Charles Krauthammer extolled the virtues of Fox News yesterday as he accepted an award for “Excellence in Opinion Journalism.” In dedicating his award award to the network, he assessed its impact:
What Fox did is not just create a venue for alternative opinion. It created an alternate reality. [...] That’s why Fox News is so resented. It altered the intellectual and ideological landscape of America. It gave not only voice but also legitimacy to a worldview that had been utterly excluded from the mainstream media.
Krauthammer is correct in one sense. We do always see things through lenses, and as viewers should recognize that ideological bias comes from all sides. But the tendency of viewers to cocoon themselves in outlets that conform to a particular ideology creates the danger of a public divided into multiple “alternate realities” that depart radically from one another. Viewers should never accept the reports of Fox or any network as the whole of “reality,” but should construct and modify the narrative as they seek out multiple sources, including other forms of media. For example, a recent Pew research report showed that coverage of presidencies varies not only by presumed ideological bias of the media outlet, but also by the form of media.
In contrast with Clinton and Bush, Obama’s treatment was more favorable than skeptical both in news coverage and on newspaper opinion pages. For Clinton, on the other hand, news coverage tilted toward the negative, while newspaper op eds and editorial offered favor. The treatment went the other way for Bush, with news coverage leaning positive, while op ed and editorials studied were decidedly negative [...] There are significant variations in how the different media sectors have covered the Obama presidency. Newspapers and evening network television were most positive in their treatment of Obama. Online news sites were more neutral. Within the cable news universe, MSNBC and Fox News offered strikingly different portrayals of the young presidency, while CNN more closely reflected the tone of the media overall. Meanwhile, NPR and PBS offered the highest percentage of neutral stories of any outlets studied.
Krauthammer’s comments ultimately point to a problem with mass media that may not be resolved through ideological diversity. It is not only how something is reported, but if it is reported at all. Daniel Boorstin pointed to this problem in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America:
It is the report that gives the event its force in the mind of potential customers. The power to make a reportable event is thus the power to make experience.
Perhaps the multiplicity of blogs and twitter feeds that have emerged will serve to ameliorate the danger of trumped-up “pseudo-events” and major news outlets that get away with presenting a radically “alternate reality.” In the meantime, we can all watch Fox News and hope we don’t descend too far into the twilight zone.