On the Fox News / White House dispute

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I didn't see anything on Fox from mid-2006 through mid-2009; for better or worse, it's not carried in China. (The English TV news channels you can get there are BBC, CNN International, CNBC, sometimes Bloomberg.) I have seen it since coming back this summer. And in a way, I realize that I had been seeing it all along: except for more modern production values, it's the closest thing America offers to what it's like to be exposed to the Chinese government's 24/7 internal propaganda machine. When I saw the clip below from Media Matters, as highlighted by Andrew Sullivan, I thought: make it a little more boring, put it in Mandarin, and substitute "splittists" etc for the people Fox is talking about (maybe the Dalai Lama in place of Van Jones), and I could be right back in Beijing.

 

Are Maddow and Olbermann on MSNBC comparably relentless and "biased"? Of course they are. But no one pretends their shows are "real" news operations or are "fair and balanced." And certainly they have become what they are as a market and political response to Fox's success. Indeed, the general polarization and spectacle-mindedness of the news ecology in part is homage to what Fox has figured out as a business and political model. Any fair person also has to acknowledge the better production values Fox brought to TV news over the past decade: it's lively, it's fast, it's interesting, the women on screen (to a shocking degree, if you've been away) set a new standard in physical looks, the whole thing gets your attention.

 But a crucial part of this clip, and of the White House complaint, is that it's not just the out-and-out commentators on Fox -- the Hannities and O'Reillies who begat Maddow and Olbermann -- who supply a one-note politicized world view. It's the texture of the overall operation. I can think of honorable exceptions among correspondents and anchors, like Major Garrett (whom I do know) and Shepherd Smith (whom I don't). But this clip suggests the seamlessness of the Fox News outlook, which has impressed me on watching it. Again something it shares with China Central TV.

Main point: I disagree with my journalistic colleagues who are huffy because the Obama White House is treating Fox differently from the way it is treating other news organizations. Fox is different. As a practical matter, saying so could backfire on the White House. But as a matter of observing and stating reality, they're right.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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