The recent firing of Juan Williams by NPR for comments made on the Fox News and his affiliation with that network has created an interesting sidebar to this now all too familiar affair. The renewed scrutiny of NPR for its alleged liberal bias has resulted in an interesting byproduct. That byproduct is an increased level of attention now being paid to Fox, its parent the News Corp., and its wealthy conservative CEO, Rupert Murdoch.
The practice of allowing candidates to solicit campaign contributions while appearing on Fox News is a significant departure from what is generally considered television news broadcasting. Mr. Murdoch has abided this practice along with his own well-publicized million dollar contributions to Republican campaign organizations and other efforts to promote positions on the far right. That raises a fundamental question: Is Fox a legitimate news organization or has it morphed into something between a news organ and a political action operation even to the point of being considered a shill? A shill is defined as: “a person who publicizes or praises something or someone for reasons of self-interest, personal profit, or friendship or loyalty.” A political action committee is defined as:”a type of political committee organized to spend money for the election or defeat of a candidate.” Mr. Murdoch has a record of promoting conservative ideas no matter what the cost. He has continued to prop up the conservative “The New York Post” in spite of its staggering losses to the tune of between $15 million to $30 million. According to Business Week magazine: “The Post has lost so much money for so long that it would have folded years ago if News Corp. applied the same profit-making rigor to the tabloid as it does to its other businesses.” What then is the purpose of the continued support of a newspaper the commentary of which often resembles old-fashioned agitprop? There can only be one logical explanation and it’s because the Post represents Mr. Murdoch’s primary organ for presenting the conservative line in what is one of the bluest regions in the country and he is willing to spend whatever it takes to do so.
The argument that Fox News has become somewhat of a political operation is more than apparent when one examines the following evidence. Former Ohio Republican Congressman and now candidate for Governor, John Kasich, appearing during prime time on “Hannity” was given time to solicit campaign contributions while on the air saying:” If you have extra nickels or dimes, please send it our way.” According to Brian Stelter of the New York Times this is not the first time Kasich has used an appearance on Fox to raise money for his campaign. Quoting Stelter: “The channel was the subject of an election complaint in Ohio because Mr. Kasich was able to ask for money and display his Web site address during an interview in August on “The O’Reilly Factor,” Fox’s biggest prime time talk show. Mr. Kasich used to host a weekend show on Fox, and Mr. Murdoch has called him a friend.” Moreover Stelter points out that Fox employees have engaged in more direct political action both on and off the air: “Sometimes the most outspoken of the Fox hosts go out and raise money directly. Mr. Hannity has headlined several fund-raisers for Republicans this year. And just last week, Mr. Beck donated $10,000 to the U. S. Chamber of Commerce to defend it against criticism from President Obama – and challenged his radio listeners to donate as well.” Beyond these various forms of political action is the fact that several likely candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination are presently on the Fox payroll or regularly appear on the network, including Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich.
When you look across the political spectrum to Fox’s chief rivals: MSNBC, CNN and NPR you see several object lessons in how competing news organizations have different values. Political action at MSNBC, for example, is much more constrained, to the point that there is very little deviation from what could considered legitimate news reporting and commentary. Again quoting Stelter: “All this political activity has spurred at least a little bit of hand-wringing at the channels. NBC News, which operates MSNBC, recently reiterated its rule that employees may not engage in political activity, but said it had carved out an exception for some MSNBC hosts.” To date whatever exceptions exist at MSNBC, they are not even remotely close to the on the air solicitation of funds, public activities related to fund raising by network commentators or the employment of prospective presidential candidates on the network’s payroll which is presently the case at Fox. At NPR political activity of any variety is virtually nonexistent. In the final analysis what we have witnessed at Fox News is the evolution of a news organization into something beyond what is commonly considered political reporting and commentary into something short of a political action committee, a sort of quasi-political news organ if you will. That said shouldn’t the Fox News Network scrub the subtitle of “Fair and Balanced” from its headline banner seeing as it can no longer legitimately make that claim in light of the fundamental transformation that has taken place within the Fox organization?
Steven J. Gulitti