Sunday, August 13, 2006

Book review of "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism"

Sometime yesterday, I reached 20,000 hits on this blog. That's in less than 14 months, and I have to admit even I'm surprised. I'm probably never going to be near what the big guys get on a daily basis, but I'm still satisfied, and I want to say thank you to all my readers.

I just finished reading Alexandra Kitty's book "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" -- about how the Fox News Channel has single-handedly destroyed the principles of responsible journalism, to the point where even respectable mainstream media outlets are now following its tactics, in an attempt to catch up. This is both an expanded version of Robert Greenwald's documentary of the same name; as well as a focused analysis based on Alexandra's previous book, "Don't Believe It!" which I reviewed last year. (I also explain there why I refer to the author by her first name.) Both books are by the Disinformation Company.

This book was published about a year ago, but not much has changed in the world to deflect from Alexandra's criticism. She begins by focusing on how self-described "billionaire tyrant" Rupert Murdoch took over a bunch of stations owned by Metromedia, which along with some other stations was the launching ground for the Fox Broadcasting Company -- or what we now simply call Fox TV. About a year later, Murdoch set his sights on the Washington DC affiliate, WTTG. It was one of the most respected independent TV stations in the country, and had long dominated the ratings in DC with a first-class newscast shown at -- horrors! -- 10 PM. But all that changed one night in August 1988, when in the middle of the newscast they got orders from "head office" to interrupt their newscast and carry the Republican National Convention, which at that moment was showing a fauning tribute (read: propaganda film) about the life and career of Ronald Reagan who was retiring at the end of the year. The news staff at the station, which had long taken pride in their independence, went ballistic but realized they had no choice. From there, it went downhill -- many nights, they were running entire segments from A Current Affair with Maury Povich and presented them as "legitimate" news stories.

(How well do we remember that show. So much was Rupert against West and East Germany reuniting that the night it finally happened -- October 3, 1990 -- ACA ran a story called The Rise of the Fourth Reich.)

He pretty much did the same with other stations in his company, until they fit his neo-conservative, "Democrats are commie pieces of shit" Weltenshaung. It was at this point that he was ready to launch Fox News -- and all hell broke loose.

There are way too many examples that Alexandra cites to count. But there are a few points that underline her thesis:
  • Fox does very little original journalism. Much of it is cribbed from its competitors. What it is successful at is paring away the complicated stuff and making everything a sense of black vs white -- and it makes clear which is which.
  • The network is hypocritical. On the one hand, it condemns violence on network television. But it has no trouble parading erotic film stars as news analysts.
  • Nearly everything is turned into a "Fox News Alert," complete with so-called "Fair and Balanced" (i.e. Republican) talking points, and the mandatory whoosh that tells everyone this is important.
  • Senior management tells its staff what the focus of the network's coverage will be for the day -- not the other way around, where journalists try to gather information for themselves.
  • The economy is always Pollyanna positive, if one believes Neil Cavuto.
  • Senior members of the staff are also hacks for the Republicans. John Ellis, a cousin of Dubya, make the Florida call in the 2000 election for Fox News -- and Tony Snow, a staffer for Shrub during his time as Governor of Texas, wound up at the network for a few years before being recalled to the White House. Coincidence? The author thinks not!
  • There are only a handful of token Democrats who regularly appear on air -- Alan Colmes and Greta Van Susteren, for example. The rest are blatant sycophants for the Republican Party. Even many Democratic guests who are brought in for the sake of "balance" are the more moderate kind who tend to agree on many Republican talking points.
  • The shows themselves, above and being bombastic, are also infomercials touting either the hosts' or their guests' latest books. Think of how many times we've seen Ann Coulter or Judge Kenneth Starr on Fox and you get the picture.

Alexandra also takes a critical look at many of its personalities, but she saves her harshest criticism -- quite rightly -- for former schoolteacher and Inside Edition alumnus Bill O'Reilly. In fact, two or three entire chapters are reserved for the King of Mean. Apart from his inaccuracies and distortions -- which he always weasels himself out off -- he says "Shut up!", "Like" and "Okay" so many times one could mistake him for any Valley Girl, let alone Moon Unit Zappa. Even when someone does smack him down, he finds a way of fighting back -- and is considered an urban hero. But deep down, Alexandra implicitly suggests O'Reilly is very close to being a sociopath; and his reaction to his infamous interview with Jeremy Glick, the son of one of the 9/11 victims (Glick finally managed to crack the code meet O'Reilly tit for tat after numerous previous guests had stumbled ) as well as Canada's initial resistance to allowing Fox News to be shown in Canada (which had to do with content regulations and not Chrétien's vendetta against Dubya -- content regulations which were later dropped) demonstrates how vulnerable Ted Baxter truly is. Alexandra even says that Billo's antics are the subject of a popular and actual parlour game -- so many drinks for whatever nuances, and soon one passes out from having one too many.

It's long been no secret that, despite its denials, Fox News is the official organ of the Republican National Committee. Alexandra concludes by talking about how the media has to get its spine again -- and to take on Fox for its usually inaccurate portrayal of the world. She brings up a lot of numbers, but the most fascinating one is this: The infamous question about whether Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were in bed together. Among Fox viewers, 78% of Republicans and 48% of Democrats think there was a link. Among those whose main source of news is from Jim Lehrer's Newshour on PBS and/or National Public Radio, 50% of Republicans and zero percent Democrats saw the link. (And NPR, which was around long before Fox, has a reputation for impartiality which is much higher than the CBC and nearly as good as the BBC -- so even the smart Republicans knew Team Fox was full of hooey.)

Long story short, this second book from Alexandra is another clarion call for the basics of responsible and printable journalism. Without the sleaze, the vindictive -- and definitely without the whoosh. But in a couple of places, she does overdo it after having proven her point -- so I give it four and half out of five stars. Definitely worth buying.

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17/08/2006 1:21:04 AM

Congratulations on your hits! 'Build it and they will come!'

Just moved digs over the month of July so have been out of commission for awhile.

Looks a little different around here since Windows went Live on your space too!

I like the green paint job! LOL! Take care and keep on poli-ticking!

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