When the White House first announced that it would be treating Fox News as an opinion outlet rather than as an objective news organization, it raised a lot of thorny questions. How, exactly, do you define objectivity? High school journalism textbooks are full of charts and bulleted lists, non of which mix serif and sans serif fonts, but any regular reader of the New York Times knows there’s objective and there’s objective, and never the twain shall meet. The problem is that bias is usually a sin of omission; what slants a story is not what you say, but what you don’t. When your annual Christmas card reports that I threw up at your wedding, that’s bias, because it neglects to mention that I also made a very nice toast. It’s exceedingly difficult for me to prove that your Christmas cards display a consistent anti-Brooks bias, though, because one can’t really prove a negative. Sure, you didn’t mention my toast, but you didn’t mention what color jacket your uncle was wearing, either, or what the temperature was, or which year the Inca empire experienced its first flu epidemic. Bias is usually absence, and the scope of absence is, by definition, infinite. Every once in a while, though, somebody straight-up lies. Fox News did it last week, and the public outcry has been far less that it should be. Video after the jump.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Sean Hannity Uses Glenn Beck’s Protest Footage|
Once again, the best investigative meta-journalism in the country is being conducted by a comedy show on basic cable. For those of you who can’t watch videos at work, Sean Hannity interviewed Representative Michele “Dead Eyes” Bachmann last week about the protest against health care reform she organized on Capitol Hill. Bachmann refers to it as the Super Bowl of Freedom, because it was a totally serious and meaningful political action. Hannity makes much of the “twenty-plus thousand” protestors who showed up—Bachmann says it was twenty to forty-five, while the Washington Post put it at about ten—and Bachmann admits it was a pleasant surprise, since the whole thing was “total word of mouth.” I guess that’s technically true, in the sense that words came out of Bachmann’s mouth when she touted the event on Fox News, which was happy to thoroughly and neutrally cover the grassroots political protest a week before it happened. As the video plays and Hannity rhapsodizes over the sheer number of patriotic Americans who showed up to demand that the federal government not offer them low-cost health insurance, an abrupt change occurs in the foliage and the sky over Washington DC, and it becomes evident that Hannity is using footage from another, much larger protest.
After Jon Stewart pointed out that the Fair and Balanced Fox News had falsified video evidence in order to exaggerate public support for a conservative political rally, Sean Hannity issued a lukewarm apology. He characterized the fake footage as a screwup, saying that “it was an inadvertent mistake, but a mistake nonetheless.” As mea culpas go, this one is conspicuously lacking in culpa. Dropping a bowl of soup is a mistake. Editing together several seconds of video footage—whose months’ separation in time pretty much guarantees that they come from different tapes, which are presumably labeled—and then airing them on national television in conjunction with a prepared, false description of events that they “inadvertently” support is something else.
One can argue, as News Corp has in the past, that Hannity is an opinion show and not part of Fox News’s ostensibly unbiased daytime news programming. Photography and video, though, carry with them a presumption of objectivity. You don’t fake pictures because pictures show things that are real, in whatever context. Hannity’s actions are not substantially different from those of the small-town newspaper editor who publishes a doctored photo of the mayor cheating on his wife and then writes an editorial about how disappointed he is. Fox used fake video footage in order to create the perception of widespread support for the agenda of one political party. Hiding behind the shield of commentary or retroactively declaring it an accident is just one more layer of mendacity.
Consider how you would react if the White House put a video on its website showing protestors across the country demanding health care reform, and then it was revealed that the footage was fake. That’s called propaganda, and liberal democracies have generally considered it grounds for dismissal in a government. That Fox News is producing propaganda for money and not power doesn’t make it any less sinister. The vagaries of our national system mean that we can’t do much about a multibillion-dollar corporation that broadcasts false information in order to influence political events. That’s how a free press works, for better and for worse, and somehow “stopping” Sean Hannity is not an option. Still, I refuse to accord him and Fox News the respect they querulously demand. Living in a civilized society means that there are a lot of things you can’t do to a liar, and believing him is still one of them.