Fox News Has Created an "Alternate Reality"

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I didn’t say it, Fox News regular Charles Krauthammer did, and you know what? He’s right.

What Fox did is not just create a venue for alternative opinion. It created an alternate reality.

A few years ago, I was on a radio show with a well-known political reporter who lamented the loss of a pristine past in which the whole country could agree on what the facts were, even if they disagreed on how to interpret and act upon them. All that was gone now. The country had become so fractured we couldn’t even agree on what reality was. What she meant was that the day in which the front page of The New York Times was given scriptural authority everywhere was gone, shattered by the rise of Fox News.

What left me slack-jawed was the fact that she, like the cohort of mainstream journalists she represented so perfectly, was so ideologically blinkered that she could not fathom the plain fact that the liberal media were presenting the news and the world through a particular lens. The idea that it was particular, and that there might be competing ones, perhaps even superior ones, was beyond her ken.

While the concept of the “liberal media” is, er, flawed — we are, after all, talking about a U.S. media whose range of acceptable ideas remains somewhat right of centre — his point is actually valid, and it’s valid for the same reason that many liberals also grew frustrated with the “Mainstream Media.” Media, and particularly broadcast media, creates narratives, and narratives are defined not only by facts, but what facts are considered important and what ideas underlie the selection and arrangement of those facts.

And in particular, the narrative is created by where things are placed on the ideological spectrum, and which ideas are considered to be “extreme” and which are “mainstream.” So you could take the same facts about, say, health care, and different kinds of media would use those same facts to tell a different story. Fox News will use those facts to construct a narrative where government involvement is considered extremely left-wing. The “Liberal Media” will portray the Democratic and Republican positions as “left” and “right,” respectively. And an actual liberal media will give more voice to a position that is to the left of Obama’s (those arguing for a Canadian-style system). We saw during the argument over stimulus spending how assumptions can affect reporting and commentary: the tone of comment on stimulus packages has everything to do with certain baseline assumptions about spending, job creation, even the history of the Great Depression.

Perhaps the most famous example of the “alternate reality” from a conservative perspective is the reporting on the Tet Offensive. That was a key moment in the mainstreaming of the “liberal media bias” charge, because war supporters disagreed with the way Cronkite and others were reporting it. Cronkite emphasized the suddenness of the attacks and how much worse the war was going than the Johnson administration was saying. War supporters felt that he was not giving enough emphasis to the fact that the U.S. side won that battle decisively, and created the impression that it was a defeat instead of a victory. (Anti-war groups, on the other hand, felt that he shouldn’t have been telling the whole story from the point of view of how it affected the U.S.) The “alternate reality” has much to do with the lessons one chooses to take from a particular set of facts.

While anyone can find examples of news shows that distort facts, the “realities” are different even when they’re all working from the same set of facts; that’s because different shows work from different sets of assumptions. Fox News worked because it was created for viewers who wanted TV news based on conservative assumptions. More recently, liberal news programs and blogs have become popular with viewers who wanted to see liberal (as opposed to “liberal”) assumptions underlying the news. Same facts, different realities.

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