There is an ad for Fox News in some Metro-North cars, which reads:
FAIR AND BALANCED
“America guarantees a free press — Freedom depends on a fair press” — Roger Ailes
The strange part is, FOX News makes no pretense of objectivity. Lead news anchor Brit Hume looked into the camera, in the middle of a news report, and told anti-war protesters they were sickening. Flagship talkshow host Bill O’Reilly mocked a serious crash in the Tour de France this summer by saying “Anything that happens in France is ridiculous.” Personally, I’m glad to see such candor about its ideological preferences: too many public figures mask their goals and beliefs to hook a broader audience. The channel’s honesty in its general image, however, does not extend to the actual wording of its advertisements. The ad above must be taken with a wink. It’s a joke, one the channel’s audience gets instantly. To that audience, “fair and balanced” doesn’t mean “unbiased,” it means “bias I agree with.” The network suspends its objectivity for a better connection with its audience, and its audience knows it.
That suspension is nothing new; FOX News certainly didn’t invent it. “Real journalism” has always had some viewpoint behind it, and the television news audience has never minded much. Walter Cronkite didn’t make his name by reporting the news objectively. When he looked into the camera on Feb. 27, 1968 and offered his “speculative, personal” conclusion, as he called it, that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, he acted in good journalistic conscience, as FOX News’ staff presumably does today.
Middle Americans trusted Cronkite, not because he was unbiased, but because he shared their biases. His demeanor fit their expectation that truthful journalists should report the facts, with little visible bias. It helped, perhaps, that he delivered his editorial judgment in high seriousness and respectful language, but had most Americans felt he was basically wrong, they would certainly have respected him less afterward. As it is, a 1972 poll named him the most trusted man in America.
So FOX News doesn’t bother me because it plays to its audience’s biases. As Edmund Burke noted, the basic assumptions of the ages, what he called “prejudice,” are necessary starting points for any serious thought. American conservatism represents one set of basic assumptions, one that I don’t tend to share, but that I am bound to respect by the many decent people who have held it. As a student of hermeneutics, I deal professionally with how the biases readers bring to their texts interact with those they find in the texts themselves. Our interactions with others, and their different biases, do much to improve our minds, and I would be sorry to see us all in agreement about everything.
Given the divisions in our society, bias in the news is to be expected, and a multiplicity of opinions welcomed. Cronkite’s high-mindedness provides a positive model for would-be mass journalists: seek the truth and admit your subjectivity when you sense it at work.
FOX’s “Fair and Balanced” slogan, however, departs from the Cronkite model by making ideology the sole ground of reality. Its viewers are willing to be lied to in an ad about a factual point of balance, provided it’s by a news source that agrees with their basic assumptions. The slogan’s truth flows, not from the facts before them, but from the viewer’s identification with the values of God, country and family, in which FOX News wraps itself. From a strictly factual standpoint, it would be tempting to look at Bill O’Reilly’s slogan “No-Spin Zone” and call it ridiculous: if spin means biased presentation of the news, then he never stops spinning. But he shares his viewership’s core beliefs. In their hearts, they know he’s right. They get the joke. What he does really isn’t spin: it’s truth telling. His biases are right, and are themselves sufficient to turn even a lie (“No-Spin Zone”) into truth. O’Reilly is not alone in provoking such a reaction in his viewership, either. If NPR’s Terry Gross made any implicit claim to objectivity, his own unabashed leftism in a disastrous interview with O’Reilly should put it to rest. Any listener who still accepts a Gross claim of balance in the face of the facts has become as bound to her ideology as the O’Reilly fan she detests.
An ideology that has the power to turn lies to truth isn’t just politics. It’s a faith. Its icons will be objects not of skeptical inquiry, but of worship. Kierkegaard said Abraham’s faith created a “teleological suspension of the ethical”: he was not a murderer, for his faith raised him above calculations of right and wrong. FOX News’ viewers, if they consider FOX to represent balance, must have that kind of faith in the figures and doctrines of their politics.
Walter Cronkite never lied to his audience; he was loyal to his and his audience’s principles, but also to the facts as he saw them. His journalistic truth was sometimes subjective, but always open to all comers on the basis of shared facts. By asking its audience to believe its slogan’s lie, FOX News discards that universal factuality, closing itself off from any audience that has not already joined its ideological suspension of the truth. So, of course, so would any news outlet that defined itself by its bias while proclaiming its objectivity. As a person of faith myself, I cannot object to that choice. All religions make some truth claims that go deeper than the visible facts. But if their followers lie, I cannot call that journalism.
Christopher Ashley is a junior in Silliman College.