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Crappy Journalism, Unfair and Imbalanced

I spent the past weekend in my parents' full-time motorhome. We had a nice time -- there was plenty of good grandparent-baby interaction. But there was also plenty of unfortunate television.

I'm not one of those people with parents who are addicted to JAG and CSI and various other three-letter shows that air on CBS, even though my parents have the capability -- they've got a satellite dish and can watch anything they damned well please. My parents have, for whatever reason, gotten off the undesirable-demographic-drama gravy train at some point between the airing of Matlock and Touched by an Angel.

Instead, they've gone on a binge of the worst sort of reality programming: 24-hour cable news. See, my parents are a Fox News Channel household. They've got the dish pointed right down the maw of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes' brainchild, and so the entire weekend I got to be exposed to the channel that gives you "Real Journalism, Fair and Balanced" -- and isn't afraid to tell you so repeatedly.

Although my parents are much more conservative politically than I am, this is not a rant about Fox's conservative leanings. I am a moderate who has voted Republican more times than not, and my lengthy experience in journalism circles has taught me that in general, the news media is populated by far more Democrats than Republicans, and the Republicans who surely must exist somewhere tend to make themselves as scarce as Iraqi critics of Saddam Hussein. But while I do think that Fox News Channel lays their conservatism on a bit thick, I don't have a problem with that.

What I have a problem with is that Fox News Channel is simply awful. It's poorly produced and -- what's worse -- full of terrible, terrible journalism.

This is not to say that CNN and MSNBC are beacons of brilliant journalism. Generally, this 24-hour-a-day war coverage has been non-nutritious, full of seemingly exciting imagery that means less and less as you watch it until you realize you've lost any grip on the context of the situation. You stay tuned hoping to see a moment that's remarkable and defining -- and occasionally, as with the first live glimpse of tanks rumbling through the desert on a pixelated videophone, or with the first live firefight in Umm Qasar, you get it. Momentary shocks of adrenaline serve to keep you hooked -- as did the first reports, last night, that the U.S. had once again found a "target of opportunity" against the Iraqi leadership.

But if I find the live coverage on CNN to be enthralling but empty, at least it's reported fairly well. Aaron Brown, when he can be troubled to haul his ass off the golf course and into the studio, is brilliant: skeptical, serious, fair, and most importantly, not afraid to admit when he doesn't really know what a new piece of information really means.

This is in stark contrast to our good friends at Fox News Channel, many of whom must have skipped over Journalism 101 on their way to Fox's Global News Headquarters in New York City.

Because while Fox News Channel may be conservative politically, they are hardly conservative when it comes to jumping to conclusions. During this war, the conclusion-jumping has come fast and furious. Last weekend, we watched as the network reported a chilling find: hundreds of boxes full of human remains in a warehouse in southern Iraq. Evidence of more horrible atrocities by the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein? That was the first thing to pop into my head, and Fox News Channel's various anchors gave voice to those worries. The problem is, they stated their worries as facts. Over the course of several hours, this warehouse grew a second room featuring "meat hooks where people were tortured" and a menacing series of bullet holes, "head high."

Pretty creepy, except I managed to spy something on the annoying Fox News Channel ticker (Terror Status: High!) -- an item that said the Iraqi government claimed that these were bodies of soldiers who died in the Iran-Iraq war back in the '80s whose bodies were only recently returned by Iran.

A fact that Fox's anchors didn't mention for hours, despite its presence lurking on their channel's own ticker. After all, why let messy possible explanations spoil a perfectly good story about Iraqi crimes being uncovered by our troops?

The next day, the story was completely different -- now with tales of meat hooks and head-high bullet holes gone, replaced by confirmation that the bodies were indeed from the Iran-Iraq war.

In an atmosphere where even the kooky Iraqi Information Minister gets his statements reported, it seems a little ridiculous that a plausible explanation for those bodies would be ignored. Let's not forget Fox News Channel's credo -- "fair and balanced." That means, if someone offers an explanation for dead bodies in a warehouse, you report that explanation. That's balanced. It's not fair if you jump to the worst possible conclusion, no matter who you're reporting on -- the U.S.-led forces, the Iraqis, Mother Teresa, Hitler. Anyone.

Fox News Channel's anchors jump to a lot of conclusions. In fact, most of the anchors offer so little restraint, it's almost laughable. I've seen local newscasters with twice the gravity of some of Fox's anchors. Perhaps that's why Fox News Channel is playing a game of three-card monte with its anchors during this war (called "War in Iraq" by CNN, but by the government-created slogan "Operation Iraqi Freedom" -- complete with swooping patriotic eagle! -- by Fox). On CNN, Aaron Brown seems to be on the air for six hours at a shot, anchoring the prime-time and late-night coverage. Meanwhile, Fox apparently changes anchors on an hourly basis. Look, there's cutie anchor Laurie Dhue! Nope, she's gone. Now there's Jon Scott! My parents met his parents at the Rose Parade. But no! He's gone, replaced by another miniskirted cutie, Kiran Chetry! And so goes the Fox news wheel, switching anchors rapidly so you won't notice the lack of credibility.

This is not to say there aren't good journalists at Fox. Their embedded reporters have had some amazing stuff, including the exclusive coverage of the first tank sweep through Baghdad and live broadcasts from a just-taken presidential palace. (Of course, as soon as we leave the embeds and head back to the studio, the anchors are crowing about how "we've taken the presidential palace!", their use of the word we turning them into the sort of cheerleader that plays well with midwestern baseball audiences -- "we win!" -- but isn't acceptable for national journalists.)

Again, Fox News Channel's slogan is: "Real Journalism -- Fair and Balanced." Forget the arrogance of having a slogan like that. Let's boil it down to the basics: before you can get to fair and balanced, you've got to practice real journalism. This weekend I didn't see any of that going on at the Fox News Channel.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to get back to CNN. Some guy is driving a tank somewhere, in footage I've seen 30 times before. Riveting stuff, I tell you. Riveting.


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