Saturday, February 09, 2008

Doin' the Fox Limbo: How low can you go?

How does news go awry? Let me count the ways. Some- times news makes too many assumptions about what stuff means. Sometimes it suffers from a lack of training and supervision. Sometimes it just screws up.

And, of course, sometimes news goes awry because it lies -- deliberately, systematically, as a matter of policy. Our pals at Fox are prone to the first three (as are we all), but to a degree unique among the mainstream channels to which one turns for "news" in this country, they make stuff up to fit the party line. That, or they pass along fabrications from elsewhere in the Murdoch system. Here, unusually, we get to catch them at it twice on one page.

Let's look at the centerpiece first: "Brit Cleric In Islamic Firestorm."* It's a big story at Fox -- bigger, temporarily, than the last two days' worth of STUNNING DEVELOPMENTS in the Natalee Holloway case -- for a couple of reasons. The lesser is that this particular liberal "Brit cleric" (interesting shorthand for the archbishop of freakin' Canterbury, innit?) has been caught again, same as in the great homosexual conspiracy. The greater is that he's selling us all out to the Islamic menace!

Well, is he? According to Fox (relying on its fellow paragon of Murdoch journalism, The Times), he's "calling for" the introduction of Islamic law in Britain. And that's more or less a thoroughgoing lie. You can read the text of his address here, and Geoff Pullum's gently reasoned explanation** of why Archbishop Williams isn't even suggesting that adopting "some aspects" of Sharia "seems unavoidable" (as the more professional London papers put it) is worth a look too. If you check out his remarks about -- not "calls for," unless you're genuinely stupid or genuinely devoted to Murdoch cause -- "supplementary jurisdiction," he's basically justifying a right to teach your kids that Adam and Eve frolicked with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden 6,000 years ago. And that's very, very different from any alleged right to let the little darlings die because you think penicillin is Satan's lip balm.

But -- you know, who cares if a story is true, as long as you can stoke a little post-Super Tuesday fear with it?

The second example -- "Mayor to Marines: Get out" -- pushes a different Fox button. How dare civilians tell the military what to do? The problem here seems to be that the mayor of Toledo told a company of Marine reservists from Grand Rapids*** that they couldn't conduct a set of maneuvers: "urban patrol exercises in downtown streets and a vacant building, according to the Blade, which reports that past exercises have included mock gun fights, ambushes and the firing of blank ammunition to simulate urban combat."

Urban patrols with mock gunfights! Would the little robots at Fox like a news flash? When civilians who haven't had proper (or any) notification about the upcoming maneuvers hear the ambushes, they make things really, really amusing for the night news desk!

But that's not why one misunderstanding with the reserves is the Third Most Super-Important Story in the World for Fox:

This isn't the first a city has given Marines the cold shoulder.

The City Council in Berkeley, Calif., voted last week to send a message to Marine recruiters that they weren't welcome in the city because of the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy toward gay servicemen and servicewomen.

Uh, yeah. So Fox really can't tell civil authorities' interest in maintaining civil order from Berkeley's interest in being Berkeley. Or why a recruiting office isn't the same thing as an urban warfare exercise. Or why anything involving civil-military relations is in any way indistinguishable from disrespect for the Powers that Be.

Picking on journalism is a job. Picking on Fox is ... well, business before pleasure.

* It isn't an "Islamic firestorm," of course; it's a "firestorm related to debate about Islamic law and custom." While this could be another effect of Fox's generalized racism, it's more likely just one of those things in news language that hauls modifiers around from prepositional phrases to a signaling position in front of the noun. That's how "legislation to provide insurance for catastrophic health-care emergencies" becomes first "the catastrophic health bill" and then "the catastrophic bill."
** As Dr. Pullum puts it, The Sun "is noted for displaying a level of tastefulness that makes licking your balls in public seem refined."
*** Why didn't they keep it in the state, where we could use the economic boost? It's not particularly my beloved Paris, but maybe Rick had some other advice.



Anonymous Jim Thomsen said...

I wonder why Fox News makes you so crazy? It seems silly to pick on it for not playing by the same rules on the same field as the rest of us when it's shiningly clear that Fox doesn't even play the same game as the rest of us (no matter what hollow protestation to the contrary they may offer).

To me, fussing over Fox's faux news is like picking on People magazine or the National Enquirer or true-crime books or a fawning upper-crust lifestyle magazine. They do their thing, we do ours. To dun them for not doing it our way seems like a waste of time.

8:21 PM, February 15, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Well, I think "crazy" might be overstating things a bit (I prefer "systematic, with occasional flecks of foam").

As a copy editor, I'm always interested in how and why people spend editing resources (one or two of our readers out there have actually played the HEADSUP-L copydesk management board game). So openly ideological style choices ("homicide bomber," for example) tend to be entertaining almost by definition.

The faux news isn't the part that worries me, if by "faux" you mean "rewrites of bizarre cop stories and fictionalized medical events from the British tabloid press." The worrisome part is the large amount of Fox coverage that _does_ pass for real news. (I mean, it's not like the National Enquirer was ahead of the BBC for interviews with Bush last week.)

Long story short (and agenda-setting effects aside, which is a whole different bundle of stuff dealing with Fox's handling of the entire Islamic world), the way a news organization talks about national security issues really does make a difference, both in how closely people pay attention to news and in how they regard things like civil liberties. Let me know if you want a copy of the paper.

10:49 AM, February 16, 2008  

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