In the waiting room of your doctor’s office you will find an out-of-date People magazine and a TV set locked permanently on Fox News. You’re likely to find something entertaining in both media.
No harm will be done by quoting from People, everybody knows the magazine is a source for relatively toothless gossip.
The immediate past-president of the Association of Opinion Journalists (formerly the National Conference of Editorial Writers) has this thought about Fox: “Seems to me Fox News is more like pro wrestling than an actual news outlet. Think about it. Almost everyone who goes on Fox News knows their role — you have your good guys, your heels, your predictable good-vs.-bad storylines, over-the-top rhetoric. It’s probably all very comforting to their loyal followers.”
(Full disclosure: Bob Davis was not speaking for the association. He is also editor and associate publisher of The Star.)
A network of pure entertainment and hokum can’t be said for Fox News.
Its president, Roger Ailes, is a politician, not a journalist. In the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, his main job was crafting pleasing images of Republican candidates including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Is it possible for a man to discard the suit of a Madison Avenue image salesman for the vestal raiments of disinterested “fairness and accuracy” without retaining some tricks of his former role underneath the judicial robes?
One answer to the question comes from NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik in his book, Murdock’s World, about the Australian media mogul who owns Fox and media on three continents, including the United States.
Folkenflik writes, “Roger Ailes developed his philosophy as he shaped the media efforts of two presidential campaigns — Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush. Ailes knows how to make a candidate look presidential. And he also knows how to throw a punch … Ailes’ key insight is defining opponents before they define themselves.”
Much of the dirty work is done by a powerful public relations unit, which is literally an extension of its newsroom — a combination that would not be seen at any normal and ethical newspaper.
Honest media draw a red line separating church and state (advertising and editorials being the church and a newsroom free of outside interests being the state). They are kept scrupulously apart, sometimes to a ridiculous extent.
Not so at Fox. Its PR staff writes bogus posts praising Fox and excoriating its enemies, playing down its mistakes, even ambushing wary reporters.
NPR’s Folkenflik, while working for the Baltimore Sun, nailed Fox’s swashbuckling news chief, Geraldo Rivera, who was filmed on air praying at the site of an alleged ambush of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The scene was faked up; the site was 300 miles away. Fox’s response: an honest mistake.
Also quoted in Folkenflik’s book was the ambush of a business reporter who called the PR unit for comment on the surge in rival CNN’s ratings. No answer … until a producer for the highly opinionated Bill O’Reilly emailed to tell the reporter that top executives were worried and they were going to use O’Reilly to anchor the evening news — like MSNBC.
When the reporter went with the story, Fox PR slammed him, adding, “If (he) is so off base with this ‘fact,’ you’d have to question all his other ‘reporting’ when it comes to Fox News.”
Folkenflik interviewed former PR staffers about their bogus posts. They stay busy. One staffer recalled 20 different aliases, another had 100 aliases to praise Fox and denounce enemies, old laptops were distributed so their secret praise-and-poison operation could not be traced.
By contrast, you might note how many critical letters to the editor are published in this newspaper, as in most dailies of any size.
Further, Star Editor Bob Davis assembled a group of our critics who were not reticent about improvements, oversights and other criticisms. Finally, he asked, “When we publish a story, do you believe us?” Silent ascent made a point about credibility, which might be a coda that Fox — and, to be fair, MSNBC as well — ought to strive to achieve.