When I started reading Jonathan Tobin's defense of Fox News, a certain YouTube clip immediately came to mind. "Liberals take it as an article of faith that Fox is not merely biased but a travesty that serious people should ignore," he argues. "But the notion that there is something unholy about what is broadcast on Fox or that its mix of news and opinion is uniquely biased has never stood up to scrutiny."
That isn't to say that serious people shouldn't also ignore CNN, just because they never let Glenn Beck pretend to douse anyone in gas and nearly light them on fire. There's too much exceptional long-form journalism to waste time trying to inform yourself via any cable news channel, and if you're tuning into TV for entertainment you can do a lot better watching HBO. Or Nick at Nite.
Still, Fox News President Roger Ailes signed Beck, paying him millions of dollars to play an unbalanced lunatic five evenings per week. The melodramatic antics and chalkboard conspiracy theories help explain why Tobin's defense of Fox would be inadequate even if it were accurate.
Well, almost no one.
The larger problem with Tobin's piece is that his theory of media hasn't matured since the late 1990s. Attacking "the belief that there is something exceptional in a broadcast network that has a political point of view, or that what Fox does is so egregious when it is compared to its competitors," he writes that "refutation of these prejudices comes from no less an authority than an icon of establishment liberalism: the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. In its State of the News Media: An Annual Report on American Journalism, Pew details, among other interesting tidbits, the percentages of news reporting and opinion on the three biggest cable news channels. According to the study, the breakdown of MSNBC shows that a whopping 85 percent of its airtime is taken up with opinion, compared to 55 percent of the time on Fox and 45 percent of CNN's air."
I don't know how things would shake out if the networks as a whole were compared in some meaningful way, just that citing hours of news vs. opinion tells us nothing about degree of "egregious."
Says Tobin, "These numbers tell us that while the majority of what Fox broadcasts is conservative opinion, it is a pittance when compared to the volume of uniformly liberal commentary on MSNBC." But the commentary on MSNBC isn't "uniformly" liberal. They've still got Joe Scarborough. I've seen Tim Carney and Michael Brendan Dougherty on Up With Chris. And isn't S.E. Cupp an MSNBC personality?
If more of CNN's airtime is taken up with reporting than on Fox, it must be remembered that the vast majority of the opinions heard on that network is also liberal. And when that is combined with the heavy liberal tilt on the original three national networks, NBC, ABC and especially CBS (the home of the supposedly authoritative 60 Minutes which is so soft on the head of the Democratic Party that even one of its hosts admits it can be relied upon never to discomfit President Obama), it makes Fox's conservative views one of the few places where alternatives to the left can be found.I am not sure why he persists in acting as though Fox critics savage the network merely because it is conservative. An exceptional network could air nothing but conservative commentary, if it was insightful and intellectually honest. The problem with Fox News is that its commentary is too often factually inaccurate and intellectually dishonest. There are notable exceptions: Just as there are a few people doing great work on MSNBC, Fox News has Erick Erickson's frequently smart commentary to make up for its months of inane Sarah Palin blathering, and Kirsten Powers to inject a semblance of fact-based sanity into Bill O'Reilly's cavalcade of gruff rants.
There are some other folks doing good work too, but they're overshadowed by inanity that overflows from the archives of The Daily Show, which has won multiple Emmys showing a generation that Fox News is rife with bullshit and that trying to defend it by saying it's no worse than CNN and MSNBC is like defending Parliaments by saying they're no more unhealthy than Marlboros.
Why any conservative who works at Commentary would willingly defend Fox is mystifying. It can't end well. A patient man could spend all day assembling self-evidently discrediting clips from the network. That's why it isn't just liberals who refuse to take Fox seriously. Could one find as many discrediting clips from CNN and MSNBC? I'll credit Tobin with proving as much if he assembles a new Commentary post that tries to match BuzzFeed's "The 45 Worst Fox News Moments of 2011." I sincerely hope he succeeds -- seeing cable news mocked is a guilty pleasure.