I had originally intended the subheading of this piece to be called, “Why Fox News Should Change its Motto From “Fair & Balanced” to “Remember the Maine,” due to having recently debunked a handful of their “news stories.” My original criticism of Fox News was going to be its poor journalism at times, which then resulted in a mere blogger, that’s me, to knock down these stories produced by professional journalists. However, after pitching the idea around to several people in my personal life two items became readily apparent. The first item being that although Fox has some fact checking issues, they are by no means alone in the “they may not be lying but they certainly aren’t telling the truth either,” category. Journalism, both in print and on television, has got some major issues with their inability to research thoroughly.

The second item that became apparent to me is that the spotty journalism and lack of fact checking isn’t the biggest problem these outlets have. The cable news networks, Fox and MSNBC especially and less so CNN, have all managed to blend together news and commentary, such to the point that it becomes nearly impossible to tell them a part. And then, much like the Daily Show hides behind the façade of being a “comedy show on a comedy network,” the cable news shows hide behind the façade of being “analytical” or “commentary.” Rush Limbaugh uses this trick as well. For years he’s been telling people that he is not in the news business, he’s in the entertainment business. The fact that he’s giving opinions on news items is not the point in his mind.

As far as television news goes, more Americans are tuning into cable news shows and less are watching the network news. However, network news viewings still have a10% lead over cable news. The problem is that the lead used to be 40%. What this adds up to is that more and more people are seeking to be informed by journalists who are not “Fair and Balanced” but are in fact opinionated and actively lobbying for one of the political parties.

Bill O’Reilly has explained to Jon Stewart and anyone else that will listen that Fox, for example, splits it’s time between news and commentary shows. Fox defines its news hours as 9am-4pm & 6-8pm, parameters which exclude Neil Cavuto (business commentary), O’Reilly (analysis), Fox & Friends crew (morning show/analysis), Glenn Beck (commentary), Greta Van Susteren (commentary), and Sean Hannity (debate) from the news category and the rest of the folks are supposed to be the news anchors. One of those news anchors is Megan Kelly. The following is not her usual mode of interaction but it is an example of what is supposed to pass for a hard news segment.

If you can find the straight news in there versus the commentary/debate then brother, you are a better man than I. I don’t want to just pick on Fox News here as MSNBC is just as bad in its own way. MSNBC also attempts to delineate between a hard news broadcast and a commentary show and can’t quite get it right either. This is essentially what got Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews demoted from their anchor gig during the 2008 election coverage. Once again the problem was that hard news coverage and commentary got blurred together and nullified both.

In March of this year the New York Times ran a story stating that CNN was suffering a lack of ratings due its policy of not going overboard with commentary. “CNN continued what has become a precipitous decline in ratings for its prime-time programs in the first quarter of 2010, with its main hosts losing almost half their viewers in a year…The losses at CNN continued a pattern in place for much of the last year, as the network trailed its competitors in every prime-time hour. (CNN still easily beats MSNBC in the daytime hours, but those are less lucrative in advertising money, and both networks are far behind Fox News at all hours.)…CNN executives have steadfastly said that they will not change their approach to prime-time programs, which are led by hosts not aligned with any partisan point of view.”

That is a sad commentary when you think about it. The cable news network that sticks closest to traditional, non-partisan news is the one that’s losing the ratings race. This sad commentary extends itself to the network news programs as well. Typically, the presentation of the 6:00 PM news on ABC, CBS and NBC is straight and to the point. The network may have a bias or an agenda but the anchor isn’t directly stating as such during the news broadcast. The anchors read the news from the teleprompter and don’t inject their opinions. For this they lose viewers to hot chicks yelling at one another on cable. Megan Kelly might as well have hit Kirsten Powers in the head with a chair and thrown her into a pool of mud.

The cable news shows, especially Fox and MSNBC should stop referring to themselves as news networks. News may be the well from which they draw upon for segments but ultimately those segments, no matter what they are labeled, will not be hard news. Ultimately every segment will be some form of entertainment meant to garner viewers and more importantly, sell ad space, not just report the facts of a story. If I say, “Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water,” that is news. If I say, “Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water, and frankly I’m mortified that she’s destroying the environment,” that’s news entertainment, which is exactly what Fox and MSNBC do on a daily basis. It’s one thing to falsely report stories but then don’t compound the dishonesty by asserting you are a hard news organization. Fox and MSNBC should do as the WWE did and embrace the entertainment side of their medium while making “news” a dirty word. They should stop pretending to be in the business of reporting anything and just admit, “It’s a work, it’s all fake, and we’re in the business of pushing political philosophies and occasionally getting someone elected.”

My concern with all of this is that despite the fact that more Americans are going to the internet for news or not bothering to get news at all, there is still a significant number of people who still go to Fox or MSNBC for their news. While it is entertaining, I suppose, to see both sides accuse the other of shoddy reporting and bias where exactly does that leave the viewer? News entertainment makes us all dumber. We all end up being more uninformed and too caught up in political rivalries rather than holding our elected representatives accountable for their actions, immoral or otherwise. The point of a free press is to have an informed citizenry ready to vote in a representative democracy for the purposes of running our government. However, because we are not informed enough and have been manipulated by news entertainment organizations, we’ll elect just about anyone based on nothing more than emotions and team loyalty. That’s not a recipe for a healthy democracy, that’s the path toward imminent destruction.

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