Memo to the media: Fox News is now the Opposition Party

Fox News has changed the rules in 2009. Now the press needs to change the way it covers Fox News .

Fox News has changed the rules. Now the press needs to change the way it covers Fox News.

Rupert Murdoch's cable cabal is now, first and foremost, a political entity. Fox News has transformed itself into the Opposition Party of the Obama White House, which, of course, is unprecedented for a media company in modern-day America. That partisan embrace means the news media have to expand beyond typing up Fox News-ratings-are-up and the White-House-is-angry stories, and it needs to start treating the cable channel for what it is: a partisan animal.

The press needs to drop its longstanding gentleman's agreement not to write about other news outlets as news players --not to get bogged down in criticizing the competition -- because those newsroom rules no longer apply. Fox News has exited the journalism community this year. It's a purely political player, and journalists ought to start covering it that way.

I understand Fox News still wants to enjoy the benefits of being seen as a news operation. It still wants the trappings and the professional protections that go with it. But it no longer functions as a news outlet, so why does the rest of the press naively treat it that way?

Fox News is now at the forefront of a political movement. As blogger Glenn Greenwald tweeted at the time of the Sept. 12 Washington, D.C., rally:

Seems like a fairly new phenomenon that we now have a political movement led by a TV “news” outlet -- that usually happens elsewhere.

In a follow-up email to me, Greenwald noted the similarities between Fox News' overt role in U.S. politics with places like Venezuela, where the opposition TV station led the failed 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chavez, as well as Italy, where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a media magnate, uses his TV ownership to agitate. “Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch are really using that model to organize and galvanize this protest movement,” wrote Greenwald. “It's a totally Fox News-sponsored event.”

Completely detached from traditional newsroom standards, Fox News has become a political institution, and the press needs to start treating it that way. The press needs to treat Fox News the same way it treats the Republican National Committee, even though, frankly, the RNC probably can't match the in-your-face partisanship that Fox News flaunts 24/7. Think about it: Murdoch's “news” channel now out-flanks the Republican Party when it comes to ceaseless partisan attacks on the White House.

Truth is, in recent years the RNC used to use Fox news to help amplify the partisan raids that national Republicans launched against Democrats. It was within the RNC that the partisan strategy was mapped out and initiated. (i.e. it was the RNC that first pushed the Al-Gore-invented-the-Internet smear). But it was on talk radio and Fox News where the partisan bombs got dropped. Today, that relationship has, for the most part, been inversed. Now it's within Fox News that the partisan witch hunts are plotted and launched, and it's the RNC that plays catch-up to Glenn Beck and company.

And I'm sorry, but the Fox News defense that it's a just a few on-air pundits who (relentlessly) attack the White House and that the news team still plays it straight is, at this point, a joke. What kind of “news” team, in the span of five days, airs 22 clips of health reform forums featuring only people who oppose reform? What kind of “news” team tries to pass off a GOP press release as its own research -- typo and all? What kind of “news” team promotes a partisan political rally? (Or did I miss the 100-plus free ads that CNN aired in 2003 promoting an anti-war rally?)

As Media Matters has meticulously documented this year, there is no real difference between Fox News' Obama-hating pundits and Fox News' Obama-hating news team. They have become a seamless operation at this point.

A few years ago, the dumbed-down debate surrounding Fox News was whether it truly was fair and balanced. (It wasn't.) Today, it's whether Fox News is truly a news organization. (It's not.) Yet journalists remain way too timid in spelling out the truth. Spooked by right-wing attacks about the so-called liberal media, Beltway media insiders, who certainly understand Fox News' brazen political maneuver in 2009, continue to play dumb on a massive scale and cover Fox News as a news media organization.

There are small signs that the Beltway press corps is catching on. “The United States has two parties now -- the Obama Party and the Fox Party,” Newsweek's Jonathan Alter recently noted. And in the pages of The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg was quite precise in spelling out the extraordinary changes under way [emphasis added]:

This sort of lunatic paranoia -- touched with populism, nativism, racism, and anti-intellectualism -- has long been a feature of the fringe, especially during times of economic bewilderment. What is different now is the evolution of a new political organism, with paranoia as its animating principle. The town-meeting shouters may be the organism's hands and feet, but its heart -- also, Heaven help us, its brain -- is a “conservative” media alliance built around talk radio and cable television, especially Fox News. The protesters do not look to politicians for leadership. They look to niche media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and their scores of clones behind local and national microphones.

Too often, though, journalists have danced around the obvious. It's important that this trend now stop. The self-evident truth needs to be told, and news consumers need to understand the extraordinary forces that have been unleashed -- forces that dramatically altered the media landscape. News consumers also need to understand why it's becoming increasingly impossible to maintain any kind of public discourse regarding the issues of the day, especially health care reform, when a major so-called news organization is devoted to spreading as much misinformation as possible.

And succeeding:

In our poll, 72% of self-identified FOX News viewers believe the health-care plan will give coverage to illegal immigrants, 79% of them say it will lead to a government takeover, 69% think that it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and 75% believe that it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing care for the elderly.

Instead of telling the truth, too many journalists have ducked the issue of Fox News. That trend was especially rampant during this summer's health care mini-mobs, which were egged on by Murdoch's team. For instance, look at this passage from Newsweek, as the weekly tried to detail the anger behind the mini-mob madness while politely turning a blind eye to Fox News' central role in it:

In contrast, there is no shortage of groups, politicians, and just plain folks intent on proving that health-care reform will lead to, say, the rationing of medical treatments, and they all seem to have a Web site, blog, and/or Facebook page. Given that people who are sure that the U.S. government faked the moon landings (and that Obama was born in Kenya) can find support for their view online, how surprising is it that you can Google your way to “evidence” of all the evils of Obama-care?

See? According to Newsweek, people were going “online” and using “Google” to find proof that Obama's health care proposal was pure evil. Perhaps. But guess what? All Obama haters really had to do was flick on the TV, plop down on the couch, and watch America's most-watched cable “news” channel fear monger with dire warnings about health care. But Newsweek made no mention of Fox News.

Instead, it was simply “groups,” “politicians,” and “just plain folks” who were behind the wild anti-Obama rhetoric, according to Newsweek, which forgot to mention that the country's most-watched cable news channel was driving that bus.

Indeed, this summer, Fox News was the (literal) elephant in the room. The press kept trying to explain who or what was the behind the health care mini-mobs craze; who or what was whipping people into such an unhinged, anti-Obama frenzy just seven months after the mainstream Democrat was sworn into office. Yet time and again, refusing to acknowledge the cable channel's purely political play, journalists politely declined to point the finger at Fox News.

For example, The New York Times belatedly published a detailed look at how the death panel lie was spread into the mainstream press. The article was approximately 1,200 words long. Exactly seven of those 1,200 words were set aside to acknowledge Fox News' role. (And only Glenn Beck was singled out.) Again, I'm not overstating anything when I say if it weren't for Fox News there wouldn't have been a death panel “debate” this summer. Period. It was bought and paid for by Fox News, and the whole news crew; not just the nighttime hosts. But the Times only set aside a fragment of a single sentence to highlight the cable channel's irreplaceable role.

Time and again this year, the Beltway press has politely refused to call out Fox News' new political role. Look at this Politico passage, which was utterly typical of this year's fare:

By doing so much, so fast, Obama gave Republicans the chance to define large swaths of the debate. Conservatives successfully portrayed the stimulus bill as being full of pork for Democrats. Then Obama lost control of the health care debate by letting Republicans get away with their bogus claims about “death panels.”

All the highlighted phrases, of course, are placeholders for “Fox News.” But Politico politely declined to mention Fox News. Politico would never place Fox News front and center of a political movement, because it's just a media outlet. They don't do politics, right?

It's clear that in 2009, Fox News is no longer in the business of journalism. Fox News isn't trying to inform people, it's trying to misinform them. That's not journalism. It's propaganda. But as long as the press continues to hold up the façade of journalism, Fox News will try to hide behind it.

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