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'Crazy Like a Fox' Is Soft on Fox

Reported by Judy - April 22, 2006

Scott Collins thinks he has written a "fair and balanced" book about the rivalry between Fox News and CNN. Despite the fact that Collins himself is a journalist, however, he misses the point about Fox News. Collins writes about Fox News and CNN as if he were discussing Coke and Pepsi fighting over market share.

As a constitutionally protected enterprise vital to our democracy, entrepreneurs in the news business must be held to a higher standard than corporations that bottle beverages. Collins fails to do that. That alone marks the book [Crazy Like a Fox: The Inside Story of How Fox News Beat CNN (New York: Penguin Group, 2004)] more as a Fox News puff piece than a critical, behind-the-scenes examination of the "rise" of Fox News.

Still, Collins has assembled some useful information about the origins of Fox News. For example, he points out how Murdoch was able to buy his way on to cable by paying hundreds of millions of dollars to cable companies that would agree to carry his news channel – a total reversal of the usual procedure by which cable companies pay channel owners for providing programming. It is a chilling reminder of how wealthy people are able to dominate the American media and how that helps them stay wealthy. Yet Collins concluded from the anecdote that Fox News' being accepted on its merits is only part of the story of its success. Actually, it sounds more like Fox News’ being accepted on its merits has nothing at all to do with its early success.

Collins also delivers a few interesting bits of gossip about Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, and various stars of the two news channels. Some of the tidbits and anecdotes provide historical context for tendencies in the news channel's broadcasts. Could Fox News' hatred of President Clinton and Senator Clinton be partially grounded in an incident prior to the network's first show when the former president's press secretary rejected a request from Fox to appear on its opening day? Collins offers only Fox News' account of the alleged incident, with nothing from George Stephanopolous to confirm it. In contrast to Fox News' treatment of Clinton, Rudy Giuiliani's efforts to lobby cable companies to add Fox News to their offerings, as told by Collins, may also help explain his favorable reviews on Fox.

Collins also sorts out for the historical record the period in the mid-1990s when American broadcast networks jostled for position in the cable world, creating entities such as America's Talking, CNBC, and MSNBC, and their struggles to find an identity. Collins also has provided a peek at why CNN seemed to falter in the 1990s, due to a Turner decision to keep the network harnessed to breaking news rather than capitalize on the stature of its journalists who covered the Gulf War by showcasing them in programs during prime time.

Symptomatic of the failings of the book is the chapter on Fox News' handling of the 2000 presidential election. Collins is eight pages into the chapter before he mentions that Fox News had George Bush's first cousin, John Ellis, handling election decisions. Then he excuses Fox News' decision to allow this blatant conflict of interest by pointing out that Ellis had worked for NBC in three elections without complaint, without noting whether Ellis' first cousin was on the ballot in those elections and whether he was on the telephone with the candidate the night of the election. Instead, Collins uncritically quotes Ailes as saying Ellis was only a good journalist talking to his sources on election night. And Collins downplays the entire incident, saying that Fox News "appeared to be facing the sort of conflict of interest problem that could erupt into a journalistic scandal." There was no "appeared" or "could" about it. It was a journalistic scandal, and Collins should have said so.

Journalistic standards – and the lack of them on Fox News – play all too small a part in Collins' retelling of the Fox story. On Sept. 11, he notes that Jon Scott linked Osama bin Laden to the World Trade Center attacks within a few minutes of the incident and then praises Scott for being "perhaps the first […] national news anchor [who] openly linked the attacks to al Qaeda." Collins makes it sound like some kind of news scoop that Scott had dug out of a source instead of sheer speculation being tossed out. It sounds good in retrospect, but what if Scott had been wrong and al Qaeda was not involved at all? That's why it was irresponsible, especially for a news channel that claims it reports and you decide.

Collins' work also falls down when it comes to analyzing the ratings "earned" by Fox News. For Collins, all ratings are created equal. A book on the television business, however, should treat ratings more skeptically and analytically than Collins does. Collins refers only to gross numbers, ignoring demographics that advertisers find so key – the 25 to 54 age group, for example – in deciding where to place advertising dollars. Nor does he deal with how those ratings are compiled – how many "viewers" are actually customers in banks or other establishments which receive cable discounts in exchange for keeping their channels tuned to Fox News?

He also exalts the words of Roger Ailes, taking on faith the former Republican operative's assertions that network television is biased toward conservatives. Collins fails to mention how conservative money-bags have funded groups like Accuracy in Media for more than three decades to promote the idea that news organizations are biased, creating a perception not based in reality. He leaves the impression that Fox News is responding to some groundswell of desire for GOP-leaning news, leaving out the historical context of Republican attacks on the main stream media, fomented in part by Fox News itself, that helped create that desire in the first place. And he fails to rebut Ailes claim that network news was "400 liberals and Bob Novak," neglecting evidence that conservatives dominated mainstream media even in the 1990s. Furthermore, Collins equates Fox’s pro-Bush administration stance as "pro-American" and allows even outrageous Alies’ strawmen to go unchallenged, such as his implication that liberals believe terrorists were misunderstood as children.

All in all, Collins leaves too much about Fox News unexamined. Don’t bother with it. I read it so you don't have to.

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