I know this isn't exactly news but... neither is Fox.
If the FTC could theoretically apply deceptive advertising laws to television content, there would be an hourly disclaimer on Murdoch's network, "Video ads brought to you by the RNC" (e.g., Palin, Gingrich, Huckabee are employees).
For professional reasons, I watch a lot of Fox News. And it's not easy to fully convey its nightly mendacity. Of course, two weeks ago the conservatyive cable network was caught hyping the Andrew Breitbart political smear of Shirley Sherrod, first on its well-read web site (this was very pre-firing) and then on Hannity and O'Reilly. But like repeat pyromaniacs who waltz away from the fires they start, Fox has neither explained what went wrong nor sincerely apologized for it.
So it will happen again. Already has.
To arm yourself for the next fake scandal, ideally go to MediaMatters.com, Bill Press's new book Toxic Talk, or numerous clips on Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert/Rachel Maddow. Otherwise, here's a brief guide to the six parlor tricks that Fox News incessantly uses to mislead the credulous:
*Rhetorical Questions. "Is the NAACP racist?", asked Bill O'Reilly last month, leading some viewers to an obvious -- though false -- answer. "Will the [New START Treaty] leave the U.S. defenseless until it's too late?", wondered anchor Megyn Kelly. Rinse. Repeat. Every day.
*Creating reality by repeated slogans. Fox's anchors and hosts reiterate certain loaded phrases to see if they'll catch on and reframe the political conversation. Sometimes they do, like "death taxes," "death panels" and "climate-gate." Only problem is that none of them existed. (No one pays a tax because they die, though the top two percent do pay an "estate tax"; there were no "get grandma" panels in the health reform law; and five independent studies have cleared British scientists of charges that they manipulated climate data.)
*Conclusory lies delivered with certainty. To rational minds, facts lead to conclusions -- at Fox News, conclusions lead to 'facts.' The key is that they are said so quickly and confidentially -- think of Limbaugh's theatrical and deep-throated delivery -- that they sound self-evident.
Last week Fox hosts authoritatively said that the public opposes both Wall Street re-regulation and a comprehensive immigration reform bill -- but all polls show the opposite.
And the Stimulus hasn't created one job - or when that didn't work, it didn't create any private sector jobs... or not very many. (The non-partisan CBO and McCain's economics guru, Mark Zandi, have done careful studies proving how the stimulus created or saved several millions of jobs, which are referred to on Fox about as often as "drill, baby, drill.")
I personally experienced this technique in 2000. In one of his many efforts to show that Christians were an oppressed minority, Bill O'Reilly asked me asked why nativity scenes were barred from public places but menorahs weren't? I agreed that both should be since they were comparable religious symbols. The next night he called me "anti-Christian" because he said that I would allow a menorah but not a creche. Whoa. When I asked for a retraction since the tape showed the opposite, his producer blithely said, "Well, Bill had a different interpretation."
A cable network with a POV is one thing -- making stuff up is another.
*Highlight out-of-context aberrations and ignore all contrary data. Did you know that Ted Williams always struck out? I can prove it with a tape only showing his whiffs, not those hits producing a lifetime .344 batting. Did you know that Obama created most of our deficits? Actually, Bush's last budget anticipated a deficit of $1.3 trillion in his successor's first year and America's debt today comes largely from Reagan's and Bush 43's tax cuts and deficits, as David Stockman explained in a New York Times op-ed this week.
*McCarthyism and Causation. Liberals are evil because... because... in 1969 the Weathermen issued a manifesto suggesting revolution in America, said Glenn Beck on two shows last week. Without serious explanation, this 40-year-old report was somehow linked to Obama and his appointees.
This week Beck, discussing its new investigative fund with the Tides Foundation, said "I'm telling you the Huffington Post will be Pravda." If you say so.
In this category of demagoguery go repeated references to Obama as Hitler or a Nazi. Beck did this so often that comedian Lewis Black strung them together on The Daily Show in what he called a medley of Beck's "Hitler Tourette's Syndrome." ((For the very latest spasm, where he accused a Jewish critic of leading people to "death camps," go to http://yhoo.it/afgoiH)
Didn't liberals call Bush a Nazi?, asked George Will. I suppose some foolish individuals did, though I don't recall elected or prominent Democrats doing so. And suspecting a different order of magnitude, I googled "Obama and Hitler" and "Bush and Hitler" and, in this very rough proxy, found six times more references per month for Obama.
*When in doubt, race-bait. This is not to accuse Fox of racism, which is a losing line of argument since, in America today, it appears to be worse to call someone a racist than to be one. And it turns on motive, which no one other than the speaker can really know.
What we do know is that Fox relishes going after minority leaders and groups -- from Sotomayor's "wise Latina" off-hand comment becoming her life story, to ACORN which was never charged with anything, Van Jones who never signed a 9/11 conspiracy petition, and two weirdos in Philly supposedly discouraging white voters and purporting to be members of the previously unknown New Black Panther Party. Maybe they did and maybe they were. Some 50 Fox segments highlighted these two black guys -- or about 50 more than the number of segments about suppression of black voters the prior decade.
Also recall Beck's jarring observation that "Obama is a racist... he has problems with white people." This is not just un-PC -- it's a lie designed to divide America racially. (To better understand Glenn Beck's M.O., watch again the 1957 classic Face in the Crowd and study the character of Lonesome Rhodes, a persuasive con artist who became a huge TV star by manipulating audiences and the media, until the public caught on.)
And can we suspect that race may have something to do with the way every night Sean Hannity disparages a President, who got 53% of the popular vote, as "the anointed one" (wait, wasn't that W?) and the way the network was a cheerleader for insane birthers? Could that be part of the reason that 41% of Republicans believe that Obama was born abroad?
True, on the third night of the Breitbart-Sherrod contretemps, O'Reilly said he apologized for not vetting the original tape more carefully -- and Hannity too said it had been taken out of context. But O'Reilly then went on to all but call Sherrod a racist, saying that she clearly harbored anti-white feelings (without noting they were 24 years ago) and that a white person saying this in public service would be fired.
Hannity for good measure went on a) to assert that he always thought that the President Obama had ties to Farrakhan (no evidence presented, like HuffPo-Pravda) and b) to next air a segment about "New information on the Obama-Wright relationship!" Complete with video of the inflammatory reverend and photos of the president and the preacher.
Fox 'News' apparently believes that the race problem in America -- after 300 years of slavery, a Civil War and then Jim Crow -- is not racism but reverse racism. This is surely a surprise to black families which average 1/10th the net worth of white families and whose children are seven times more likely to serve time in jail than a white youth convicted of the identical offense.
The network's emphasis on so-called black racists perhaps explains why its considerable cable audience is only 1.38% African American; indeed, according to Brian Stetler of the New York Times, ratings also-rans like MSNBC and CNN each has more than four times more black viewers than Fox.
Rachel Maddow last month delivered a blistering commentary on MSNBC that essentially said Fox was politically engaged in a search for black scarecrows to frighten white America. The ultimate goal, the trifecta, is a person or incident that could do to Obama in 2012 what Willie Horton did to Dukakis in 1988. "They have a 50 state Southern Strategy" is the way Salon's Joan Walsh put it, with a nod to Nixon-Buchanan. Sherrod certainly was a candidate for the Horton role, until reality inconveniently intervened.
Whenever someone criticizes Fox on these grounds, defenders quickly say that Left and Right both rant and demonize. If anyone has a similar Niagara of evidence that MSNBC makes things up, completely ignores contrary evidence and race-baits, please send it to me. Until then, anyone who doesn't believe that Fox is qualitatively different from MSNBC either doesn't watch Fox or only watches Fox.
Does Fox matter? After all, it has 2.1 million unique viewers a night -- great for cable -- but that's still out of 300 million Americans. Yet the combination of Fox + filibusters + big corporate donations has often allowed an intense minority in America to thwart the big Democratic majorities for Congress and President elected in 2006 and 2008. Elected, not anointed.
When it comes to being "fair and balanced," Fox 'News' reminds me of a spokesman of the magician's trade association who, explaining the popularity of his members, said "some people want a fraud they can really believe in."
This piece first appeared in the writer's "Inside/Out" column in The New York Observer.