became acceptable -- even commendable -- for reporters to express some degree of their own beliefs on issues. Their beliefs were decidedly liberal, so their reporting leaned to the left. But it didn't matter -- there was no one to call them out on it. They were all doing the same thing and I don't think it really occurred to them to do otherwise. Most of them broadcast from New York, where liberalism is common. All their friends and colleagues believed the same things they did, so they were likely praised rather than criticized. Also, consider that they don't see themselves as liberal. Most of us have varied beliefs on the liberal/conservative spectrum (I'm going to talk about this later.) Some of them might see themselves as downright conservative compared to some people they know!

Then cable news came along, including FOX News, which made a business decision to fill a void -- one roughly the size of what are condescendingly referred to as the fly-over states, which also happen to be filled with people who have decidedly more conservative views than the media gatekeepers living in New York. Since it's inception in 1996, FOX News has marketed itself as Fair and Balanced, implying, of course, that the other networks are not.

Of course, nobody likes to be called a liar, biased, unfair or partisan -- particularly journalists who see themselves in a rather noble light and have just been trying to get the TRUTH out there! (After all, Watergate will forever go down in history as the most egregious abuse of executive power, right? And without the press's involvement, Tricky Dicky would never have resigned in disgrace.)

Thus, the enmity between FOX and the other networks began.

But what's true? Is FOX horribly right-leaning? Are the other networks horribly left-leaning? How am I to know?

I've been buried in studies, trying to figure that out. The results of my study back in the late 1990s are, sadly, still on microfiche in the basement of Hayden Library, where I did all my collegiate research. I doubt my analysis of how Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr. were treated during the 1992 election would mean much to you now anyway -- that was all such a long time ago. Surely things have changed since then!

One thing that hasn't changed is the care with which we need to consider who is studying these issues and who is funding their studies. Money motivates, which is why we would naturally treat data on climate change funded by the Sierra Club differently than we would treat data on climate change funded by British Petroleum. That's why I'm focusing today on two studies that have no demonstrable political motivation or funding.

UCLA Study

UCLA political scientists rejected outside funding for their three-year study on media bias, which is rare in scholarly research. They were so concerned about charges of partisanship, they even made sure an equal number of their research assistants had supported Al Gore and George W. Bush in the 2000 election.

In their study, media coverage was compared to the "liberalness" of lawmakers themselves. Using a metric created by Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) which gives lawmakers a score ranging from zero (completely conservative) to 100 (completely liberal) based exclusively on the percentage of times they vote on the liberal side of any issue, researchers studied 10 years worth of news and noted how often liberal or conservative think tanks or policy groups were quoted. They then compared those numbers to the speeches of policy makers and sought to find correlation.

So what did they find?
Of the 20 major media outlets studied, 18 scored left of center, with CBS' "Evening News," The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ranking second, third and fourth most liberal behind the news pages of The Wall Street Journal.
Not surprising to me. But what about FOX News? Was it right of center? Yes.
Only Fox News' "Special Report With Brit Hume" and The Washington Times scored right of the average U.S. voter. 
Ha! See? FOX News is a nasty bit of right-wing propaganda!

Well, okay. If you're willing to concede that the other 18 outlets are nasty bits of left-wing propaganda, then maybe that's true. But can we be a little more specific in our analysis? UCLA researchers discussed FOX News' reputation this way:
The fourth most centrist outlet was "Special Report With Brit Hume" on Fox News, which often is cited by liberals as an egregious example of a right-wing outlet. While this news program proved to be right of center, the study found ABC's "World News Tonight" and NBC's "Nightly News" to be left of center. All three outlets were approximately equidistant from the center, the report found. [Emphasis added.]

In case you're wondering, the UCLA study found that PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer was the most centrist of all media outlets.

Pew Study

The second study I want to cite is from the Pew Research Center at Harvard University, which has a long-established track record of non-partisan analysis of public matters and journalism.

In this study, Pew researchers also addressed the idea that FOX News is right of center. Their conclusions were similar to those reached by the team at UCLA. Yes, FOX News offers a "somewhat more positive view of Republicans" and a "more negative" one of Democrats when compared to other outlets, but:
...Any sense here that the news channel was uniformly positive about Republicans or negative about Democrats is not manifest in the data.
Source: Pew Research Center
In fact, Pew researchers found that cable coverage in general -- not just FOX News -- was kinder to conservatives than network evening news and print journalism.

Source: Pew Research Center
So, if we believe these sources, FOX News does lean to the right, just not as far to the right as suggested -- and no farther to the right than NBC and ABC lean to the left.

Source: Pew Research Center

You are welcome to look up other studies. Many of them support these findings. Others do not. Just make sure you know who funded the study before you take it as gospel.

So here's my take: I don't believe in censorship and I am immediately suspicious of anyone who wants to shut off certain points of view. It makes me think of totalitarianism and that is something I don't want in any way associated with America and our way of life here. Sure, people say things on the news that make me angry -- things I disagree with. But I can hear it without falling apart. Or I can turn it off or walk away. But how dare you tell me I can't listen to it? How dare you tell me I'm a fool for considering all opinions, especially when your censorship only runs in one direction?

Because here's the great irony: those who started the FOX-News-is-just-right-wing-propaganda business are propagandists. They know that if you keep repeating something long enough and you have enough clout to spread it around (18 to 2 kind of clout) some people will just begin to accept it as truth -- or be unsure enough to act like it's true. And when Jon Stewart says FOX viewers are misinformed, I give him credit for apologizing for it later when Politifact proved him wrong, but the negative impression of FOX prevails, despite what any study shows. Why? Because those who hate FOX for leaning to the right just don't care that the other networks lean to the left. To them, that's not a problem.

If you don't like what is said on Fox News, don't watch it, but when you malign people who find value in hearing the news or opinions expressed there, when you keep calling them crazy or ignorant or uneducated, I'm afraid it says a lot more about YOU than it says about them.

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