As a political news junkie, I often watch MSNBC and Fox News to compare the difference in reporting and choice of news stories they cover. One day over summer, I was watching the morning news programs on MSNBC and Fox News when Fox News interrupted their normal broadcast with breaking news: an airplane had its tire blow out on takeoff and was circling over the airport to burn up fuel so the plane would weigh less for the now slightly riskier landing. I found it somewhat interesting but decided to change the channel to see what was on MSNBC. After a little while, I changed back to Fox News to see what story they were now covering. To my surprise, they were still covering the airplane, now discussing the landing problems that may arise with a retired pilot. The story had not developed any further (it was still burning off fuel, which it did for roughly an hour or so) but they apparently deemed this story more pertinent than other stories about politics or the economy. And further to my surprise, the tire that blew out was one of the rear tires, which did not really compromise the integrity of the aircraft, as the retired pilot informed Megyn Kelly. It made me wonder why, if there was no real danger and thus no real news story to cover, why Fox News was making it into a story. To be fair, I switched the station to MSNBC and it too was covering the airplane, although much less thoroughly, maintaining, for the most part, its standard news broadcast.
I realized then that it was a product of the political-entertainment complex, the uniting of media and big business to generate a constant stream of revenue, the rise of 24-hour news media outlets.
Fox News has no doubt been a leader and a visionary in the cable news market, maintaining a large proportion of market share over the last decade. But Fox News has also developed a new type of news coverage that has proven to increase profit margins: conflating sensationalized editorializing with “fair and balanced” news coverage — the commentators provide the controversy, whether real or fabricated, that hooks people in while the reporters maintain the semblance of Fox News as a news channel. As Fox News began getting more viewership, MSNBC decided to follow suit and add liberal commentators, most notably Keith Olbermann whose sometimes bombastic and often aggressive style compared nicely with the likes of Bill O’Reilly.
The problem with Fox News is that it allows factual errors on its non-news programs (such as all those that actually earn them money: “O’Reilly Factor,” “Glenn Beck,” “The Sean Hannity Show,” etc.). MSNBC at least maintains factual accuracy, or, if a fact is indeed misstated, is corrected in a subsequent program, as I have seen on occasion. Fox News makes no apologies when their commentators assert factual inaccuracies, saying it’s an entertainment program, not a news program. This has allowed them to develop what MediaMatters.org calls The Fox Cycle.
The first part in the six-step pattern is when right-wing bloggers, talk radio hosts, etc. promote (and often distort) some news story. From there, Fox News picks it up, spins it heavily to one side and then proceeds to attack the “liberal” media for not covering the story. Following the mob, mainstream media outlets pick up the story and reiterates what right-wing media outlets have claimed to be factually accurate. After Fox News credits themselves for breaking the story (which is step five in case you’re keeping count), and damage has been done, the story is exposed as distorted or blatantly false. This pattern can be seen with the ACORN scandal (which MediaMatters.org goes into detail about), and with the release of the edited version of Shirley Sherrod’s speech that ended in her forced resignation at the USDA. These are just the tip of the iceberg.
The danger of this all is a misinformed populace, one in which 24 percent mistakenly believe President Obama is a Muslim and 20 percent believe he wasn’t born in the United States (with 23 percent uncertain). It results in a populace that gets wrapped up in the rhetoric, believing the platitudes offered by each party and finding combative ideological politics entertaining for the political spectacle. It assuredly feeds into the polarization of politics, especially since conservatives and liberals each have their own networks through which to speak. The only safeguard against this is to read newspapers or newsmagazines in order to get the full story without the spin from the right or left.
When profit, and not the truth, becomes the primary driving force for news media, journalistic integrity is often compromised because a controversial story (such as Sherrod’s supposedly racist comments) attracts more viewership than a true story (Sherrod was sharing a story about how she overcame her feelings of racial animosity toward a white farmer).
A healthy democracy needs an informed citizenry, something the political-entertainment complex is failing miserably at achieving.