First, fair, Fox? 

30 April 2006

Fox News logo

A fair and balanced commentary?

The world of 24 hour news channels is as varied and diverse as the news itself. Some, like CNN and Sky News, have been around so long that they have become familiar and accepted by us all, even those who don’t watch 24 hour news. Some, like BBC News 24, have developed to become well-respected services, whilst others, like the ITV News Channel, didn’t survive long enough to grow into the potential they were showing.

But none have ever created as much controversy, in both political and media circles, as the Fox News Channel.

Back in the mid 1990s, several commentators on the right wing of the political spectrum in the United States saw the media as generally too favourable to the liberal agenda, with not enough pressure being applied to the then-US President, Bill Clinton. That was all to change over the next few years – but nobody knew that then.

In 1996, with Clinton fighting for a second term in office, NBC closed a channel called America’s Talking. It was basically television’s version of the many talk radio stations that are available throughout the United States. It had been spun off from CNBC, the Consumer News and Business Channel, launching on July 4th 1994, and was based at CNBC’s then headquarters at Fletcher Avenue in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

The trouble was, it was a spectacular flop. It had never gained much of an audience, and little cable carriage. The only show to survive the channel was Politics with Chris Matthews which moved to CNBC and was retitled Hardball with Chris Matthews. The show then later moved to MSNBC.

America’s Talking was closed to make way for an additional news channel from Microsoft and NBC, called MSNBC. But in many ways, America’s Talking only moved networks, from NBC to Fox. In 1996, Roger Ailes, who at the time was head of both America’s Talking and CNBC, was approached by Rupert Murdoch to launch a new news channel. Murdoch, who also part-owned British Sky Broadcasting, had been behind the launch of Sky News on February 5th 1989, and wanted to launch another news channel, this time in the US.

However, unlike Sky News, the conservative Murdoch wanted this news channel to counter some of the “liberal bias” that he perceived in the US media. Ailes agreed to head up the channel and managed to persuade some of his colleagues from CNBC and America’s Talking to join him at the new venture, notably, Steve Doocy from America’s Talking AM, and Neil Cavuto from CNBC’s Power Lunch and Market Wrap. Both are still with Fox News Channel today.

Another commentator who has pretty much been there from the beginning is Bill O’Reilly. He had been a local news reporter for some years, before becoming a correspondent for CBS News. He was based in Buenos Aires and covered both the Falklands War and the El Salvador war. In 1986, he jumped across to ABC as a correspondent for the main news programme, ABC World News Tonight.

In 1989, he joined Fox’s syndicated current affairs programme, Inside Edition as Senior Correspondent and reserve anchor for Sir David Frost. However, David left the show and Bill O’Reilly became the Senior Anchor. In 1995, O’Reilly was replaced by Deborah Norville, who had anchored NBC News at Sunrise, and was famously remembered as “the other woman” in the Today set alongside hosts Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley. When Pauley left Today, Norville was promoted to co-host with Bryant Gumbel, but disastrous ratings followed and she left the show, initially only on maternity leave to have a child, but since temporary co-host Katie Couric had helped boost ratings, NBC announced that Norville would not return. Deborah Norville still holds the fort at Inside Edition today.

In 1996, Bill O’Reilly joined Fox News Channel as host of The O’Reilly Report, which later became The O’Reilly Factor. O’Reilly has faced much the same claims about his own political standing as Fox News has about the channel’s perceived political bias. He has often been referred to as a Conservative pundit, despite constant denials.

The programme advertises itself as a “No-Spin Zone”. His style is often confrontational, and always direct. He described himself is his book, The O’Reilly Factor, as being “conservative on some issues, liberal on others and sane on most.” Exact percentages, though, have yet to be determined.

The Fox News Channel itself has been on the wrong end of many accusations about its own bias. The infamous documentary, Outfoxed, directed by Robert Greenwald, made a lot of claims regarding Fox News and its perceived right-wing bias. The film had been researched by a team of volunteers sitting down and watching Fox News Channel non-stop for a period of several months. That research project has gained a life of its own outside the film and continues online under the name News Hounds, with the slogan, “We watch FOX so you don’t have to.”

However, the film has received substantial criticism itself. Claims, for example, of editing clips so that comments were taken out of their real context, and former employees who in fact never worked for Fox News, continue to hang over the production.

Personal ‘Talking Points’

Having been a fairly consistent viewer of the channel over the past six months or so, I have to say that, personally, I find some things about the channel quite disagreeable. So, in true Fox News style, here are my own ‘Talking Points’ about the channel.

For a start, I do not like the channel’s reliance on dramatic music and sound effects, ominous sounding stings and flashy graphics. It says to me that the channel places more emphasis on the presentation of the story than on the content. To my mind, that is like putting the cart before the horse.

I also find the channel’s continual assertions about supposedly being “Fair and Balanced” come across too strongly, as though they want that impression to be uppermost in people’s minds when talking about the channel. It reminds me of the quote from Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

I also dislike the way some anchors and presenters interrupt some of their guests when the guest is giving a different stance to the anchor/presenter. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the presenter or anchor taking the opposite viewpoint or taking a challenging viewpoint in an interview situation – it’s their job after all, and they want to get the best from the interviewee. However, by talking over their victim, it gives the impression that the viewpoint they are taking is in fact their own strongly held belief, and rather than trying to get the best from the interviewee, they are in fact trying to talk them down and make them look bad.

I find the ‘Fox News Alert’ use to be inconsistent. Sometimes, you hear those sweeping sounds, and that ominous chord, and it gets followed by a very important piece of breaking news. On other occasions, such as one time during an edition of Your World with Neil Cavuto, the sting was played, and then they proceeded to announce that the UN was still in deadlock on the third day of discussions about Iran. That’s hardly breaking news. In fact, when it comes to the UN, it practically seems to be business as usual: I don’t see what the justification was for playing the Alert.

I personally dislike the way News and Opinion get mixed in the schedule. The channel comes across much more like a News/Talk radio station than a 24 hour television news channel. Their breakfast programme, Fox and Friends has discussion between the hosts at the top of the hour about the top stories as they see them, rather than just reporting the facts. Also, some of the hosts seem to regard themselves as the stars of their shows, instead of being just a facilitator. I find this especially to be the case with Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. I have never liked the style of news programmes where the anchor’s name is part of the title. For instance, why does it have to be NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams? Why not just “NBC Nightly News”? I do not see these people as the stars of their particular shows: I see them as people with big egos who need to be taken down a peg or two.

Whilst Fox News might be one of the higher-rated news channels in the US, it has far fewer viewers over here in the UK. Official BARB ratings show that whilst BBC News 24 reaches 5.7 million viewers a week and Fox News’s sister channel, Sky News, reaches 4.2 million viewers over the same period, Fox News limps in with around 200,000. While it might be to the taste of many Americans, and some other viewers around the world, it seems that Brits are not so embracing of it.

Those are my ‘talking points’. And one more thing: while you’ve been reading this article, you have been in a ‘No-Spin Zone’.

See also: The Most Biased Name in News

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