Cover

RUDE AND RABIDLY PRO-BUSH, FOX NEWS IS AIMING NORTH. IS CANADA READY FOR LOUDMOUTH TV?

CHARLIE GILLIS October 4 2004
Cover

RUDE AND RABIDLY PRO-BUSH, FOX NEWS IS AIMING NORTH. IS CANADA READY FOR LOUDMOUTH TV?

CHARLIE GILLIS October 4 2004

RUDE AND RABIDLY PRO-BUSH, FOX NEWS IS AIMING NORTH. IS CANADA READY FOR LOUDMOUTH TV?

Cover

CHARLIE GILLIS

THERE IS A RHYTHMIC thrumming deep in my skull, timed to the metronome voice of a newscaster I can’t identify, and broken periodically by the chime of the Fox News Alert bell. The host—John Something, I think—is on again about what is clearly Fox News Channel’s favourite story: the suspect documents CBS aired a few weeks ago, and their potential links to John Kerry’s campaign. It’s not Watergate, of course, but 18 hours of Fox News immersion tends

to skew one’s sense of perspective. Dan Rather’s on-air apology has begun to sound as laughably inadequate as Fox personalities keep saying it is, while the artful juxtaposition of Kerry clips (for the war? against it?) makes the Democratic nominee appear grubby and desperate—the kind of guy who just might stoop to dirty tricks.

Suddenly, we cut to the President, who is rising to address the United Nations. My most enduring images of George W. Bush date back to the fall of 2000, when I spent a week covering his victorious campaign. He struck me at the time as a pretender, a bit-player cast as male lead, and nothing I’ve seen since has changed this perception.

But on Fox, where he’s treated with deference, Bush somehow comes across as earnest and poised—nothing like the strutting charlatan I’d filed in my mind. At 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, I feel the need for a beer.

An entire news cycle has passed since I began monitoring what could soon be Canada’s next 24-hour news service, and it’s clear the country is in for a jolt. Last April, the nation’s cable TV providers applied to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for permission to broadcast Fox News Channel, brainchild of Rupert Murdoch and ratings sensation of the 2004 U.S. election campaign. They’d been turned down once before, but this time their chances look better. The public input phase wound up last month without a hitch, and a decision is now imminent. By Christmas Day, Bill O’Reilly, the network’s pugnacious star, could be beaming into your living room.

Considering Fox’s political baggage— and the protectionist streak that runs through Canadian cultural debate—this has all transpired with amazingly little fuss. After eight years on air, Fox has established itself as the greatest threat to American liberalism since Newt Gingrich, provoking a tide of hostile books, magazine articles, newspaper columns and even a documentary film south of the border. Walter Cronkite, the legendary CBS anchorman, has labelled it a “far-right-wing organization,” while Al Franken, the Saturday Night Live comic-cum-radio host, featured it in a bestselling book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. But when the CRTC invited comment on bringing the channel to Canada, fully 85 per cent of the 600 respondents voiced support. A few domestic broadcasters objected for competitive reasons, and a handful of critics on both sides of the border wrote in complaining that Fox is biased. But on the whole, Canadians seem unafraid to add a nakedly partisan presence to the dial.

So what, if any, are Fox’s thoughts on Canada? Hard to know, unfortunately. While it touts its own journalism as “fair and balanced,” the network doesn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for Canadian reporters seeking the same. An Ottawa Citizen writer who contacted Fox last fall made the mistake of mentioning the ideology issue, and was refused an interview. My own requests to visit the network’s New York studios were politely rebuffed. Spokeswoman Irena Brigand told me staff were too busy with the election to chat, and advised me to call back in a month. When I observed that the election would be even closer by then, her tone turned frosty. “As I said earlier,” she wrote in an email, “we’re extremely busy right now and inundated with requests.”

“Now if your government harbours these two deserters, doesn’t send them back... there will be a boycott of your country which will hurt your country enormously. France is now feeling that sting.”

~April 27, 2004, on air, after two U.S. soldiers fled to Canada to avoid serving in Iraq

“I got nothing against the Canadian people, but in the last few years you’ve swung dramatically to the left. And we in America have some questions about that.”

—April 30, to Canadian Press

“If you had us up there to balance CNN, you’d give people a choice, they’d hear other points of view. Not conservative points of viewthis is not a conservative network.” -April 30, to Canadian Press

“The truth is that the U.S.A. has freed more human beings in 230 years than the rest of the world combined. France has freed almost no one. Ditto Canada... I object to the anti-American foreign press and bums like Chirac in France and Chrétien in Canada.”

-July 8, on air

WHICH LEFT ME no choice but to judge Fox by its product—balance be damned. So here, in a motel in suburban Rochester, N.Y., I’ve holed up with an emergency six-pack of Budweiser for a 48-hour marathon of news alerts, talking heads and old-fashioned partisan bickering. For sanity’s sake, I’ll permit myself a few forays onto rival networks, plus the odd break for meals. Otherwise, I’m confined to quarters.

Of course, I’ll be scratching the mere surface of the channel’s total output. In producing his recently released documentary, Outfoxed, filmmaker Robert Greenwald taped six months’ worth of Fox broadcasts, and obtained internal memos showing that executives frequently directed the handling of important news—often to the benefit of the current administration. In the interest of keeping an open mind I try to forget Greenwald’s findings. But I’ve hardly been watching an hour when the obvious sinks in.

My first clue comes from Carl Cameron, Fox’s chief political correspondent, during a report from the campaign trail. Earlier in the day, Kerry had attacked what he saw as the president’s stubborn attachment to a foundering war effort in Iraq, but Cameron has recast this as Kerry “trying to turn Bush’s consistency into a weapon to use against him.” And compared to his colleagues’ bombast, Cameron’s ham-fisted attempt at counterspin proves positively subtle. When a guest has the temerity to suggest Osama bin Laden remains at large and dangerous, John Gibson, host of The Big Story, begins shouting the poor man down. “He’s in his cave!” hollers Gibson. “Just like Saddam was in his box! He’s in his cave!”

Thus begins an onslaught of anti-Democrat, anti-liberal, pro-Republican rhetoric that only a true believer could construe as impartial. Softball questions for Bushies, sneers for Kerry backers; lingering shots of Bush noshing with the regular folk and brief clips of Kerry looking tired and awkward. Right-wing partisans billed as impartial experts fill the channel’s primetime shows. One teaser promises to “get to the bottom” of the controversy over Bush’s Vietnam-era military record, yet throws to an interview with Byron York, a political writer for the conservative biweekly National Review. Citing information supplied by the White House, York authoritatively confirms that Bush fulfilled his obligation to the Texas Air National Guard— forget those reports suggesting he was truant during the last two years. Untroubled by a need for documentary proof, York assures us Bush was flying “several times a month” during those last 24 months to meet his minimum of service credits. “Well,” concludes host Brit Hume, apparently satisfied, “that seems to be what he did to get those points.”

This curt dismissal of a key election issue— the military credentials of a commander-

BEYOND the bits

of guilty fun, Fox is so relentlessly American you can’t help wonder what it could offer Canadians

in-chief who has twice sent troops into battle-leaves me a tad stunned. But it does clear the decks for the story Fox really wants to tell. For the next two days, I will watch near wall-to-wall coverage of what Fox hosts are calling “Docu-drama,” CBS’s mea culpa for using suspect documents in a report alleg-

ing that Bush got into the Guard through political favouritism. Anyone can see the attraction of this saga for Fox: a legacy broadcaster with liberal leanings, while its brash, right-leaning successor enjoys its best ratings ever. And they’re certainly taking full advantage. By 8 p.m. The O’Reilly Factor takes over, its host ecstatically repeating reports linking CBS’s key source to the Kerry campaign. When guest Michael Isikoff, an investigative reporter with Newsweek, remarks that the uproar makes CBS look as partisan as Fox, O’Reilly beams his assent and declares his employer “the big winner” from the scandal. Fox he adds piously, “would never do anything like this.”

PARTISANSHIP ASIDE, it must be said that Fox is a hell of a lot more fun than CNN. The pace is faster. The news readers are cuter. The screen graphics are accompanied by cool swooshing sounds and—I confess— watching the hosts nettle their guests can be oddly enjoyable. On Day 2 of my Fox-fest, Fm amused to see Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, getting blindsided by a question on the CBS scandal. “I was told I was coming on to discuss about Bush’s address to the UN,” Rockefeller snaps. Better still is a live segment featuring the real-life Soup Nazi of Seinfeld fame. Egged on by host Neil Cavuto, Al Yeganeh angrily denies his reputation as a tyrant, and disavows all connection to the show that made him famous. “I love people!” he says, fixing the camera with toxic glare. “I treat them like kings and queens!”

But beyond these bits of guilty fun, Fox is so relentlessly American, so unabashedly navel-gazing, you can’t help wondering what it could possibly offer Canadians. CNN, for all its faults, has the virtues of a far-flung news team and a reasonably enlightened world view. On Fox, a dispatch from Iowa seems exotic. Reports from outside the country that do make its newscasts tend to be disasters, oddities or outrages against right-thinking patriots back home. Canada surfaces only once while I’m watching, in a story about plans to erect a monument in Nelson, B.C., honouring U.S. draft dodgers. “I think they’re spoiled, snivelling little finks,” opines a Vietnam veteran in the report. I’m not sure whether he’s referring to draft dodgers or Canadians.

It is, in sum, the televised equivalent of its corporate cousin, the New York Post—brash, parochial and fiercely competitive. How that might play north of the border is anyone’s guess. Pamela Wallin, the former broadcaster who now serves as Canada’s consul general in New York, describes the network’s newsgathering style as aggressive. “I think it’s an important force to be recognized,” adds Wallin, who’s appeared on the channel a handful of times. “It’s important for us to

take that opportunity to reach that audience, to engage in the conversation with them.” My own experience, however, suggests many Fox viewers give scarcely a thought to its politics. Four randomly selected Rochesterians I meet all plan to vote against Bush, yet none has detected bias in Fox’s coverage. “I think it’s a good channel,” says Bobby Orpane, a 47-year-old house painter who watches Fox regularly. “It seems more upbeat than the others.”

AT 6 A.M. ON DAY 3,1 rise cotton-mouthed from two beers I’d downed to get myself through The O’Reilly Factor, and flick on the breakfast show, Fox & Friends First. The title couldn’t be more appropriate: throughout the next three hours, the show’s hosts alternately chide and mock CBS over the document scandal, as if no such disaster could have befallen them. There’s some sombre tut-tutting about the beheading of a second American hostage in Iraqbut only after Dr. Georgia Witkin, the channel’s inhouse psychologist, stops by to discuss the effect of Dan Rather’s apology on the American psyche. “There’s still some information missing,” the doctor says ruefully. “It needs to come out before the public believes.”

Next come some amiable questions for White House communications director, Dan Bartlett (“Could someone from the Democratic National Committee have created these documents?”), and a public relations expert to decide whether Rather has “lost all credibility.” It might seem a bit rich for a network that has just aired a full hour of rumour and innuendo to discuss writing off the career of a distinguished journalist like Rather. But at this stage practically nothing these people say surprises me. Canadians should be applauded for inviting in a network that challenges prevailing values. But if the upstarts at Fox have anything to teach us, it’s that fairness and balance are highly elastic terms. fil

charlie.gillis@macleans.rogers.com

PRO AND CON

Debate over Fox News coming to Canada has been surprisingly muted among politicians. “We have the CRTC to make these decisions-we don’t want MPs being lobbied over broadcast licences,” said Liberal MP Sarmite Bulte, parliamentary secretary to Canadian Heritage Minister Liza Frulla. And advocates for homegrown TV choices are not objecting. “We’re here to promote Canadian content, not keep out foreign content,” said Friends of Canadian Broadcasting spokesman Ian Morrison. But TV watchers have taken up the argument with vehemence and wit. A sample of the many submissions filed with the CRTC:

“[Fox’s] application specifically states that they will present an ‘objective’ view of the day’s events, but history of their channel in the U.S. does not bear this out. If they are allowed to broadcast here, it should either be with similar controls as those enacted for al-Jazeera, or perhaps forced to put a disclaimer in their programming that it is not ‘fair and balanced.’ ”

“In the interest of Canadian residents, the availability of programs such as Fox Network is a desirable imperative.

If CNN can display its programs on cable, with its own particular bias, then another point of view that is acceptable and desired by a significant number of Canadians should not be withheld arbitrarily from viewers.”

“I would question the need for an openly right-wing, extremely biased, Republican voice in this country. As a Canadian I feel it is not only my right, but also my duty to avoid the influence of insidious and potentially destructive viewpoints like those repeatedly expressed on Fox. Do your duty, CRTC-protect us from redneck news.”

“I'm writing on behalf of the proposal to bring Fox News to Canadian TV.

I COMPLETELY endorse the idea! I am sick of watching CNN and I want to see the other side.”