Defending Fox News Is a Fool's Errand for Conservatives

Watch Jonathan Tobin try and fail so that you're never tempted to downplay the awfulness of cable news.

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."

Oh no?

I dare him to find the CNN analog of this "unholy" gem, which peaks after one minute and 10 seconds:

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. 

"The real difference between Fox and its competitors is not so much its divergence from liberalism," Tobin writes, "as Ailes's honesty about the fact that his network has a different frame of reference." This doesn't just ignore the absurdist antics. It gives Ailes, who tag-lined his network "Fair and Balanced," more credit that anyone else for ideological forthrightness. That probably slipped passed Tobin because Fox News is so manifestly not "fair and balanced" that the tag isn't even regarded as misleading anymore because there's no one could possibly be fooled by it.

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." 

If all news reporting were superior to all opinion, and if all opinion were created equal, this might prove that Fox is no more "egregious" than its competitors. But all opinion is not created equal. There is plenty to dislike about MSNBC, but an hour of opinion broadcasting from the excellent Chris Hayes and an hour from Fox's Sean Hannity are not alike in value.

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?

Tobin continues:
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. 

"What Ailes and his backer Rupert Murdoch did was to find an underserved niche of the news market," Tobin concludes. "Only in this case that niche is made up of approximately half of the American people." Sounds like Fox News math to me. As I figure it, the United States has about 313 million people, and Fox News averages about 3 million viewers in prime time, so evidently the niche is somewhat smaller than half of the American people. (Fox got its highest ever ratings during a presidential debate, reaching 11.5 million viewers.)

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.