Those who’d ‘shut up’ Fox News ignore press freedom

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Outside the midtown studios of the Fox News Channel on the second night of the Republican Convention in New York, more than 1,000 indignant protesters engaged in a “shut-up-athon.” Shouting “Fox lies, people die,” they charged the cable network with being “a mouthpiece for the Republicans.”

I encounter less volatile versions of this groupthink when friends are shocked that I regularly watch Fox News.

I wonder how many of those clamoring to shut up Fox have actually watched the channel. To be sure, Fox houses an array of such bristling conservative commentators as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. But their hosts continually welcome direct, on-air combat with guests of vigorously opposing views. I’ve been on Mr. O’Reilly’s show, and I didn’t have to be carried out.

Moreover, having covered Congress and the presidency for more than a half-century, I rate Fox’s Carl Cameron and Jim Angle as among the fairest and most illuminating broadcast correspondents on the beat. Also, Fox reporters in the field, around the world, are professional, resourceful journalists, not apparatchiks for the Republican Party.

But Fox News Channel is not only targeted by the sans-culottes roaring outside its studios during the Republican convention. Moveon.org, which strikes me as a mouthpiece for Sen. John Kerry’s campaign, and the more credible Common Cause, a grass-roots government watchdog, actually filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission accusing Fox News Channel of deceptive advertising because of its persistent claim of being “fair and balanced.”

In the July 20 Wall Street Journal, FTC Chairman Timothy Muris provided Moveon.org and Common Cause with a basic lesson on the “freedom of the press” clause in the First Amendment, saying:

“I am not aware of any instance in which the Federal Trade Commission has investigated the slogan of a news organization. There is no way to evaluate this petition without evaluating the content of the news at issue. That is a task the First Amendment leaves to the American people, not a government agency.”

The First Amendment, of course, does not mandate that journalism, or any form of expression, be fair and balanced. For example, there is the loudly partisan Al Franken, a resounding critic of Fox News. The usually astute Roger Ailes, founder of the channel, made a dumb mistake when he permitted Fox News to sue Mr. Franken for trademark abuse in the title of Mr. Franken’s best seller, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The First Amendment also protects Mr. Franken.

In recent years, Mr. Franken had greatly enhanced his career by freely eschewing the notion of being fair and balanced. But Mr. Franken has not condemned the anti-First Amendment complaint to the FTC by Moveon.org and Common Cause.

None of the attacks alleging that Fox News Channel is a tool of the Republicans have mentioned the regular appearances of Judge Andrew Napolitano, the only commentator on broadcast or cable television who continually explains our civil liberties as protected by the Constitution, particularly its Bill of Rights, in his analysis of news events. He appears on morning shows as well as John Gibson’s “The Big Story” in the afternoon, and often instructs Mr. O’Reilly on constitutional matters (not always with success).

Here is a characteristic commentary by Fox’s senior judicial analyst both on the air and on the March 5, 2004, editorial page of the Wall Street Journal — whose editors do not share Judge Napolitano’s views on Attorney General John Ashcroft. Speaking of the administration’s expansion of National Security Letters, Judge Napolitano emphasizes:

“Now, without you knowing it, the Justice Department can learn where you traveled, what you spent, what you ate, what you paid to finance your car and your house, what you confided to your lawyer and insurance and real estate agents, and what periodicals you read without having to demonstrate any evidence or even suspicion of criminal activity on your part.”

The judge has pointed out that these National Security Letters are sent out by the government without the requirement of a judge’s approval; and he notes that this pervasive violation of our privacy was signed into law by the president on Dec. 13, 2003, as part of the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal 2004.

Is this the work of a “mouthpiece for the Republican Party”?

Fox News is watched by more Americans, on many nights, than CNN. On the first night of the Republican convention, an average of 3.6 million viewers watched Fox, compared with 1.2 million CNN viewers. Fox continually trumps MSNBC. On three nights, Fox beat NBC, CBS and ABC. Its coverage does indeed appeal to conservatives, but not only conservatives.

When I teach, I advise students to watch Fox from time to time, and judge for themselves. They might be quite surprised.

Published with the permission of Nat Hentoff. May be linked to but not republished without Hentoff’s permission. Originally posted on The Washington Times Web site on Sept. 13. Hentoff is a contributing editor to Editor & Publisher and also writes for The Village Voice in New York.

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