10/28/2012

Yellow Journalism: The FOX in the Chicken House



Yellow journalism is more than sensational stories about celebrity lawsuits, alien babies, Elvis sightings, nude photos of Princess Kate, or, my personal favorite, the World Weekly News claim that Abraham Lincoln was a woman and John Wilkes Booth was his jilted lover. All of these fall under the broad banner of yellow journalism, defined as manipulating or manufacturing news for the purpose of boosting profits and influencing public opinion.

Yellow journalism techniques include sensationalism, altering photos to elicit a particular response in the viewer, misleading headlines, selecting quotes or interview clips in order to highlight (or hide) a particular point of view, manufacturing false news, omitting factual details in order to influence a particular audience, failing to make a clear distinction between opinion and news. The list could go on, but you get the idea.

Before radio and television, citizens got their news from newspapers. As sales and profits increased, so did competition. Any competing newspaper that printed a breaking story first got the "scoop" and a big jump on sales -- and advertisers paid more money for ads in papers that reached larger audiences. It is widely suspected, but still unproven, that publisher William Randolph Hearst helped incite the 1898 Spanish-American war in order to sell more newspapers than his competitors. The classic Orson Welles film "Citizen Kane" addresses this in humorous fashion as the protagonist's associates try to figure out the meaning of his dying word, "rosebud."

Today, with people getting most of their news in small increments via internet headlines, radio sound bytes, and TV video clips, the impact of false or misleading news is far greater and the political consequences are far more dangerous than the limited impact to the print audience of the past. On the upside, however, statements and assertions can be fact-checked rapidly, a process that was slow and painstaking before computers and YouTube. Every word a politician says is likely recorded, even in private settings.

Today, one could argue that most, if not all, mainstream and cable news outlets practice yellow journalism on occasion, but this discussion will focus on the worst offender: FOX News. FOX News may be the most-watched news channel in the United States, but it is the worst purveyor of yellow journalism and the greatest danger to public discourse.

Media ethics do not exist at FOX News. They "report" in a selective way, blending facts with opinion and building up a crescendo of emotion and fear while actively trying to mould public opinion to match the views of their owner, Rupert Murdock. And they use the most powerful educational tool in history, TV, to relentlessly and irresponsibly repeat lies so often that the audience accepts them as truth. And they lie with the blessing of the court system.  In February, 2003, a Florida Court of Appeals unanimously agreed with an assertion by FOX News that there is no FCC provision or rule against lying in the news media in the United States. News media can legally lie. By law!

The danger inherent in this acceptance of lying is that a FOX audience can tune in and get hooked without any way to comprehend issues from a truthful, contextual, historical, or international perspective. The viewer is being hoodwinked and brain-washed by a constant, shrill, highly politicized barrage of content that favors federal capitalism over Jeffersonian democracy, that promotes a laissez-faire economic environment, and that demonizes classic centrist liberalism as though it were socialist, which it is not.  FOX News steers the ideological bus that drives the GOP with help from commentators like Bill O'Reilly and Michelle Malkin, from talk-radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Ann Coulter, and from think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, and Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity.

A 2011 survey from Farleigh Dickinson University found that people who watch no news at all can answer more questions correctly about domestic and international events than people who watch only FOX News.  The survey also found that FOX News viewers are the worst-informed of any cable news outlet on domestic and international current events, and that MSNBC and CNN viewers fared only slightly better.  Viewers who get their news from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" answered more questions correctly than the three cable news channels, but NPR listeners were found to be the best-informed of all news recipients.

FOX News makes money, though, and money drives the competition. Other news outlets copy the FOX model with programming that presents the GOP talking points, yet perhaps not as aggressively as FOX. MSNBC has more commentary shows that present a liberal centrist point of view, with Big Ed Schultz being MSNBC's liberal version of Bill O'Reilly.

Many seniors get their evening news from watching The O'Reilly Factor on FOX. They relate to his outward appearance of sincerity without realizing that he does not fact-check and often presents his opinions as though he were a news reporter. Guests with dissenting opinions on his show are shouted down, bullied, accused of being a liberal socialist, and are cut-off. This is typical of FOX programming in general. Repeat the GOP talking points on all shows, every day, every hour, to control the debate. Be so loud, so repetitious, that other media outlets must tag along to retain viewers.

FOX reminds me of the Soviet Union's Tass news service, which was controlled by the Russian government. In the US, if the media are funded by corporate advertising and espouse corporate ideology while ignoring other viewpoints, then it is the same principle of socio-political control, of state censorship, that restricted Tass. Censorship is censorship, no matter the context.

The way mass media have ignored the popular issue of single-payer, cradle-to-grave health care coverage highlights another aspect of yellow journalism -- self-censorship. The news media get millions of advertising dollars from drug companies, so the industry opposition by advertisers to single payer affects reporting so deeply that the issue is ignored. When single payer is mentioned by a guest on FOX, it is invariably dissed as socialism (which is supposed to be "bad," while free market capitalism is supposed to be "good"). None of the cable news networks speak of single payer even though proponents say it would be cheaper, would take the burden off employers, and would reduce the crime rate.

Self-censorship is a common practice in yellow journalism, but the US Government also censors the news itself. During the Vietnam war, reporters could take photos to show the stark reality of war -- the mangled bodies and missing limbs of soldiers and civilians alike. News reporting played an important role in public opinion as the war intensified and the antiwar movement grew. During the Reagan administration attack on the tiny island of Grenada, a new method of news reporting was forced upon the mass media. It was called "pool reporting" and its chief purpose was to control war news and photos and to subject pool reporters -- reporters from certain approved media outlets -- to military censorship.

This practice continues today, so America's wars have become distant and sanitized, with the public totally in the dark unless war crimes are filmed and released surreptitiously, as in photos taken at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that showed prisoners being tortured by US military personnel. The chief argument for pool reporting is that mission secrecy and troop positions must be protected, but I see this as a smokescreen so the government can engage in wars of occupation in sovereign nations without the public knowing what is happening. Very dangerous indeed. And very Orwellian, especially when government and media conspire to reeducate the public for social control: War is peace. Slavery is freedom. Ignorance is strength.

The shame of yellow journalism, of news manipulation, of manufactured news, of military censorship, and of self-censorship, is that television could and should be a powerful educational tool that reports news in a straightforward manner, that provides facts, context and historical background information, then encourages wide-ranging discussion, commentary, and consensus in the ultimate pursuit of "truth." In today's newsrooms, this just does not happen. The exceptions are C-Span, which sometimes covers events that mainstream media ignore, and cable stations like Link TV and Free Speech TV.

Every news channel on the public airwaves should hold the public's right to know in such high regard that they strive for excellence in news dissemination and do not allow politicians, courts, advertisers, or their own owners or stockholders, to accept lying or any form of censorship. This is where we need to be, and we are nowhere near this level of excellence. It time for legitimate journalists to call out FOX on its lies and to spearhead a campaign for a new fairness or ethics doctrine to help ensure that unfiltered news is available widely, that truth is valued, and that liars are called out publicly. It is clear that, in spite of hundreds of cable channels, PBS is still very much needed as an independent news source and should be non-commercial and fully funded. Big Bird may be the symbol, but the public's right to know is at the heart of the debate over defunding and privatizing PBS. Control the messenger, control the message. Very dangerous indeed.



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