Two Cheers for the Fox News Channel

I’m a big fan of the and web sites. I give money to both every year to help keep them going because the perspective and information they bring are crucial to the United States today. The critiques of government in all its ugly facets that you’ll find on the Lew Rockwell site are valuable, whether the discussion is on economic regulation, taxing and spending, government violations of civil liberties, or war. (I don’t agree with many of the articles that propound the Austrian view of the business cycle, but that’s best left for another time.) In short, my perspective is similar to that of many people who write for both sites, the perspective of a libertarian who wants peace at home and abroad.

So what follows is not the kind of uncritical encomium to the Fox News Channel that you might read from a "conservative" who likes George W. Bush’s policies. In fact, there’s a reasonable case to be made that Bush is the worst president since Harry Truman. Rather, I believe that the existence of Fox News Channel is a net plus because it has introduced ideological competition where little had existed before. And there’s another bonus here: because one of the Fox regulars, Bill O’Reilly, is over-confident in his own intellect, he sometimes has on good guests who disagree with him.

Consider the ideological landscape on television news and opinion shows before Fox arrived on the scene. Basically, our choice was from an assortment of leftist flavors. We had Ted Koppel and Peter Jennings on ABC, Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric on NBC, Dan Rather on CBS, and the various liberals/leftists of CNN. In fact, CNN was so partisan that during the Clinton administration, many of its critics began to call it the Clinton News Network.

Now, left-wing isn’t all bad. Many liberal/leftists have been more antiwar than conservatives, at least since the early 1950s. And many on the left have been more sympathetic to civil liberties. But I saw little of this positive aspect on the news I watched. The liberal media reported little that was critical of the Clinton administration’s bombing of Yugoslavia, for example, even though this was a clear-cut example of an alliance of governments initiating war on a government that had not attacked any other country. And while university administrators and campus leftists across the country have regularly attacked freedom of speech, there has rarely been a peep of protest, or even straight news coverage, from ABC, NBC, CBS, or CNN. The one ray of light was ABC’s John Stossel, who hits home run after home run in his critical look at government and his positive perspective on economic freedom.

On the economics, the liberal media were consistently dismal. Their standard way of covering economic issues was to eschew complexity and instead try to find the villain from the list of usual suspects: big businesses, the wealthy, people trying to make money, Republicans, etc. In one case, NBC stooped so low that it made Dan Rather look like Mr. Integrity. In a 1993 report on a General Motors truck that could blow up if hit in the side, due to the gas tank’s location, NBC tried to stage an accident in which a collision would cause an explosion. It didn’t work. So NBC rigged a tiny explosive in the truck and got its explosion. General Motors did some good detective work to uncover the scandal and bring it to the public’s attention. Only then did NBC’s Jane Pauley go on the air to apologize.

Into this world, in 1996, came the Fox News Channel. Only then did Americans begin to see consistently some different viewpoints. Fox likes to call itself "fair and balanced." Overall it is not fair and balanced; rather, Fox is the balance. Fox regulars Brit Hume, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and some of the other players bring a strong viewpoint to every issue they cover — and it’s not a balanced viewpoint. But it is a counterweight to what we were getting. Competition is good, whether in the car market, the housing market, or the media market.

I noticed the Fox difference in a big way in the news coverage of the Florida election fiasco in November and December 2000. I happened to be sick the first few days after the November 2000 election and so I lay on the couch, channel surfing between Fox, CNN, and C-SPAN, with occasional forays to the Big Three — CBS, NBC, and ABC — along with MSNBC. The next week, when I was feeling better, I was hooked by the drama and so I went on leave without pay and stayed home to watch day after day. In the month following the November election, I watched about 200 hours of TV, about 160 of which were on the Florida recount. I watched, for example, virtually the whole of the Tallahassee courtroom scene presided over by Democrat Judge Sanders Sauls, who, with his even-handed and judicious application of the law, became one of my new heroes.

And what I learned was that the Democrats were playing dirty, one of the main ways being by petitioning courts to overturn clear-cut election law deadlines. Various people charged that the Republicans were playing dirty also, but that’s not what I saw. I saw those kinds of claims made on the various liberal channels, but then Fox would invite someone on who refuted it. At one key point in south Florida, for example, some Republican protesters started chanting when a number of government officials tried to meet behind close doors to evaluate some ballots. Some of the liberal media uncritically showed Senator Joe Lieberman, certainly an interested party given his role on the Democrat ticket, and other liberal commentators claiming that the Republicans were using force. Some of the commentators even darkly hinted that these Republican protestors were like the Storm Troopers of Nazi Germany. But when I turned to Fox, I found out that although they had protested loudly and, at times, angrily, their protest had been completely peaceful. Of course, you might wonder why I believed Fox and not the liberal channels. The reason had to do with specificity. As I mentioned, I watched a lot of TV in those four weeks. And no one was able to show any violent protests by the Republicans. Moreover, not one of the commentators who claimed that the protests were violent was specific. But the people Fox interviewed who claimed that the protests were peaceful were specific, telling of particular things that various people had done on this or that floor of a government building. Without Fox, I wouldn’t have seen that perspective.

Also without Fox, I wouldn’t have had a perspective on the Florida Supreme Court’s antics. Invariably, when the liberal media covered the Florida Supreme Court, they referred to it as "moderate" or "middle of the road." Yet, as the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund pointed out, they were nothing of the kind. Most were liberal, and not only that, but most didn’t seem to feel constrained by the Florida constitution. They had earlier thrown out a constitutional amendment voted for overwhelmingly by Florida voters on the grounds that the amendment was . . . unconstitutional. Huh? And in this specific case, they blew by a deadline for the Florida voting recount, a deadline that was crystal clear in the law. The U.S. Supreme Court did its share of damage later, but it was not nearly as out of line as the Florida Supremes. And it’s precisely because Fox interviewed John Fund and others about some of these issues that I was motivated to go to the Web and learn more.

A related area where Fox shone was on the phony documents on George Bush’s service in the National Guard that Dan Rather presented as real on CBS’s 60 Minutes. It’s true that the story was broken on the Web, not Fox; someone who wanted to know the whole story could have found it on the Web. But Fox made "Rather-gate" more accessible to people who didn’t want to bother surfing the Web. And Fox kept the story alive when the other liberal media probably would have buried it after an initial mention. In fact, I believe that it was competition from Fox that caused the other networks to cover it as long as they did. Otherwise, it would have gone quickly down the memory hole as did the 1993 NBC scandal.

On economics also, Fox outshines its liberal competitors. Again, this is not an uncritical encomium to Fox. Their blasé acceptance of high government spending under Bush is, frankly, scary. And recently, Brit Hume, in response to one of his regular liberal panelists, Juan Williams, who worried out loud about the federal budget deficit, patronizingly and sarcastically reassured Williams that the deficit is no big deal. (This was out of character for Hume, by the way, who generally conducts himself in a classy way — more on that later.) But on what other network do you ever see economists and others get serious attention when they talk about the need for low, rather than high, marginal tax rates? And where else do commentators point out that the main reason high-income people get such a high percent of the tax cuts is that they pay an even higher percent of the taxes?

And it’s not just on economic policy that Fox sometimes shines; it’s also, believe it or not, on civil liberties. In one recent episode of "Hannity and Colmes," a show hosted by conservative Sean Hannity and liberal Alan Colmes, the hosts were in Cupertino, a northern California city, having a discussion with a high-school teacher who had been disciplined for teaching that some of the Founding Fathers were religious. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think government schools should teach religion; in fact, I think government schools shouldn’t exist. (For how well the world would work without government schools, see Chapter 16 of my book The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey.) But if we’re not going to abolish government schools tomorrow, meanwhile, history teachers should be able to teach true facts.

Fox is also sometimes good, almost despite itself, on issues of Presidential power. Take a recent decision by US District Court Judge, James Robertson, a Clinton-appointed judge on the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni who was a driver for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Hamdan had been held for over two years at Guantanamo Bay and interrogated. In July 2004, he was charged with conspiring to commit terrorism by being a member of Al Qaeda and was facing trial before a military commission. Robertson ruled that the Defense Department violated the terms of the Geneva Conventions by failing to conduct a tribunal to determine whether Hamdan was entitled to prisoner-of-war status. Bush himself had claimed that Hamdan was an enemy combatant. But Robertson’s point was that this was a matter that needed to be decided by a panel appointed for that purpose. In Robertson’s memorable phrasing, which the New York Times highlighted in its news story at the time (Neil A. Lewis, "Judge Halts War Crimes Trial at Guantanamo," New York Times, November 9, 2004), "The President is not a panel."

After reading the Times that day, I looked forward to seeing how Fox would handle the issue. Bill O’Reilly took it up on "The O’Reilly Factor." O’Reilly had as a guest a New Jersey judge named Andrew Napolitano. Napolitano is a Fox News judicial analyst who often appears on O’Reilly’s show, and clearly O’Reilly respects him. After launching the issue by telling his viewers that Robertson was a Clinton appointee and listing various cases in the past where Robertson had made what he regarded as bad decisions, O’Reilly went after this decision. Then he asked Napolitano whether he agreed. Napolitano, who brings a disarming smile and charm whenever he is on, said that although he agreed with O’Reilly that the other decisions had been bad, he thought Robertson had made the exact right decision. The Constitution does not trump the Geneva Conventions, he explained, because the Constitution explicitly states that treaties that the U.S. government is signatory to become part of U.S. law. O’Reilly hated the answer and tried in various ways to make Napolitano budge, but budge he would not.

Let me mention another positive aspect of O’Reilly and his show. It’s true that O’Reilly often interrupts his guests. And even when he doesn’t interrupt, he often monopolizes the discussion. The one time I appeared, he didn’t interrupt me at all, but he did take two thirds of the time, even though it was my article in the Christian Science Monitor that had led to my appearance. O’Reilly also often accuses guests of spinning when both of the following apply: (1) they disagree with him, and (2) their argument contains any kind of subtlety or nuance. O’Reilly doesn’t do nuance, partly, it seems, because he thinks "the folks" whom he claims to represent are not into nuance. To O’Reilly, there are good guys and bad guys in the world, "the folks" are good guys, O’Reilly represents "the folks," and that should be the end of it. O’Reilly even advocated that once the invasion of Iraq began, everyone in the United States who opposed it should "shut up" (his words.)

So far this sounds like Bridget Jones’s appreciation of Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary — full of criticisms. And that’s exactly what it is. Because, recall, if you’ve seen the movie, she goes on to tell him the ways in which she does appreciate him. I admit, though, that I don’t appreciate O’Reilly nearly as much as Bridget appreciated Darcy.

So what do I appreciate about him? One factor (pun intended) is that he often doesn’t show politicians automatic respect. After the November 2004 elections, for example, O’Reilly had as a guest the mayor of Phoenix. O’Reilly seemed to suspect that the mayor was undercutting enforcement of a voter initiative that required city employees to report illegal aliens to the relevant government agencies. O’Reilly asked the mayor if he agreed with the spirit of the law. The mayor immediately launched into how he was enforcing the law. O’Reilly interrupted, pointing out to the mayor that he wasn’t answering the question and then repeating the question.

Now reminding the mayor that he’s not answering a question is not unheard of. Sam Donaldson used to do it on ABC’s Sunday morning public affairs program and at presidential press conferences. Tim Russert, on NBC’s "Meet the Press," does it. The difference is that O’Reilly does it as soon as he spots the evasion, not even waiting for the answerer to finish. It’s offputting to the person in the hot seat, but here’s the thing: it should be offputting. These politicians rarely face situations where they are instantly held accountable. O’Reilly often does that. I’m normally a strong advocate of politeness. But when reporters interview politicians on TV, there’s entirely too much politeness. I wouldn’t want every reporter to be like O’Reilly, but he’s an important part of the mix.

One of the best newsmen on Fox is Brit Hume, who had previously covered the White House for ABC News and who was one of the toughest questioners of former President Clinton. Whenever Hume asks questions of guests or panelists, his main goal is clarity. He’s constantly making sure that discussions are clear so that the audience can follow what’s going on. He’s also scrupulously accurate, correcting his various panelists when they say things that are wrong or even approximately correct, whether his correction strengthens or detracts from his own ideological view, which could be described as "mainstream conservative."

So, two cheers for the Fox News Channel. Given all of this, why does Fox not earn my third cheer? Because of Fox’s completely uncritical presentation of, and support of, the war in Iraq. I have learned little from watching many hours of Fox news coverage of Iraq. Their working assumption is that the U.S. government is doing the right thing. That’s not necessarily bad because you have to start with some kind of assumption. But even though you go into a situation with working assumptions, you should be open to revising them in the light of new information. But nothing that has happened in Iraq seems to have made them question a government that has gone in and done some pretty severe damage to Iraq in the hope that it will lead to a more peaceful society later on.

Fox News Channel, moreover, is neo-conservative heaven. On Brit Hume’s show, "Special Report," the last 15 or so minutes are taken up by a panel, all of whose members are either fairly smart neo-conservatives or less-smart liberals. The neo-conservatives include Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard, Morton Kondracke of Roll Call (a Capitol Hill publication), Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer (who advocates U.S. imperialism explicitly), and Michael Barone of U.S. News and World Report. The liberals are the above-mentioned Juan Williams, Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post, Mara Liasson of National Public Radio, and Jeff Birnbaum of the Washington Post. Connolly seems smart, but tends to focus solely on narrow, inside-baseball, how-will-this-politician-play-this-one issues.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion on Brit Hume’s show is of the war, and the range of views is narrow. The last four — Williams, Connolly, Liasson, and Birnbaum — seem to take the John Kerry position that, whatever the wisdom of the war, the U.S. government should remain until things improve in some ill-defined way. The neo-conservatives’ position is that attacking Iraq was a good idea and that the U.S. government should try to remake that part of the world. Nobel-winning economist Friedrich Hayek referred to the idea that government can create workable societies as a "fatal conceit." When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, the neo-conservatives on Fox share this conceit.

One positive I should mention, before I leave the discussion of Brit Hume, is his two-minute Grapevine half way through his hour-long show. Each night, almost no matter what else we are watching, my wife and I turn to Fox to see the Grapevine. Hume always introduces it by calling it, "the most (fill in the blank) two minutes on television." The adjective he uses is "interesting," "compelling," "scintillating," etc. and my wife and I like to lay bets about which adjective he’ll use that night. In that two minutes, Hume often makes specific hits on various liberal media, including CBS and the New York Times, pointing out where they made something up, left something out, misstated an issue in an important way, etc. It’s often informative, and specific enough that anyone who wants to check it out can go to the Web and do so. The other aspect of Hume I enjoy is his sense of humor. Whether he’s making fun of politically correct nonsense about renaming Christmas trees into holiday trees or pointing out some other kind of silliness, he treats it as silly and has a good laugh about it.

Back to foreign policy, where Fox fails to earn the third cheer. Even here, though, there is some good news, and it’s mainly due to Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly is neither liberal nor conservative nor neo-conservative. Rather, he is a populist. Night after night he talks about how he’s looking out for "the folks," a term I’ve never heard him define. I get the impression that "the folks" means, to O’Reilly, what former President Richard Nixon referred to as "the silent majority," a large group whom Nixon imagined populated the United States and favored the Vietnam war, but, somehow, never bothered to speak up in favor of it.

So what is the good news? Simply this. O’Reilly is neither incisive nor particularly thoughtful. But O’Reilly seems to have a high opinion of his own intellect. Because of that, he often hosts smart guests whom, I get the impression, he thought he could refute, but sometimes can’t. Moreover, these are often guests who are more articulate and whose views are fresher, than the guests and views you typically see on the liberal networks. In December, for example, he hosted a University of Chicago law professor named Geoffrey Stone, who argued that U.S. defeat in Iraq would be good. O’Reilly regarded this as traitorous and that was about the extent of his argument. But Stone pointed out that if the U.S. government responded to defeat by exiting Iraq, many American lives would be saved. O’Reilly became muddled when faced with this argument — he didn’t know what to do with it. And millions of Americans got to see a guy with some gravitas saying, without animus, that the U.S. government should be defeated.

A major message in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is that the reason free markets work so well is that each participant is motivated mainly by self-interest and that people figure out that the way to get something they want is to provide something that someone else wants and is willing to pay for. Smith compared the free market to an invisible hand that created good results for society in general, even though such overall good results were no one’s intention. Similarly, competition in TV news and opinion shows will bring good results that are not necessarily intended by any of the participants. When Roger Ailes started the Fox News Channel, his intention was to make money for his boss Rupert Murdoch by catering to a niche that had been largely ignored. It has worked, and the whole news market is better for it. In the process of competing in the bigger world of ideas, Fox is showing, as if by an invisible hand, some of the weaknesses in its own views.