by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
November 1, 2009
FOX NEWS AND THE TRIUMPH OF FATHEADS OVER FACT
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- If you were President Obama, why would you bother to give the time of day to an organization dedicated not just to the destruction of his presidency, but to liberalism in general?
It took long enough for him to figure it out, but Obama and his Administration have finally realized that Fox News Channel is nothing more than the media arm of the Republican National Committee and not a bona fide news-gathering organization.
We wonder what the tipping point was for Obama. Was it Fox News organizing and drumming up support for the "tea party" protests? Was it the way Fox News gives ample air time to any crank who opposes Obama? Or was it Fox News' penchant for making up stories, doctoring quotes and mischaracterizing virtually any statement that comes out of the President's mouth? Whatever the reason, the Administration's reaction is long overdue.
Fox News, however, is only a small part of a big problem: the apparent triumph of feeling and emotion over intellect and reason.
In his recent book, "Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free," Charles P. Pierce outlines what he calls "the three Great Premises of Idiot America."
The First Great Premise: "Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units."
The Second Great Premise: "Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough."
Finally, the Third Great Premise: "Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it."
There, in a nutshell, are the guiding rules not just for Fox News, but for wide swaths of American life.
It is why there is a "debate" over Darwin's theory of evolution and whether the Earth's climate is changing. It is why some people still believe Saddam Hussein's Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was involved in the plotting of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. It is why some people believe that President Obama is going kill their grandparents and indoctrinate their children.
Fox News and its precursor, conservative talk radio, definitely meet Pierce's first premise. Both make money by manipulating the emotions of a small, but noisy, group of people.
As for Pierce's second premise, it is an example of how our national debate has devolved into argument. "Debate no longer consists of thesis and antithesis, moving forward to synthesis; it is now a matter of choosing up sides, finding someone on your team to sally forth, and then laying the wood to each other," writes Pierce. "(They have) helped shove the way we talk to each other about even the most important topics almost entirely into the field of entertainment."
Television comedian Stephen Colbert has popularized the word "truthiness," which epitomizes Pierce's third premise. As Colbert defined it, it is "truth that comes from the gut, not books." Or, as the American Dialect Society defined it, it is "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true."
It has been definitively established that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. It has been definitively established that the government is not setting up "death panels" as part of health care reform. It has been definitively established that the Earth's temperature is warming and the planet's climate is changing, perhaps irrevocably. Yet those who fervently believe the opposite are given equal footing in the public sphere and their stances rarely are questioned.
Television in general, and Fox News in particular, can be blamed for this. "'Fact' is now defined as something believed by so many people that television notices their belief," write Pierce. "In the war on expertise that is central to the rise of Idiot America, television is both the battlefield and the armory."
And, Pierce writes, "if something feels right, it must be treated with the same respect given something that is actually right. If something is felt deeply, it must carry the same weight as something that is true. If there are two sides to every argument - or, more to the point, if there are people willing to take up two sides to every argument - they both must be right or, at least, equally valid."
This is not a blueprint for rational discussion. As we've seen over the course of the past few months in the debates over health care, rationality has left the building. That is why the Obama White House is right to put Fox News on notice.
Fox News has a right to be part of the national debate. It has the right to inject opinion into its news programs. But when your news channel actively promotes anti-American ideas and movements and gives a platform to people who think it's more important for Obama to fail than for America to succeed, you have forfeited the right to call your programming "fair and balanced."
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics.