July 19, 2004  ·  Lessig

My wife is a housing attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid. Her work keeps mine in perspective. Yesterday, she sent friends the following appeal. Please excuse the interruption of this “free culture” channel for an issue that will determine whether hundreds of thousands of mostly working families will have a roof over their head next month.

On Jul 18, 2004, at 10:53 PM, Bettina Neuefeind wrote:

Click here to read.

July 18, 2004  ·  Lessig

“Is ‘Fair and Balanced’ ridiculous?” So opened the FOX News Watch segment examining Robert Greenwald‘s film, OutFOXed. And astonishingly, the uncontradicted view of FOX News Watch was “yes”! As Neal Gabler put it, “To say that this network promotes the Republican view … is like saying that the Pope is Catholic. It’s self-evident … pretty much undeniable.” But, he asks, as if he hadn’t actually seen the film, “So what?”

So what? Well first, start with the question that opened the segment: Fox says it is “Fair and Balanced.” If it is “self-evident” that it is not, then I guess we agree then that it is “ridiculous” to say that it is. And second, “obviously” media critics get this about Fox. Anyone who critically watches Fox gets this about Fox. But as one questioner at the San Francisco opening put it, for those who aren’t media critics, and for those who don’t actually watch Fox, just how “ridiculous” Fox’s claim is is something significant. My bet is that a cross-section of FOX viewers would be surprised just how false Fox’s claims actually are.

The discussion opened with Jim Pinkerton of Newsday calling the film “dull and didactic.” He then asserted that the film says that media networks are “either worse than the Mafia that ran Cuba in the 1950s or worse than the Soviet Union.” When I heard him say that, I understood why he saw the film as “dull and didactic”: if this is his view, he didn’t really watch the film. The opening allusion to the Mafia comes from Robert McChesney, where he compares how the Mafia carved up Cuba with how the government carves up media ownership — nothing to do with the media being “worse than the Mafia.” The allusion to the Soviet Union, also McChesney’s, again had nothing to do with Pinkerton’s claim. McChesney’s claim was simply that propaganda is most effective when the audience is unaware — unlike in the Soviet Union.

The other simple fabrication of Pinkerton was that the film comprised “two or three disgruntled employees.” That’s true if by “two or three” you mean seven (four listed here; three requested anonymity). But the more fundamental fabrication is the suggestion that the film’s claims are based on nothing more than the word of “two or three disgruntled employees.” The film has five independent sources for its “self-evident,” as Grabler puts it, conclusion: (1) former Foxies, (2) Fox memos (unmentioned by anyone on the show), (3) independent studies of Fox viewers, (4) media commentators, and (5) clips from Fox shows.

Cal Thomas — who was one of the people in the film — found the film flawed because it “ignored the many Democrats I’ve had on my show.” Again, not true. The movie never asserts that there are no Democrats, or liberals on the show. It just asserts — not denied by Thomas — that the “balance” is “unbalanced.” Indeed, in one of the best parts of the film, Greenwald reports a media group that studied months of Brit Hume’s “Special Report” and found over 80% of the guests on that premier show were Republican — and that most of the Democrats were centrists. Not balanced, and not a fair picture of the facts reported.

Thomas goes on (with his wonderful announcer voice — I love listening to him) to say something extraordinary however. Here’s the quote:

“I think the reason that this network looks so Republican … is by contrast on [sic] what the others do. If you went and did — as the Media Research Center has done — clips of what is said on the broadcast networks … you would find an enormous tilt to the left. So by contrast it looks conservative.”

I think we need more Media Research Centers on both the Left and Right and — imagine this — even without a political agenda! But I’ve not seen that they’ve put together “clips” as Greenwald has. And again, the film is comparing what Fox News actually is to what Fox News says it is.

Jane Hall (Who? She’s an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University) complained the film was flawed because it left “out any evidence to the contrary.” There were plenty of liberals on Fox she said — for example, she said, she was a liberal. She also mentioned Jeff Cohen, cofounder of FAIR, was on Fox News Watch “for five years.”

Jeff Cohen? Actually, the movie not only doesn’t ignore Jeff Cohen. He is one of the most critical interviewees. And again, the film doesn’t say there are no liberals on Fox. The show instead reports Clara Frenk reporting that the “quality” of the liberals was far less than the quality of the conservatives — in the sense that the liberals were either “unknown” or “weak.”

Hall also repeated the total non-thought that has been framed around this film — that somehow the film is weak because it didn’t get Roger Ailes to respond. The film in fact has Roger Ailes stating Fox News was to be a fair and balanced news program. It also has Roger Ailes stating Fox News failed its viewers on election night by allowing George Bush’s cousin, on the basis of extremely weak data, to call the election for Bush. But even if it didn’t twice include Roger Ailes in the film, the idea that before you release a film critical of someone you must include their comment is inane. I’ve had many critical reviews of my work published, some very intelligent, some others not. Never has anyone asked me for my comment on their review before they publish it. Indeed, to do so would be unethical.

But my favorite part of the whole show is the contrast between segment one and segment two. The review of Outfoxed was in segment two. Segment one was about — I swear — “Media bias.” For a full segment, Fox News Watch focused on a single statement by Newsweek’s Evan Thomas. As Media Research Center quotes him,

The media want Kerry to win. They�re going to portray Kerry and Edwards as being young and dynamic and optimistic, and this glow is going to be worth maybe 15 points.”

This single quote by a single editor at a single magazine apparently proves, according to the show, that liberal “media bias” exists. Yet a film gathering (1) former Foxies, (2) Fox memos, (3) independent studies of Fox viewers, (4) media commentators, and (5) clips from Fox shows is, by contrast, “not that fairly put together,” said Eric Burns, the show’s host.

I guess they would know. They’re the trademark holder for the words “Fair and Balanced” (at least until the challenge to that trademark gets resolved).