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Monday, February 07, 2005

End of the "Fairness Doctrine" and the Birth of Fox News

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(My brother-in-law Loren Farr is a former news anchor in Tulsa who currently teaches journalism at Tulsa Community College. He has some interesting observations about the late lamented Fairness Doctrine and its implications in the 24 hour cable news era, so I asked him to do some guest blogging:)

“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.” Jack Nicholson’s line in “A few Good Men” also -- for me -- applies to the question of bias in the media.

A 25 year veteran of print, radio and television – I have opted out of the profession or perhaps it opted out on me. I’m currently living in a kind of witness protection program environment along the Arkansas River. I am a man somewhat out of place in a Red State where the legislature is currently being asked to legalize cockfighting by allowing the chickens to wear boxing gloves. You may have heard about it.

Among my current pass times is teaching journalism at one of the largest community colleges in the country. Despite my efforts I think I may be getting more out of it than most the students. It’s forced me to take a fresh look at a life and a profession that I worked in for so many years.

For years when I was asked about bias in the media my response was “there’s more ignorance and laziness than bias.” That’s what I saw first hand. There were some troubling signs. The instance when my television station ownership wanted to play nice with a Democrat congressman to get a city of license changed from Oklahoma to Texas. I was told pretty strongly not to report negatively about the U.S. Representative.

The congressman has since changed parties and still has a close relationship with the ownership group despite the apparent “political” born again experience.

When I was on the front line as a television news director we had a hungry animal to feed -- hours of live programming. All outlets cut corners, substance too many times gave way to style. You would fight the fight and hope to win most of the time. Most of the loses would come from pressure to fill air or a failure to ask the right questions.

There was another fact – an honest mistake – being too close to a story. The “dah” moment that could only be provided by someone somewhat away from the effort who could raise the pertinent questions. 60 Minutes II needed that kind of observer before they aired the George W. Bush Air National Guard story last fall. For better or worst Dan Rather would still have his anchor chair if CBS had a person like that reviewing stories.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a small town celebrity or on the national scene making millions – the special treatment you receive can dull your BS antenna. I got that “humility bath” when I was no longer on TV promotional spots and billboards and living away from an area where considerable effort had been spent to let people know how great I was. Not a bad lesson to learn.

Enter the “Sage on the stage” part of my life. As a teacher I could have faked my way through the effort. I am a good talk with great stories. The honorable option -- I could take another look at where broadcast journalism is now.

Is there bias in the Media? Yes there is and always has been. What we’re seeing now is a higher form fueled by the demise of the Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan Administration. No longer did you have to balance opinions. The premise was the growing number of news outlets would do that balancing naturally. In effect it has spawned an even more one dimensional presentation. Despite what Fox News and MSNBC tells you they have a political agenda. A qualified salute to Roger Ailes, the mastermind behind the Fox News Network. The former GOP political “gun for hire” identified a huge moneymaker in catering to American Conservatives and has marshaled public opinion in a way William Randolph Hearst could only dream of a century or more ago.

What the advent of cable and satellite has done is bring on a new era not of broadcasting but narrow-casting. You can target an audience and tailor your message. Fox’s slick packaging and deep wallet made it possible to rocket past those on the scene already. CNN was caught complacent and boring and MSNBC while having some impressively slick building blocks for success have to play catch up in a country that has more people who consider themselves conservative.

“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.” I like to think of myself as a political agnostic but being honest I’m a radical idealist. I don’t believe in politicians. I’m believing in few and fewer journalists. My faith in the possibility of unbiased or balanced reporting is shaken. Most people – conservative and liberal want to watch, listen and read news coverage that agrees with their view of the world. Anything that doesn’t fit that view is suspect.

Journalists are filling this 24/7 information hungry nation with and unprecedented amount “stuff.” Bias and the nature of this round the clock beast make for a lot of garbage. Despite all the promotional slogans about being trusted, fair and balanced -– the nature of this beast makes it easier than ever for political manipulation to masquerade as journalism.