Fox News defends its `patriotic' coverage

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Channel's objectivity questioned on Iraq

War In Iraq

April 02, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Obnoxious, pontificating jerk." "Self-absorbed, condescending imbecile." "Ivy League intellectual Lilliputian."

These were among the choice phrases deployed by Fox News Channel's Neil Cavuto Friday to rebut criticism that the anchor had abandoned objectivity for overt nationalism on the air.

The complaint was made in a letter written to the network by a journalism professor who Cavuto didn't further identify.

"There is nothing wrong with taking sides here, professor," Cavuto said during his show. "You see no difference between a government that oppresses people, and one that does not, but I do."

Taken as a whole, the anchor's jeremiad neatly defines the tone of Fox News at war: It is patriotic, it is pugilistic, and it takes things personally.

As the invasion of Iraq unfolds, this visceral approach has become more the rule than the exception at Fox News. Always presented as an alternative to the rest of the establishment press, Fox has switched into even higher gear, encouraging a resolutely pro-American, sometimes explicitly pro-war stance.

Almost every Fox News program includes a flag in the left-hand corner and the use of the Defense Department's name for the war - "Operation Iraqi Freedom" - as the network's own catchphrase for its coverage. The United States quickly becomes "our" in reporters' parlance.

Those elements aren't so different from what can be found elsewhere. American media outlets report U.S. casualties with far greater urgency than those of Iraqis. Correspondents proudly express their affinity for the military units with which they are traveling. MSNBC flies its own flag in one corner of its screen.

But Fox News exudes patriotism to a far greater degree. Nationalism pervades the remarks of Fox's reporters and anchors, not just its commentators. And that tone has played well. Fox News' ratings continue above those of its cable competitors, notably CNN. Through a spokesman, Fox executives declined to be interviewed.

Founded in 1996 by media magnate Rupert Murdoch, Fox News has a core of capable reporters, such as Jim Angle at the White House, Major Garrett covering the Pentagon, Rick Leventhal, currently reporting from Iraq, and Brit Hume, the channel's Washington managing editor. Under the leadership of Roger Ailes, the channel has strong appeal for those who find the media too elitist or liberal.

"As a ferocious news consumer, I like watching the Fox News network a lot," says Kent S. Collins, broadcast chairman of the University of Missouri's journalism school.

Even so, Collins says he seeks out other news accounts to make sure he's getting the full picture. "I would not want to see the world only through the Fox News network," he says.

War correspondents

On Monday, Peter Arnett's remarks on Iraqi television that praised the resolve of Saddam Hussein's troops drew criticism from Fox News media critic Eric Burns, among others. NBC fired Arnett after the incident.

Fox anchor David Asman pressed Burns. "Aiding enemy propaganda?" Asman asked. "You don't think that's traitorous?" Burns demurred.

Fox News pounced on the Arnett episode with glee and focused on several stories with the common theme of anti-Americanism. Fox gave extensive coverage to remarks by a Columbia University anthropology professor who seemed to want American deaths and defeat. During an anti-war demonstration in midtown Manhattan last week, the Fox News ticker switched from headlines to taunts aimed at the protesters.

Yesterday, the network's morning anchors encouraged viewers to send in pictures of their families showing support for the troops and the war effort. "There are so many pictures of protesters out there," said Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy. "We want to show pictures of pro-Americans."

War correspondent Geraldo Rivera, adopting the rhetoric of the Bush administration, referred to Saddam Hussein as "the Iraqi Hitler." While interviewing an army major, Rivera asked about graffiti apparently written by U.S. troops in a captured Iraqi bunker: "When people read things like `My foot is up your rear end,' how do they respond?"

The major, looking sheepish, said, "I don't know who wrote that," prompting Rivera's quick retort: "I would have written it." Fox News said yesterday that it would withdraw Rivera from Iraq after U.S. military officials said his stories jeopardized troop security.

Fox also features Oliver North, the former Marine lieutenant colonel turned talk show host whose role in the Iran-Contra scandal made him a hero to many conservatives. North is accompanying a Marine unit inside Iraq and he appears bent on rebutting any reports that the invasion has not proceeded as planned.

On Monday night, North volunteered, "I say General [Tommy] Franks should be commended - that's a U.S. Marine saying that about an Army general." North interviewed a Marine yesterday morning to "give the lie to some of those stories back home" about disrupted military supply lines.

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