Sheila S. Kennedy

The Worst Network in the World

Filed By Sheila S. Kennedy | August 03, 2007 10:24 AM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Bill O'Reilly, FCC filings, Fox News, Keith Olbermann, lies, Monsanto

Keith Olbermann does a segment on “Countdown” called “the Worst Person in the World.” Bill O’Reilly (bloviating Bill) holds pride of place—he has won that dubious honor more than anyone else.

That’s not a surprise, since O’Reilly’s network is Fox (“Fair and Balanced”) News. I’m not going to pick on O’Reilly here, except to note that thinking people tend to define him as falling into one of two categories: nuts or Machiavellian. (In the latter category, I recently ran across an academic article comparing Nazi propaganda methodology with O’Reilly’s nightly newscast, and finding an uncanny similarity).

No, I want to shift the focus slightly, to the network that employs Bill O.

It seems that in late 1996, a reporter couple was hired by Fox to do an investigative journalism series. Their first story involved health risks from bovine growth hormone, or BGH, and the efforts of supermarket chains to cover up those risks. As a condition of running the program, Fox demanded that they use statements from Monsanto—manufacturer of BGH—that the reporters knew to be false, and to make other changes in direct conflict with the facts as they had found them. When they refused to falsify the story, and threatened to contact the FCC, Fox fired them, and they sued.

Although the reporters won at the trial court level, the appeals court overturned the verdict. Why?

The reporters were claiming that their termination was wrongful because it violated a whistleblower protection law. The appeals court accepted Fox’s argument that: 1) the law only protected people who were reporting ILLEGAL conduct; and 2) there are no laws against distorting the news.

Think about that. Fox’s lawyers argued in official court filings that, under the First Amendment, broadcasters have the right to lie, or deliberately distort news reported on the public airwaves. They didn’t argue that the reporters were wrong, or that their original story was unbalanced or incorrect. They argued that they had a legal right to lie to the public.

Now, as a matter of law, the First Amendment probably does protect them. And in a litigious society, we probably don’t want courts deciding matters of editorial judgment. So I can understand the court’s decision.

What I find amazing is that Fox would file pleadings that constituted a brazen admission that the network distorts the news.

What I find disheartening is that this case is from 2000, and people continue to watch—and presumably trust—Fox News. Or maybe they just trust Fox to reinforce their existing prejudices.

It really is a perfect place for someone like Bill O to work.


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I have to agree it is amazing how many people drink the Kool-Aid Faux and CNN turn out. We as a society have become complacent and all too often just let things slide. Americans have become increasingly apathetic about the country they live in focusing on material things while the economy declines silently with little or no notice. Most Americans see news as entertainment and constructing an informed opinion on a given topic as too much work. Sadly the Faux comment in their pleadings is a symptom of a much larger problem. In a very short time Americans will get the society they deserve and then it will be too late.

Self-government Cannot exist without Involvement from the Governed, the people must be informed and take part in their government or they will become the servants of that government and slaves to corporate interests.

A. J. Lopp | August 3, 2007 7:57 PM

When I was in journalism studies at Indiana University in the mid-1970's, I remember a discussion of the First Amendment and hearing my professor quote one of our Founding Fathers who said or wrote, "Let truth and falsehood grapple in the marketplace of ideas." I don't remember who the famous historical person was; maybe another Bilerico reader can identify him (or her --- most of our Founding Fathers were indeed "him's").

Sheila, you are correct that the First Amendment does protect the right to lie --- if that lie does not present a clear and immediate threat to the wellbeing of the intended audience. The classic example is that the First Amendment does not protect my right to yell "Fire!" in a dark, crowded theatre if there is indeed no fire.

(Of course, if there is a fire, yelling "Fire!" may or may not be the wise thing to do --- but, if I remember my journalism law correctly, the First Amendment does protect yelling "Fire!" if there is indeed a serious life-threatening fire present. So the First Amendment is not totally blind to what is true and what isn't.)

But my point is this: The classic theory of freedom of speech and press is that, given unfettered discussion and enough time, ultimately truth will win over falsehood. This viewpoint is a fallout of the Enlightenment, where it was held that rationality is the best path to Truth.

Unfortunately, in the real world, this theory has several problems, which include:

(1) Following a debate to its conclusion takes a lot of time and effort from a lot of people with honest intentions. Sometimes not enough people are even interested in the debate.

(2) Sometimes our attention span wears out before the real Truth becomes clear.

(3) Sometimes few or none of the people participating in the debate have good intentions.

(4) Sometimes the debate is not truly unfettered.

Et cetera, et cetera. A whole host of things can go wrong.

Now, Sheila, about your post: It may look as if Fox has won. However, this story is not dead --- the fact that you have repeated it here proves that it is not dead. This story still has the power to rise up and bite Fox in the rump if enough people care about it.

And this brings us to:

(5) The debate audience --- the American citizenry --- has to care about what is true and what isn't.

So, indeed, you are right, and the first commenter above is right: It is always our responsibility to ensure that truth wins out. And if we do not tend to that responsibility diligently, we will indeed "get the society [that we] deserve."

I that's it, Allen. Like they say truth and falsehood can duke it out and truth will win, but I'm not so optimistic. We've been around for how many thousands of years and bs like this is still going on? Even more strongly?

"Unfettered discussion" seems to mean that the largest locus of power semi-responsible to the people (government) doesn't participate, but it doesn't say anything about those loci of power that aren't responsible at all to the people (media conglomerates like Murdoch's, corporations like Monsanto, etc.). And those private actors can completely "fetter" a national conversation, almost unaccountably, and then we all assume that truth will win out. No way.

I like to think of Fox News as the Big Mac and fries of news media - it's bad for you to consume it but people still like the immediate gratification it gives. And while they do everything in their power to fetter debates (I'm thinking I like the word "fetter"), people just like their flashy style and the fact that they play into their baser prejudices and just watch away.

So yeah, the reasons that you list, Allen, are pretty good reasons to make another exception to the First Amendment here. They don't have to go so far as to say that courts will decide editorial content, but when it's news, not opinion (a distinction that's already been made), journalists who blow the whistle on being told to lie get protection.

Or even, they can't straight up lie. How about that?