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Taking on Foxy News

March 11, 2010

Featured Article, Words

Ah, now this article works in tandem with Jon Stewart’s nutritous takedown of Glenn Beck this week. Howell Raines, former executive editor of the New York Times, asks in the March 14, 2010 Washington Post, a fine question in an op-ed titled:

Why don’t honest journalists take on Roger Ailes and Fox News?”

Read the whole piece here, but here’s an excerpt:

… Why can’t American journalists steeped in the traditional values of their profession be loud and candid about the fact that (Rupert) Murdoch does not belong to our team? His importation of the loose rules of British tabloid journalism, including blatant political alliances, started our slide to quasi-news. His British papers famously promoted Margaret Thatcher’s political career, with the expectation that she would open the nation’s airwaves to Murdoch’s cable channels. Ed Koch once told me he could not have been elected mayor of New York without the boosterism of the New York Post.

As for Fox’s campaign against the Obama administration, perhaps the only traditional network star to put Ailes on the spot, at least a little, has been his friend, the venerable Barbara Walters, who was hosting ABC’s Sunday morning talk show. More accurately, she allowed another guest, Arianna Huffington, to belabor Ailes recently about his biased coverage of Obama. Ailes countered that he should be judged as a producer of ratings rather than a journalist — audience is his only yardstick. While true as far as it goes, this hair-splitting defense purports to absolve Ailes of responsibility for creating a news department whose raison d’etre is to dictate the outcome of our nation’s political discourse.

For the first time since the yellow journalism of a century ago, the United States has a major news organization devoted to the promotion of one political party. And let no one be misled by occasional spurts of criticism of the GOP on Fox. In a bygone era of fact-based commentary typified, left to right, by my late colleagues Scotty Reston and Bill Safire, these deceptions would have been given their proper label: disinformation.

Under the pretense of correcting a Democratic bias in news reporting, Fox has accomplished something that seemed impossible before Ailes imported to the news studio the tricks he learned in Richard Nixon’s campaign think tank: He and his video ferrets have intimidated center-right and center-left journalists into suppressing conclusions — whether on health-care reform or other issues — they once would have stated as demonstrably proven by their reporting. I try not to believe that this kid-gloves handling amounts to self-censorship, but it’s hard to ignore the evidence. News Corp., with 64,000 employees worldwide, receives the tender treatment accorded a future employer.

In defending Glenn Beck on ABC, Ailes described him as something like Fox’s political id, rather than its whole personality. It is somehow fitting, then, that Sigmund Freud’s great-grandson, Matthew Freud, might help put mainstream American journalism back in touch with its collective superego.

This year, Freud, a public relations executive in London and Murdoch’s son-in-law, condemned Ailes in an interview with the New York Times, saying he was “ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes’s horrendous and sustained disregard” of proper journalistic standards. Meanwhile, Gabriel Sherman, writing in New York magazine, suggests that Freud and other Murdoch relatives think Ailes has outlived his usefulness — despite the fact that Fox, with its $700 million annual profit, finances News Corp.’s ability to keep its troubled newspapers and their skeleton staffs on life support. I know some observers of journalistic economics who believe that such insider comments mean Rupert already has Roger on the skids.

It is true that any executive’s tenure in the House of Murdoch is situational. But grieve not for Roger Ailes. His new contract signals that when the winds of televised demagoguery abate, he will waft down on a golden parachute. By News Corp. standards, he deserves it. After all, Ailes helped make Murdoch the most powerful media executive in the United States.

As for Fox News, lots of people who know better are keeping quiet about what to call it. Its news operation can, in fact, be called many things, but reporters of my generation, with memories and keyboards, dare not call it journalism.

Howell Raines is a former executive editor of the New York Times and the author of “The One That Got Away: A Memoir.”

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