March 1, 2012

Is Fox News?

Once upon a time (always the best way to start any serious essay) the American public sat enthralled by the sober but avuncular face of Walter Cronkite, telling us, in the tight span of less than half an hour, what had happen in the world that day. He never yelled, he never sneered, and nobody that I know of ever wondered whose side he was on. I can close my eyes and still picture this time. I am fairly confident it really happened.

The CBS Evening News of the 1960’s is not the sort of news we have today. Neither the broadcast networks, Fox nor CNN bear it much resemblance. News makes only the most superficial pretentions to impartiality now. It makes not even that much to relevance. It follows the lives of Tiger Woods, Lindsay Lohan and (even posthumously) Micheal Jackson as though they were every bit as important as the war in Afghanistan or the upcoming presidential election. It barks and insinuates from more sets of perfectly aligned teeth than could be had on the old Lawrence Welk show. It shows a little leg and a little cleavage. It informs a little now and then, but only as an accidental consequence of entertainment, or in the calculated service of political persuasion.

I was born in a lucky time. Cronkite and other journalists of his era stood on one of the higher points in the development of the press, when the standards of journalistic integrity were high enough to support a functioning democracy with reasonably neutral, reasonably accurate information. It was a high point, rather than the last gasp of any long standing tradition. Our nation began with dozens of small newspapers, most of which had axes to grind. 19th century politics and press coverage was every bit as partisan – and as lurid – as any seen today. What seems new to some of us is not new to America.

Before one can talk about anything intelligently, it is often necessary to clarify certain terms. Here is what I mean by “news”:

For an article of information to be “news” it has to be both reasonably factual and in some way consequential to the life of the recipient.

That “news” has to be factual should be obvious. Opinions, while often interesting and sometimes persuasive, are not “facts” and neither are they “news”. Outright lies are plainly not “news”.

The demand that “news” be consequential is equally important. If a city floods and you were planning to go there, then knowledge of the flood is “news”. On the other hand, the image of a microphone shoved into the face of a weeping flood victim followed up by the question, “how does it feel to lose your family?” isn’t “news”. It isn’t going to tell you anything you either need to know – or have any special right to know. Nor does the knowledge of how Tiger Woods’ divorce is going fill any pressing need. Such things are merely a prurient form of entertainment.

The definition of the “news” I offer here is a narrower one than people are used to, and it is narrow for a reason. It is intended to define “news,” as consisting chiefly of those things which members of a free society must know to participate intelligently in the political process. Non-factual or inconsequential information (e.g. lies, opinions, and trivialities) simply do not add to our ability to participate in elections responsibly. To put it more succinctly:

A broad public knowledge of relevant facts is a necessary precondition for meaningful democracy.

Intelligent people can argue about who is or isn’t providing the public with relevant facts, but I don’t think any rational person can argue that people who don’t have access to relevant facts can still be capable of voting wisely.

The CBS Evening News of the 1960’s provided a concise stream of relevant facts. It wasn’t perfect. I remember the daily body count figures from the Viet Nam War – a sort of football score that was probably neither meaningful nor altogether factual. In the main, however, the institution sought out relevant events and reported them plainly, unemotionally, and without much spin. There wasn’t time in the short broadcast for either trivialities or much editorial comment.

Today’s “news” programs, of all stripes, are much less austere. To begin with, without the time constraint imposed by the half-hour format, “news” networks have a great deal more air time to fill. They need to keep their audiences entertained for hours on end. Maintaining bigger news bureaus to generate ever more news in ever greater depth might be a theoretical possibility for a news network, but in practice there are cheaper and more reliable ways to hold an audience’s attention. The democratic process would be better served by more news and more background material (the causes and history behind events) but in actually practice networks get better ratings and make more money by treating “news” as just another form of amusement. It is much harder to really find out what is going on in Pakistan than to have a reporter follow Lindsay Lohan around and simply recount her social pratfalls. Likewise, it is easier for Fox to invite Ann Coulter onto one of their “new analysis” shows to spin her usual web of unsubstantiated invective, than it is to make the usually abstruce facts of politics clear and interesting.1

So – is Fox news? The best answer would be – “occasionally.” The same answer that holds for nearly every other organ of the press in these stirring and irrational times.


1 I have often wondered whether Ms. Coulter only puts on her performance for the camera, or only during her waking hours, or if in fact she even sneers in her sleep.


  1. I agree that Fox news is merely the perfection of the debasement of news.

    The good news is that, like you said, it used to be worse. People got sick of it, and it got better. That means there is hope that the worm will turn. The huge reaction to Rush Limbaugh over what must honestly be described as one of his lesser outrages might be a sign of things to come.

    Forgive me my optimism; but I'm reading Pinker's "Better Angels of our Nature," and it is impossible that such a book should not lift my spirits, insomuch as he's saying exactly what I always said about progress, but in 700 pages of carefully documented text.

  2. Fox is a poor substitute for news, but no more so than MSNBC. In America, we have the freedom to pick the distortions that suit our tastes. At least for now.