What Fox Does Can't Be Called News
By John Young, Editorial Writer
By Permission of the Waco Tribune-Herald
Geneva Overholser is a new hero for journalists everywhere.
She has made a resounding statement on one of the signature issues of the information age: the bastardization of the word "news."
Woodward and Bernstein were heroes of another age in journalism. They changed history with their guileful pursuit of the truth. We need new heroes who are more interested in truth than in polishing the shoes of the powerful and playing to the audience's urges.
Overholser, now a University of Missouri professor, is former ombudsman of the Washington Post and editor of the Des Moines Register She is a true newswoman, unlike some of the characters we'll discuss in a moment.
Recently Overholser resigned from the board of the National Press Foundation when it decided to honor Fox News' Brit Hume at its annual dinner.
"Fox wants to do news from a certain viewpoint, but it wants to claim that it is 'fair and balanced,'" she said.
Clearly, Overholser's protest was aimed more at Fox than at Hume, who served for a real news organization, ABC, before bringing credibility's veneer to Fox.
Hume's qualifications are close to irrelevant, anyway. What's most relevant is that the man who runs Fox News, Roger Ailes, was a political hack in his previous life.
As campaign director for George H.W. Bush in the 1988 race against Michael Dukakis, Ailes set new standards for low blows. He is to attack ads what Edison was to electrocutions. Now here he is, shilling for fairness and objectivity, and Bill O'Reilly.
"The O'Reilly Factor" is touted by Fox News as "the No. 1 prime-time program on cable news." That says it all about the state of what passes as "news" in 2004. O'Reilly is not a newsman but a drumbeater.
Drumbeaters have their place in history, like beside the fife and flag. In the elective war against Iraq, Fox and O'Reilly assumed the position. Last year before the invasion, O'Reilly said that if American forces didn't find weapons of mass destruction, "I will apologize to the nation, and I will not trust the Bush administration again."
Only recently, challenged on-air by ABC's Charles Gibson, did O'Reilly do that, of a sort, saying, "I am much more skeptical of the Bush administration now."
The next day O'Reilly was back to his normal self, essentially portraying the WMD matter as secondary to ousting bad man Saddam. If George Bush had made WMD secondary, we would not have 100,000 troops in Iraq today.
It is extremely unfortunate that the Charles Gibsons of the world do not hold, say, Colin Powell, to account for drumbeating that leads a nation to war on false pretenses. We certainly don't expect Bill O'Reilly to ask those questions.
Then there's Sean Hannity, who gives rosy cheeks to "ugly American." Using Fox face time, and expanding on it ad nauseam on his syndicated radio show, he pumped a rumor about a John Kerry affair, based in part on a bogus quotation by the alleged lover's father.
That may pose as news where Hannity lives and works, but not where Geneva Overholser has lived and worked.
The problem, of course, is that any organization can call what it presents "news" and sufficient numbers will accept it. The proof that Fox is "fair and balanced" is that it says it is. And Bush and Powell were using the "best intelligence available" because they say it was.
They, like Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, command a massive propaganda machine. They'll call it what they want. Call it news.
The National Rifle Association recently said that it would seek to purchase a TV or radio station and declare itself a news organization to exempt itself from limits in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. Outrageous-except when you consider that Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network has a "news bureau" and a nightly "news report."
Ideological spin portrayed as "news" always finds willing ears. It's good to hear of a true newswoman who honors the difference.