Corruption is ... Part II: "Fair and Balanced"
“Fair and balanced” implies that all news stories have partisan ramifications and that reports that don’t end in political stalemate are inherently “unfair” and “biased,” a fallacy to begin with. But “fair and balanced” takes that ill logic to its illogical extreme by directly implying that all other news outlets are “unfair” and “biased” by virtue of not being Fox News. The obvious truth is that “fair and balanced” is Orwellian-speak that the bigwigs use to mask the extreme right-wing bias on Fox News. The less obvious truth is that Fox News’ refusal to accept their place within the mainstream – or as they say, “lamestream” – media turns “fair and balanced” into a challenge from a perpetual underdog that is designed to defang journalism itself. “Fair and balanced” is not a feel-good slogan about bringing justice to the airwaves, it’s a corruption of the very definition of truth and an attack on the integrity of freedom of the press.
Say what you will about “advocacy journalism” in general, pretending to be an objective news outlet while actually advocating for any political ideology is false advertising and an abuse of the faith placed in the press by virtue of their constitutional right to report non-fiction (see “We Report, You Decide”). But the use of a phrase like “fair and balanced” cuts deeper than merely covering up bias. It changes the very nature of reporting itself. How many stories about the victims of Bernie Madoff can be “fair and balanced?” How many stories about hurricane victims rotting in a drowned city can be “fair and balanced?” How many stories about union employees getting drunk on the job can be “fair and balanced?” And nobody can even imagine that last story actually being fair and balanced on Fox News, or at least suggest as much with a straight face.
Do unions tell car company executives what kind of cars they can build? Or do the executives tell the unions what to build? Either way you slice it, that very principlemust apply somewhere in the equation. If all journalists report stories with a liberal slant only, then Fox News stands out because those “liberal” staffers must be following orders to be “fair and balanced,” i.e., not liberal as they normally would be. But if Fox doesn’t dictate editorial policy to its staff, then it cannot be possible that all journalists report from a liberal slant only, since Fox News journalists are allegedly “fair and balanced.” And if it’s not true that all journalists only report liberal stories, then the consistent liberal bias Fox News allegedly perceives on other news outlets must be a product of orders from some imaginary liberal overlords of some kind, because their bosses are uniformly conservative. Which of those scenarios makes the most sense? Neither, right?
Because reality is that everyone has a boss in the media, until you get to the very top of the food chain, and when you run out of people who report to other people, you’re looking at corporate elites across the board. The people who set the tone, establish the editorial policy, place the midnight phone call that squelches an embarrassing story, and whisper the subtle intonations that people in favor of Medicare-for-all shouldn’t get all that much air time, are the corporate oligarchs who own and run the top media empires in America.
“Unlike other networks,” says Mr. O’Reilly, “we’re not rooting for anyone.” “Only one network is fair and balanced,” says the disembodied voice of authority with the same inflection as an announcer at a wrestling match. This isn’t an appeal to trust in the credibility of the reporting, it’s a trailer for a political thriller. And their constant claims of bias in the non-Fox news media, coupled with the “fair and balanced” slogan/accusation, is yet another of the many ways Fox commits journalistic sabotage. Fox News has unapologetically given money to conservative causes, nakedly promoted the Tea Party movement, and cut away from political events that make conservative ideology look bad. There can be no mistaking the right-wing bias evident on Fox News among people who aren’t blinded by partisan rage or dependent on corporate largess. “Fair and balanced” isn’t for those people. It isn’t designed as a marketing tool to draw new audience in. It’s designed to be a rationalization for the loyal audience they already have and a Pavlovian response that can be used to deflect criticism… or drive critics insane before they can win the argument.
It takes a tremendous amount of faith, or the innocence of a child, to believe in a corporate slogan, like “you’re in good hands” or “the ultimate driving machine” or “made from the best stuff on Earth” or “15 minutes can save you 15% or more on car insurance.” Most of the time, American consumers are skeptical of corporate slogans and their hyperbolic promises (“Red Bull gives you wings”) but Fox loyalists actually spout a corporate slogan as though it, in itself, is proof of the veracity of the content on the channel. Can anyone imagine championing McDonalds with the words, “but they love to see you smile – why would they lie?” Can anyone imagine trying to convince another person that Snapple products really are made out of the best stuff on Earth? Can anyone imagine trying to suggest that the Chevy Silverado really is “like a rock” or that either Sprint or Verizon is truly the “nation’s most reliable network?” Of course not. But many of those same skeptics throw their skepticism aside when it comes to “fair and balanced.” It is the only corporate slogan on Earth that is actually regurgitated by some people for the purpose of identifying the one thing everyone already knows about the brand – the slogan. No other slogan is taken so seriously, not even Nike’s mostly innocuous “just do it,” which is easily converted into joke material by the infirm.
The surest sign that propaganda is working is when people start repeating it verbatim as though it were an established fact. “Fair and balanced” is exactly that kind of propaganda – short and sweet, and tuned to the ear of the loyalist. And all of this would still be true if Fox never told a single lie, never once blurred the lines between news and opinion. Even if they were completely straight as a truth-telling news organization, the slogan constitutes a corruption of the relationship between the press and the public. We’ve all been told the phrase at one time or another, “nobody ever said life was fair.” And real journalists understand that and go after it, because injustice is the red meat of the news business. But Fox pretends life can be fair, butonly on Fox. So while they sell a fantasy of fairness in their slogan, they simultaneously dismiss its existence everywhere else. And while this is a common marketing technique in advertising circles, it’s always based on hyperbole and rarely taken seriously by consumers. Everyone knows that the contents inside the box never look half as good as the picture on the front.
When people are assaulted by propaganda and choose to believe something else anyway, that’s called “audience agency.” We, as our own independent “agents,” make our own decisions despite the influence of media. Advertisers know this and do everything they can to convert audience agency into sales – like the Pepsi Challengeor the lifetime supply of coasters everyone received in the mail in the form of AOL install discs. “Fair and balanced” is designed to squash audience agency – don’t believe anything you hear anywhere but Fox because they’re the only ones telling truth. Nobody would believe a stranger who walked into a bar and said “I know the truth and nobody else does.” Nobody. So what does it tell us about an audience that does believe essentially that same statement coming out of Fox News? Audience agency demands skepticism in the face of self-appointed righteousness, and “fair and balanced” separates those with agency from those without. The slogan is the demographic – those who tune in and believe in the slogan will believe anything else Fox says because they already took the first, and most difficult, leap of faith when they chose to believe a corporate slogan. So the next time someone says to you “Fox News is fair and balanced,” a good retort might be, “and Red Bull gives you wings.”
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