NEW YORK -- Before taking its next commercial break, Fox News Channel offered a glimpse of the Democratic presidential running mates in action. Seen tossing around a football, John Edwards passed it to John Kerry, who, only a few yards away, dropped it. Then, picking up the ball, Kerry threw it back to Edwards. He dropped it.
This fleeting comic sequence -- which might as well have been subtitled FOX NEWS ALERT: DEMOCRATS FUMBLE -- is typical of what Fox News Channel employs as "Fair & Balanced" journalism. It aired last Tuesday, by chance also the day a documentary premiered that slammed Fox News Channel for right-wing bias and Bush administration cheerleading.
Now two groups associated with the film, "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," have fired another shot: A complaint filed earlier this week with the Federal Trade Commission asks that Fox News Channel be barred from calling itself fair and balanced.
Fox News "misleads" the public by marketing its coverage as nonpartisan, argues Wes Boyd, co-founder of MoveOn.Org, one of the complainants.
"Fair & Balanced" is an indefensible slogan in light of the network's "preferential treatment of Republicans and conservative ideas," declares Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, the other petitioner.
Meanwhile, over at Fox News, they've got to be loving this. The specter of liberals mounting such an assault only confirms the siege mentality driving the network: In a media world that lists dangerously leftward, only Fox News' thumb-on-the-scales brand of balance can supply the needed counterweight.
Besides, doesn't "Fair & Balanced," like so many product slogans ("When You're Here You're Family," "Do the Dew") stand as puffery immune to the dictates of verifiable truth? Or even good sense?
Defining termsIn a recent column for the Los Angeles Times, social historian Neal Gabler observed that "if by 'fair' one means objective and unbiased, then more often than not 'fair' and 'balanced' may be mutually exclusive." That is, a "fair" discussion of the Holocaust wouldn't call for the "balance" of a Holocaust denier.
But such musings can't offset the fact that "Fair & Balanced" is a brilliant slogan, reflecting not only the image created by this cable-news ratings leader, but also its viewers' sense of themselves.
Indeed, more than half of Fox's viewers describe themselves as conservative, according to a study released last month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Welcome home. Tuned to Fox News, they are guaranteed a reassuring refuge from the Demonized Other: the presumed liberal slant of Fox News' rivals. Preaching its fairer-than-thou gospel, Fox News plays on its audience's distrust for the media while positioning itself as the anti-media news media alternative.
Little wonder if some observers see this branding strategy as less than straightforward.
"My criticism of Fox News isn't that it's a conservative channel. It's the consumer fraud of [claiming to be] fair and balanced -- it's nothing of the sort," says Jeff Cohen, co-founder of the media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, in the film "Outfoxed."
But despite being Exhibit "A" in the FTC petition, this documentary, made for a paltry $300,000 by Hollywood veteran Robert Greenwald primarily for screenings at activists' "house parties," tackles a larger issue than Fox News' marketing masquerade. "Outfoxed" seizes on how that network is just a piece of Rupert Murdoch's vast News Corp. empire, one of the handful of corporate giants (along with Viacom, Time Warner, Walt Disney Co. and NBC owner General Electric) whose growing dominion threatens media diversity and even the democratic process.
"Murdoch is not Dr. Strange-love and Fox is not the bomb," cautioned John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine, during a panel discussion at last week's "Outfoxed" premiere. "Rather, they are what remain after you destroy basic standards within journalism, and the basic structures that control against media monopoly."
It's an argument endorsed by citizens across the political spectrum, as evidenced by the public uproar over a deregulation package favoring Big Media that was passed by the Federal Communications Commission a year ago (and stalled since then by judicial and legislative countermeasures).
Still, one question remains: What's the point of undermining that larger cause by picking a fight over a slogan no one believes but Fox News Channel devotees? Springing to Fox News' defense, these "Fair & Balanced" fans may now feel less inclined, not more, to be alarmed by the bigger threat Big Media represents.
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EDITOR'S NOTE -- Frazier Moore can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org