Wednesday, December 2, 2009

(No.66) Wankers, wingnuts & Fox News


The 5-part series "Sun Life: Comments on its performance" appeared in in column numbers 50, 52, 60, 61 & 62.

The 2 part series "Insurance people email" appeared in column numbers 63 & 64.

The column "Some email responses to my U.S. health care comments" appeared as No. 65.

These columns as well as all my other columns posted this year can be read by going to the links in the left hand margin of any column.


Canadians generally do not have the same access to U.S. cable news broadcaster Fox News as they do to CBC Newsworld (recently renamed News Network) or to Fox's American cable news rival CNN. I was familiar with the particular right wing prism through which Fox broadcasts must pass before reaching American viewers but my familiarity recently became an overdose. This happened in the mid-Atlantic when reception of television channels by the ship on which Pat and I were passengers was lost, channels including the BBC, Euronews and CNN. The Fox News signal was substituted.

Dissatisfaction is a word that does not adequately describe my feelings when I found myself with Fox as my ONLY source of news (print or broadcast). But it did provide me with the opportunity to focus as never before on its bias and inadequacies.

Some Canadians will know that Fox News (owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch) was the leading media voice and defender of the Bush administration and is now the self-appointed 'leader of the opposition' to the Obama administration. Listen to Fox News and you will hear, for example, that the Obama administration is "socialist", that President Obama is a "racist" and you will learn about the American citizen "tea party" protests (Fox has promoted, supported and lavished coverage upon them) against all manner of federal government spending to deal with recession, unemployment and health care problems.

The clear message that the viewer gets from watching Fox News is that President Obama and the Democratic Party's majorities in both houses of Congress are actually a threat to American freedoms. Imagine such 'threats' in a country in which after 8 years led by Fox's favourite, President George Bush, 45 million people have no health insurance (but Fox talking heads routinely attack proposals for health insurance reform); the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture reports that in 2008 there were 49 million Americans living in households that lacked consistent access to food; and well before the latest recession and financial crisis began a U.S. Census Bureau survey reported that more than 1 in 5 Americans needed help from family, friends or outsiders to pay for basic needs.

After 8 years under a Republican administration (as well as years of Republican congressional majorities) such facts fail to connect in any realistic way with the core values that Fox embraces and trumpets today: less govt. spending, still lower taxes (on the wealthy) and even less government regulation. Indeed, listening recently to a Fox program 'host' construct a verbal plinth on which former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin could pose as a superior political being is almost enough to convince me of the existence of a parallel universe.

It was of course no accident that when the former Alaska governor hit the road recently to promote her bestselling book Going Rogue the focus of her national television promotion (other than Oprah) was Fox News where she has been an object of near religious adoration since John McCain chose her as his 2008 running mate. Palin's Fox interviews could not really be called interviews in any journalistic sense since they were puffball affairs more closely resembling 'infomercials' not just for her book but for her as a political celebrity and (Fox people apparently hope) the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.

The Fox News slogan of " fair and balanced" may be one of the most inappropriate invoked since British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's declaration on his return from Munich of "peace in our time". Fox's defence for their pronounced right-of-centre slant on most political issues of substance on which they report and comment is that Fox commentators offer their own conservative views but Fox news broadcasts per se are fair and balanced. This is codswallop.

Just one recent example: a mid-Nov. recommendation of a change in American guidelines for mammography testing from an independent govt.-appointed panel of medical specialists is spun by Fox News into being a precursor of health care "rationing" under President Obama's "public option" health care reform -- if, God forbid in Fox's view, it were to be implemented.

But Canadians should not for a second underestimate the malign influence exerted by Fox on a segment of the American electorate and on much of the Republican Party, especially by the ranting of right wing wankers and wingnuts who regularly appear on its news programs.

Why does Fox News matter much to the U.S. body politic? Because the Fox influence in the U.S. is real indeed. 71% of Americans say (July 2009) that their "main source" for national and international news is television and specifically 40% cite cable news channels (of which Fox News is one of the two leaders along with CNN) as their main source.

The negative Fox influence on public affairs extends beyond encouraging the holding of puerile political views by voters many of whom, if they rely on Fox news to provide their information, are ill-equipped to separate wheat from chaff. It also instills in too many Americans the belief that Fox news is their best resource in understanding public issues and what is happening around them. Among the implications of this: among all national sources of news a study (2007) of American knowledge by news source conducted by Pew Research found that the the viewers with the lowest level of knowledge of national and international affairs were those who relied on Fox news as their "main source".

What is perhaps most striking to me about Fox's slanted broadcasts is that so much of the opinion expressed is manifestly false, even silly and yet Fox News is today close to being the leading American cable news network. It already has an unhealthy influence in particular over the Republican Party and many of its core voters: 63% of Americans surveyed (July 2009) who said Fox was their "main source" of news were Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

Finally, an insurance industry footnote to my mid-Atlantic exposure to Fox:

as a former Sun Life executive I wonder, in passing, why Sun Life Financial in the US -- particularly at a time when it is a financial drain on the overall operations of the company -- is paying Fox News to broadcast pathetically unfunny television commercials featuring KC and the Sunshine Band.

Based on my understanding of the company line I had thought Sun-branded individual insurance sales activity in the U.S. (after it had dumped its own career agency system in that country) was supposed to target a PPGA-accessed upscale market. Is that what those who direct Sun Life's U.S. operation think Fox News delivers?

Oh dear.

Alastair Rickard