First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
The Fanatics Who Tell Us the News
When Fox News Channel was founded by Rupert Murdoch, the consensus was that no startup all-news cable channel could possibly compete with CNN.
And if any startup had a chance, it was MSNBC, which had the combined clout of NBC's esteemed news division and Microsoft, which in those days was believed to own the future.
Now, about a decade later, Fox News Channel has left both CNN and MSNBC in the dust.
There's no guarantee that this is permanent, of course.
But it certainly has the Left in a panic. They hated it that American conservatism had any voice at all, back when it was confined to a few radio talk shows -- remember how everybody wanted to blame Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk-radio hosts for the Oklahoma City bombing?
Now, though, to have Fox News Channel be the source for the largest portion of America's TV news junkies just sticks in their craw. How could such a thing happen?
Scott Collins, author of Crazy Like a Fox: The Inside Story of How Fox News Beat CNN, thinks he has the answer.
It's not what Fox claims -- that the American news media have a pronounced and painful liberal bias, so that huge numbers of Americans had given up on TV news, only to return in droves when Fox News offered them a balanced, trustworthy source of information.
No, it's that a large number of Americans believed that the news was biased. How they got this idea is that they were ... hmmm ... idiots? But no matter. Collins repeatedly states that the perception is what mattered, and by homing in on the audience dumb enough to think the media was biased, Fox News won the ratings race (but not, of course, the race for quality news coverage).
I'm painting Collins's book far too negatively, and I'm doing it deliberately. In fact, you can finish Crazy Like a Fox and think you have received a balanced story. Nowhere does Collins actually say that Fox News viewers are idiots. But Collins is a product of the liberal American news media, which is deeply offended at any accusation of bias. They don't twist the news -- they inform their readers of the truth.
And when they see Fox News trumpeting slogans like "We report, you decide" and "fair and balanced" -- they see red. They take it for granted that those slogans are true of every news outlet except Fox News.
So when Collins sets out to write a fair and balanced account of Fox News's triumph, he does not realize that his own reporting is biased, too. He scrupulously avoids demonizing the folks at Fox News.
But the bias is there. It is simply taken for granted that Fox distorts the news, that Fox is unusual for taking sides, while all of the allegations about liberal bias are refuted so that one could close this book believing that liberal bias in the vast majority of the American news media is a delusion shared only by dimwitted conservatives who don't like it that the world has passed them by -- and blame the messenger.
So let's put it to the test. Is there a real Leftist bias in the mainstream news?
Testing for Bias
This morning -- the Sunday before Memorial Day -- I picked up the Asheville Citizen-Times and started looking through national news coverage. You know, the stuff that is filtered through the lens of liberal bias long before it even reaches local papers, which rarely revise what they get off the press service wires.
In a story on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's remarks to the graduating class at West Point, here is the lead paragraph:
"Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, making no mention of the prisoner abuse scandal that has led to calls for his ouster, told a cheering crowd of graduating cadets Saturday that they will help win the global fight against terror."
Let's see ... how could there be any bias in that? Every word is true, right?
Except for this: The first thing mentioned, the lens through which we are forced to view the rest of the story, is something that did not happen and that only an idiot would expect might happen: Rumsfeld mentioning the prisoner-abuse scandal at a commencement address at West Point.
The lead, in other words, is not the graduation that is supposedly being reported, but rather Rumsfeld's failure to resign in the face of events that happened weeks ago.
How is Rumsfeld's not resigning news? It's mentioned in this story only because the reporter does not want to let go of it.
This is bulldog journalism: Once you get hold of a story, you never loosen your grip until your victim dies -- at least politically.
Does it happen to everybody? Or just Republicans?
Well, try this fictitious opening paragraph:
"Senator Hillary Clinton (Dem. NY), making no mention of the $100,000 she once made by trading cattle futures with astonishing perfection, told a cheering crowd of activists that Bush's globalist economic policy is hurting poor people in other countries and costing American jobs."
Nope. You've never seen it, and you never will. Because bulldog journalism only goes one way in our "unbiased" mainstream media.
The American Flag
The only difference between Fox News and all the other news media is (1) they admit that on some issues they take sides and (2) they allow the conservative side to be heard -- without contempt.
Fox News, for instance, made the decision after 9/11 that they would display the American flag. This has caused (and still causes) seething resentment from the rest of the news media. Why?
1. It implies that the rest of the news media isn't patriotic.
Well, duh. Come on, prior to 9/11 -- and even after it -- they prided themselves on not being patriotic and spoke of people who were self-consciously patriotic with contempt. They thought of themselves as being above national borders. You can't have it both ways, kids.
2. It's pandering to the ignorant unwashed masses of Americans who want their news from people who are "on our side."
Again, duh. When a nation is at war -- which on 9/11 we finally realized that we are -- we don't want to hear the news from neutral parties. We want the news to be accurate, yes -- and Fox has had its share of painfully accurate scoops that nobody wanted to hear, but which we needed to know. But when a negative story comes out, we want the people telling us the news to say it with regret. And when America wins, we want our news media to tell us with excitement and happiness.
In other words, we want to hear the truth from a friend. From someone who is one of us.
And if it took an Australian-born mogul, Rupert Murdoch, to give us an American national news source, so be it.
Not Terrorists, "Gunmen"
But let me go on. A story about terrorists murdering civilians and taking hostages in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, never actually uses the word "terrorist."
Instead, the killers are "gunmen" (in the headline), "suspected Islamic militants wearing military-style uniforms" and "attackers" (in the body of the story).
Suspected Islamic militants -- this pussy-footing appellation even though later in the story we learn that an Islamic group called "Al-Quds" and signing itself "al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula" is claiming credit for the attack.
But, presumably, they are only suspected of being Islamic militants because, after all, they might turn out to be long-hidden Nazis or perhaps holdouts from the Irish Republican Army or -- who knows? -- maybe Timothy McVeigh's buddies from the "red states" in America.
That's what makes some Americans turn away from mainstream sources in disgust: Why in the world is there any need for the newswriters to wrap themselves in impartiality when the story makes Islamic militants look bad, but when the story is about our own secretary of defense, he gets slapped around from the first paragraph on?
This "neutral" approach to a terrorist attack on Americans and other westerners working for American companies in Saudi Arabia is one reason why Fox News is triumphing: Fox News makes it clear that they're on America's side, that what happens to Americans abroad is happening to "us" -- in short, they feel our pain because they are part of us.
Let's go on to the coverage of Bill Cosby's remarks on the self-defeating actions of some segments of the American black community. In today's Asheville Citizen-Times, it's hard to find what is newsworthy about the article at all. Cosby's remarks are reported as taking place "earlier this month," and there is no event since then to justify considering this new article as "news."
In fact, the "story" is a thinly disguised editorial, in which AP writer Deepti Hajela seems to be trying to draw the controversy to a "balanced" conclusion.
Cosby's most heated remarks are quoted, but fairly, and in context, and his credentials are respected. Hajela is not out to "get" him.
After summarizing Cosby's weeks-ago remarks, Hajela then gives one paragraph to Jimi Izrael's criticism of Cosby's remarks, who merely objected to Cosby's tone and privileged position.
Then Hajela quotes Rev. Conrad Tillard of Roxbury, Mass. at some length. Obviously, it was Tillard's statement that provided the trigger for this article. It's the reason that Cosby was "news" again -- though Cosby gets the headline to himself because who would read an article headlined "Reverend Tillard answers Cosby"?
Tillard is first quoted as saying that "Cosby 'could absolutely have' gone even further," and though slavery and Jim Crow had hurt African-Americans, "at the end of the day, we have got to turn the tide."
But then Tillard is quoted as explaining that the real danger of Cosby's remarks is that white people (i.e., racists) will "seize upon that and try to castigate the African-American community. The conservatives and liberals are far too quick to seize upon a statement and say to the rest of us, 'See, see, it's not us, it's you.' What they have not wanted to acknowledge is that there are still legacies of slavery."
How is this biased? In this editorial-masquerading-as-news, Hajela is providing us with a "clincher" that tells us what we are supposed to learn from all this: That it would be a bad thing for Americans to let the racists off the hook by telling blacks that they are causing some of their own problems.
Harmless? Sure. In fact, I agree with Hajela's editorial. But it was in the news pages, and it was not news, and it was not impartial. It was shaped and designed solely to cause readers to reach a certain opinion.
Nobody was quoted as saying, "Cosby was absolutely right, it's ridiculous to keep complaining about things that are completely under our own control. We can teach our children to learn standard English and get a good education. We can teach our children not to become criminals, and can hold them responsible for their actions when they do commit crimes, instead of blaming racism."
Ultimately, both the "pro" and "con" quotes said the same thing: Cosby had a point, but he shouldn't say it openly because it gives aid and comfort to the enemy. Very P.C. Don't we all feel better now?
Then there's the half-page tie-in to the movie The Day After Tomorrow, with the headline Could it really happen?
The answer, buried deep in the story, is that of course it couldn't. Geochemist Wallace Broecker, who is the most-quoted source, is paraphrased only in the final paragraph as saying "Hollywood's idea of 'abrupt' is much swifter than nature's, however. Climate shifts unfold over years and decades -- not in two reels, said Broecker."
This is as vague a way of saying "What this movie actually shows is scientific nonsense" as you could possibly imagine.
The bulk of the article -- especially the crucial first paragraphs and the large-type inset, which are all that most people ever read -- say quite a different thing.
In answer to the question "could the climate really go bonkers, just like that?" the answer in the article was "Maybe. That was the consensus among researchers at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a leading center for climate studies. ..."
The next paragraph includes a quote from the Observatory's director, G. Michael Purdy: "This is not fantasy. It's happened before. It's well documented."
Which quote will leave the clearest impression in the readers' minds?
The fact is, what Purdy was saying was "not fantasy," which has "happened before," is Manhattan being covered in ice. That was during the ice age. It didn't happen in one big storm. And it wasn't caused by human greenhouse gas emissions.
Furthermore, any institution calling itself an "Earth Observatory" has a built-in bias. They want to wrap themselves in the much more fact-based science of astronomy, but this isn't an observatory as most of us understand it, it's a group of scientists who have gathered together specifically because they already are true believers in a certain set of viewpoints about the human impact on the environment.
And the large-type inset absolutely treats global warming as a fact (it is still only a suspicion, by rational standards) and ends with this statement, attributed to no one: "Scientists believe this is probably due to man-made 'greenhouse gases' in the atmosphere."
Which scientists? Are there scientists who disagree? These matters are not even addressed.
The whole point of this article is to make sure that the people who read it take "The Day After Tomorrow" far more seriously than the film deserves. Why? Because global warming has become one of the weapons used in the political war to bring down western civilization, and without necessarily realizing it, the Left-biased news media are completely buying into that political agenda.
Keep in mind that there is no way of knowing whether human greenhouse-gas emissions are causing or preventing disaster, mostly because we don't yet understand the causes of the natural cycles that lead to ice ages and warmer interglacial periods.
So at this point, there is zero scientific basis for action. There is only the quasi-religious premise that any human change to nature is dangerous and bad.
Therefore, if human activities produce gases that might cause a disaster, then we can't afford to wait until the connection is actually proven. We must stop emitting those gases right now.
What they don't tell you is that the only way they are proposing to stop emitting those gases is to have such a drastic change in the activities of western civilization that it might well lead to devastating impoverishment, and probably to famine and a catastrophic drop in the human population.
But the reporters covering science in America today are so wretchedly mis-educated that they don't even know what questions to ask when interviewing biased sources.
And they are perfectly willing to make ridiculous statements -- which would include any sentence beginning with "Scientists believe."
This is the post-religious equivalent of a fundamentalist preacher starting a sentence with "The Bible says." It invokes authority without context, without understanding, and without admitting the possibility of error.
(Most self-respecting fundamentalist preachers would at least tell you which book in the Bible they were quoting.)
The fact is that Broecker is an important scientist, and his model of the "conveyor belt" of warm water in the Atlantic provides a plausible explanation for how ice-age climate changes might happen and why they seem to be restricted to the northern hemisphere, at least in the most recent ice-age events.
But the article in the paper was not science or even respectable science reporting. It was designed as propaganda to convince readers that smart people all agree that global warming can cause an ice age like the one depicted in The Day After Tomorrow, unless we make the radical changes required to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to levels that true believer claim (but cannot prove) would prevent this disaster.
If the evidence of global warming were a report of burglars operating in your neighborhood, there's enough of it to cause you to check that your doors and windows are locked -- but the true believers want you to respond by boarding up your house and moving to another state.
In every case of bias I just cited, the writers would almost certainly be outraged at my accusation that they were doing anything other than reporting the facts as clearly and fairly as possible.
It doesn't occur to them that they are biased because they live in a box filled with people who share exactly the same bias.
But that's how we human beings create our working definition of "sanity" -- someone who shares the same world-view as his neighbors is "sane," and those who don't are crazy.
The Left-wing news media live in a tiny village of people who all think (or pretend to think) exactly alike. Therefore, to them any reporter or media outlet that rejects their premises must be insane or dishonest, and instead of seeking to refute them with actual evidence, they merely call them names and accuse them of venal motives.
The fact remains that on Fox News, and only on Fox News, we get television reportage that gives us at least two sides of every important issue.
On all the other TV news outlets -- and "mainstream" newspapers -- we mostly get coverage that is hopelessly biased. The madmen have taken over the asylum and now, dressed in white lab coats, they pronounce the rest of the world insane.
Keep in mind that I found these egregious examples of bias in a single issue of a single newspaper, randomly chosen. I could do the same thing with any national news broadcast or with any paper in America except the occasional paper that still has a toehold on reality.
I'm writing this essay for a newspaper that is also biased. The only difference -- and it's all the difference in the world! -- is that the Rhinoceros Times admits that it's a conservative paper and reports events through conservative eyes.
Fox News Channel, on the other hand, claims to have only one bias -- they are definitely pro-American -- and they present all the facts and every viewpoint and leave the decision up to the reader.
Imagine if these news stories had been written from that perspective. They would be barely recognizable -- and some of them would not have been written at all.
What makes the liberal bias in the mainstream media so pernicious is that they deny that they're biased and insist that their twisted version of events is "reality," and anyone who disagrees with them is either mentally or morally suspect.
In other words, they're fanatics. And, like all good fanatics, they're utterly convinced that they're in sole possession of virtue and truth.
Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.
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