People: Controlling Her Arc
Fox News morning host Gretchen Carlson wants her story told her way.
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Others maintain that the show is weak sauce, and not simply because it’s part of a network they see as the publicity arm of the GOP. “The problem is not so much that they’re conservative; it’s that they put out a lot of false information,” says Jed Lewison, contributor to the online political community Daily Kos. The misinformation “Fox & Friends” has been said to spread takes many forms. Sometimes it’s described as a politicized twist on the truth, one example being a recent discussion on illegal immigration and “anchor babies.” Says Media Matters’ Rabin-Havt, “Gretchen Carlson described the 14th Amendment as the one that allows illegals born in the U.S. to be citizens. That’s certainly not how you’d describe it in civics class.”
Other times it’s insidious. In September, Park51/“Ground Zero Mosque” organizer Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf expressed his concern, on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” that relocation of Park51 would send an anti-Islam message that would strengthen radicals in the Muslim world and help their recruitment, compromising the security of American troops and citizens overseas. Subsequently, the “Friends”—relentless proponents of relocation—used his comments to fear-monger, referring to them on-air as a “threat” 10 times in one three-hour show.
Chyrons flashed onscreen during the discussions bore the messages “More Mosque Threats—Imam Says Center’s Move Could Spark Violence” and “Imam Warning A Veiled Threat? Rauf: Moving NYC Mosque A National Security Risk.” Finally, Fox colleague Chris Wallace came on the show and challenged their claim, saying he didn’t hear the Imam’s remarks as a threat and pointing out that Gen. David Petraeus had expressed similar concerns.
Overall, the biggest problem with the show may be its chronic disingenuousness, a characteristic blithely satirized by “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in a segment titled “Gretchen Carlson Dumbs Down.” Noting that on various occasions the Stanford organizational-behavior grad had told her audience that she needed to “Google” the meaning of the words “double-dip recession,” “czar” and “ignoramus” (she still managed to get the last one wrong), Stewart thundered, “How do you get a job on television if you appear to be one of those people who need to pin their address to their sleeve so a stranger can help them find their way home? Unless . . . you’re just dumbing yourself down to connect to an audience who sees intellect as an elitist flaw.”
Quinnipiac’s Hanley feels it’s clear that the audience that’s coming to Fox has the same mind-set as the network, and doesn’t want its preconceptions challenged. “Fox is reinforcing their beliefs, if not driving them,” he says. “They understand that the audience is not going to fact-check. So they can ignore the fact that the top shareholder of News Corp. [Alwaleed bin Talal] is a Saudi prince who also happens to be an investor in the ‘Ground Zero Mosque.’ They avoid this purposefully. Much of the issue with Fox is not what’s said, it’s what’s not said.”
He also notes that the network is masterful at getting across a message without saying much at all. “Optics matter more than words on television,” Hanley says. “You can put a visual up, say something, and people will remember what they’re seeing, not what is being said. That’s been part of the news landscape since the presidency of Ronald Reagan.” Last April, “Fox & Friends” ran a segment displaying the logo from this year’s Nuclear Security Summit—inspired by the Rutherford-Bohr model of the hydrogen atom—alongside the crescent-moon-and-star Muslim flags of Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria and Pakistan so viewers could see the similarities, while Carlson intoned that “it had been suggested” that President Obama had chosen this summit logo “as a continuation of his outreach to Muslim nations.” (The accompanying chyron: “Islamic Image? Summit Design Looks Like Crescent Moon.”)
Is Fox the only news network that ever plays fast and loose with the facts? No. It’s just the only one that has a notable lack of editorial standards regarding content, says Media Matters’ Rabin-Havt. “We sometimes have issues with what Joe Scarborough”—the former Republican congressman from Florida who hosts “Morning Joe”—“says on the air. But NBC has editorial controls in place that clearly work. And to his credit, when we’ve pointed out things he’s gotten wrong, he plays it straight and corrects himself.”
You can count Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center (an organization that sets out to document, expose and neutralize what it feels is liberal media bias), as one person who appreciates “Fox & Friends,” and Fox as a whole, for being the “one place that actually lets conservative voices be heard. Critics see it as a ‘rah-rah Republican’ show; I would tell you that I think ‘Morning Joe’ is liberal media. I don’t see a lot of dissent on ‘Morning Joe.’ We in particular have not been invited on in three years. From our perspective, the value of ‘Fox & Friends’ is that they’re not shy about doing stories that the liberal media doesn’t want to cover.” At the same time, he admits, “Fox is disappointing to social conservatives” in not taking stronger stands vis-à-vis abortion and gay rights. “On the day of the annual ‘March for Life,’ they may do one news story, but ‘Fox & Friends’ and Sean Hannity won’t touch it.’”
The network’s practice of fairness and balance toward its staff has apparently been contradictory. On the one hand, for several years now Fox has actively supported the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), a professional organization concerned with fair and accurate news coverage of the LGBT community. They’ve made annual donations and co-sponsored some NLGJA benefits. Says the association’s president, David Steinberg, “Fox has good nondiscrimination policies regarding its LGBT employees.” On the other hand, the network has recently been sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for retaliating against news reporter Catherine Herridge, due to her 2007 claim of unequal pay and job conditions based on her age and gender.
Some worry about the growing influence of the “right-wing fringe” on Fox. Ellen Brodsky of News Hounds, a Fox-watching website that grew out of the Outfoxed documentary, believes that provocateurs like Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin and Laura Ingraham have become “all too common on Fox and their points of view seen as normal. The current level of hate on the network alarms me to a degree I’ve never felt before, and I’ve always been alarmed by the hate-mongering that goes on there.” Others maintain that Fox’s reach is simply not broad enough to fear. “There are 114 million TV households in the United States; one million of them watch Fox,” Hanley says. “That’s 113 million that don’t. And Fox’s presence on the web is minimal, compared to MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times or USA Today. To the growing Internet news audience, it’s really irrelevant.”
It’s time to say a fond farewell to Gretchen Carlson. If she’s reading this, she probably wishes it was more fair. I did try to contact other conservative sources, from Accuracy in Media (AIM) and the Washington Times to the blog Instapundit. They claimed not to watch her. Something she told me when she was contesting my intentions sticks out: that she “really wasn’t in this line of work to be a celebrity.” I get that—she doesn’t want to be a lightning rod. All I can say is, it’d seem much more convincing coming from a corporate lawyer than a Miss America.