Why Legitimate Journalists Pretend Fox Is A News Outlet

Harold Raines, a former editor of The New York Times asks a good question over at The Washington Post: Why don’t honest journalists take on Roger Ailes and Fox News?

One question has tugged at my professional conscience throughout the year-long congressional debate over health-care reform, and it has nothing to do with the public option, portability or medical malpractice. It is this: Why haven’t America’s old-school news organizations blown the whistle on Roger Ailes, chief of Fox News, for using the network to conduct a propaganda campaign against the Obama administration — a campaign without precedent in our modern political history?

Through clever use of the Fox News Channel and its cadre of raucous commentators, Ailes has overturned standards of fairness and objectivity that have guided American print and broadcast journalists since World War II. Yet, many members of my profession seem to stand by in silence as Ailes tears up the rulebook that served this country well as we covered the major stories of the past three generations, from the civil rights revolution to Watergate to the Wall Street scandals. This is not a liberal-versus-conservative issue. It is a matter of Fox turning reality on its head with, among other tactics, its endless repetition of its uber-lie: “The American people do not want health-care reform.”

Fox repeats this as gospel. But as a matter of historical context, usually in short supply on Fox News, this assertion ranks somewhere between debatable and untrue.

The American people and many of our great modern presidents have been demanding major reforms to the health-care system since the administration of Teddy Roosevelt. The elections of 1948, 1960, 1964, 2000 and 2008 confirm the point, with majorities voting for candidates supporting such change. Yet congressional Republicans have managed effective campaigns against health-care changes favored variously by Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Clinton. Now Fox News has given the party of Lincoln a free ride with its repetition of the unexamined claim that today’s Republican leadership really does want to overhaul health care — if only the effort could conform to Mitch McConnell’s ideas on portability and tort reform.

It is true that, after 14 months of Fox’s relentless pounding of President Obama’s idea of sweeping reform, the latest Gallup poll shows opinion running 48 to 45 percent against the current legislation. Fox invariably stresses such recent dips in support for the legislation, disregarding the majorities in favor of various individual aspects of the reform effort. Along the way, the network has sold a falsified image of the professional standards that developed in American newsrooms and university journalism departments in the last half of the 20th century.

Raines proceeded to further discuss how Fox abuses journalistic standards:

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.

There are at least three answers I can think of (none of which are all that good) as to why Fox and the arguments they spread to the rest of the media are not challenged enough:

  1. Far too many journalists are lazy. They don’t see any point in taking on Fox or those who repeat the GOP/Fox line. It is easier to put on a conservative who repeats their usual lies, a liberal who might be telling the truth, and not to bother trying to determine the actual facts.
  2. Accusations of liberal bias. Conservatives whine about a mythical “liberal media” and the lazy journalists decide it isn’t worth fighting. Often this leads to putting on the lying conservative without even bothering to put on the reality-based counter arguments.
  3. Journalists often stick together. Sometimes this might even be due to a misguided belief this is necessary to defend freedom of the press. In reality it is the abuse of journalistic standards by Fox which is harmful to the free press. Fox is essentially a propaganda arm of the Republican Party and it should be treated just as an official GOP press office would be treated, and not as a legitimate news organization.

Changing The Game On Health Care Reform

Patrick H. Caddell and Douglas E. Schoen warn in an op-ed in The Washington Post that the midterms will be deadly for the Democrats if they ignore the polls on health care. They over state their case but these warnings should also not be ignored.

To predict Democratic losses this fall is a safe bet without looking at any particular issues. Midterms elections such as this the one being held this year historically favors the opposition party. The Democrats have additional obstacles such as having to defend seats picked up in the last two cycles which have historically voted Republican and not having Obama on the ballot. Health care will very likely be an issue, but it is also possible that other issues might be more important by this fall. Sometimes totally unexpected events such as the 9/11 attack and Katrina have totally changed the electoral picture.

Polls are a snap shot of what is happening at present and may or may not apply several months down the road. Polls on health care can be misleading because while many polls have showed opposition to a general question about the bill, breaking down the polls has provided a different picture since many people have such a distorted view of what is in the bill:

  • People who oppose the bill often tell pollsters they do support the individual components of the bill (along with supporting the public option which is not currently in the Senate bill)
  • Explaining what is in the bill has resulted in increases of as much as twenty percent in support of the bill
  • Some polls show that almost as many people oppose the current bill because it doesn’t go far enough as to believing it does too much

Factors such as these lead many to discount the polls. Plus, as Andrew Sullivan points out, the authors over state the opposition to the poll by relying on Rasmussen which has often been an outlier. Recent polls also suggest an increase in support with Obama becoming more involved.  This does not mean there is no validity to the argument.

One problem is that many of the benefits of health care reform will not be seen for a few years after the bill is passed. We will hear the same conservative distortions, possibly leading people to think that passage of the bill was a bad thing even if they would support the bill if they understood it better. Many Democrats argue that it will be easier to defend a specific bill once passed. This assumes that after the conservatives have been so successful in winning the spin war on the current legislation since last summer that this will suddenly change, which is not a safe assumption.

Even if it is true that supporting health care reform is politically dangerous, many still support it because it is the right thing to do. This is a valid argument, but people shouldn’t be blinded into thinking that because it is the right thing to do the political calculations will change. Doing nothing after all this time also makes Democrats look weak and ineffective. Those who are angry with the Democrats because of health care reform will not necessarily be appeased by having the measure defeated. There is also a tremendous gap in intensity. Those who hate the bill hate it. Those who support the bill often do so because they see it as the only way to keep health care reform alive, even if the bill is flawed, and hope to improve upon it later.

What the Democrats really need is a game changer. If a significant percentage of voters are convinced the current bill is so awful, perhaps it is to the benefit of the Democrats to promote a new bill which concentrates on the more important issues which have the greatest support. There is some truth to the argument that each part of the bill depend upon the other parts and this cannot easily be passed incrementally. In reality a major component of the bill, the public option, has already removed. A bill with an individual mandate but no public option is already a major difference, with the mandate fueling much of the opposition (despite the fact that this was originally a Republican idea).

Craig Crawford suggests it is possible to “play it safe” starting by concentrating on elements of the bill which are popular:

  • Preventing insurers from excluding people because of pre-existing conditions
  • Tax credits to small businesses to help their workers get coverage
  • Creating a new health insurance marketplace
  • Closing the Medicare “doughnut hole” so that seniors would no longer face a period of having to pay the full cost of their medicines
  • Expanding high-risk insurance pools for individuals who cannot get coverage elsewhere

He also believes that “lots of Republicans would come on board” if these items are added:

  • Purchasing insurance across state lines
  • Malpractice reform
  • Ensuring portability

Republican voters might come on board but it is a safe bet that the party establishment will not as their goal is to prevent the Democrats from having any political successes on health care reform. After all, the current plan is very similar to the Republican counter plan to the Clinton plan in 1993 along with being similar to Republican Mitt Romney’s plan.

Proposing a more incremental approach (not necessarily exactly as suggested by Crawford), and eliminating the individual mandate, would be more politically popular but it would also be harder to pass a new plan from scratch. At this point the House and Senate have both passed health care reform bills. A bill could be sent for President Obama’s signature if the House were to pass the Senate bill (with changes made through budget reconciliation as planned). However, if we were to start over the Democrats would have more difficulty achieving 60 votes with the loss of Ted Kennedy’s old seat.

Perhaps a scaled down bill would be able to pick up the votes of one of the few moderate Republicans left. If not, another possibility might be to make this a key issue for the 2010 campaign. While the polls show that a majority do not want the current health care bill, there is one thing which an overwhelming majority oppose–maintaining the status quo. A revised bill without the mandate might allow the Democrats a chance to win the spin war if the Republicans continue to block all efforts at reform. It would also be a grand gesture in support of democratic principles, removing yet another misleading Republican talking point.