The Case for Fox News
I spoke with Professor William Turner at University of California, Berkley. He has taught First Amendment courses at Berkley for over three decades and has argued cases at the Supreme Court.
I lectured a media studies class at NYU a year after Trump got into office. I was a bit reluctant at first because I knew that the presidential campaigns had driven campuses to an edge. Just look at a cry in to mourn Trump victory at Cornell or the free speech battles at UC Berkeley.
I expected, however, that the class full of graduate students will agree on at least one thing: free expression. That seemed to be the case but everything went south the moment I mentioned Fox News. An overwhelming majority of the students wanted Fox News Channel to be shut down because, according to them, Fox was either evil or useless if not both. They are not alone.
Robert B. Reich, Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley, called Fox News a propaganda machine and said that the “American people will be subject to more of Trump’s lies and hate, as amplified by Senate Republicans and Fox News.” Of over 200 respondents on the non-scientific polling site, debate.org, about 80% voted to ban Fox News for reasons that ranged from it “is the Connies version of SNL” to it is “killing our country.”
So should Fox News be shut down? William Turner, lecturer at Berkeley and an authority on freedom of speech and the press, disagrees.
The first reason we protect free speech is because “truth will emerge from a marketplace of ideas, in which all ideas, all points of view, even erroneous ones” are allowed. Even the ones that are in error because they will expose themselves and make the truth clearer when they collide with it.
“Second reason is [that] you got to have free speech in order to have a functioning democracy where we are self-governing people and we can get rid of” policies and leaders that we do not like. “We can only do that if we can speak and criticize our government... and Fox makes a contribution on both of those. That is, its point of view sharpens our debate and facilitates therefore the ascertainment of truth.”
One such instance was when Fox News filled a void during the 2016 presidential campaigns. Fox was the first channel to question candidates on abortion prompting this tweet from Bernie Sanders: “It took @FoxNews to ask the first question about abortion at a Democratic town hall or debate. #DemTownHall”
News stations function like lemmings: constantly following up on the reporting of their competitors. Fox asked that question after seven democratic debates had passed without a question on abortion and the media was compelled to follow. Days later Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post asked Hillary Clinton to explain who she would pick to the Supreme Court to defend Roe v. Wade.
To be clear, I’m not defending Fox News. This is mainly to clarify its importance as a force to be reckoned with and one that deserves our adequate focus.
“Fox is hugely important. It is a political force in the country such as we have not seen in the last 40 years. Maybe the dominant political force in many ways of changing our politics. We should not minimize them, we need to look, as we do, at what is their agenda, which has nothing to do with the news and yet there are some good reporters over at Fox” said Political Analyst Carl Bernstein in 2019.
A 2006 analysis by UC Berkeley found a correlation between increase in Republican votes in markets that offer Fox News. A 2017 study by the American Economic Review (the discipline’s flagship journal) found that watching just three minutes of Fox News per week has the potential to turn a democrat into a Republican. You still think Fox is useless?
Several surveys have found Fox News to be one of the most biased networks and people often use that to attack Fox. A former Fox News contributor who left in protest put it this way, “Today’s Fox prime-time lineup preaches paranoia, attacking processes and institutions vital to our republic and challenging the rule of law.”
The problem of bias is not limited to Fox. A 2017 analysis revealed that CNN was 90% biased against President Trump and a writer for Politico, perturbed by many opinions on MSNBC which are “rooted in unfounded speculation,” concluded that MSNBC is worse than Fox News.
Turner agrees that all news networks have biases and in it he sees a benefit for our democracy.
“First amendment would certainly prohibit any attempt to shut down Fox News on whatever ground you can think of. One of the main protections that Fox News enjoys is due to a Supreme Court decision in 1964, New York Times v. Sullivan, which protected the right of Fox News and and the New York Times and you and me to criticize public officials and public figures and government even falsely, even with defamatory meaning and it is a great bulwark of American protection of free speech so that Fox can get away with saying things that are untrue unless they deliberately lie about an individual in which case they could be sued for libel.”
Meaning that the more voices we have the better it is for us because, according to Turner, “people who are mainstream, non Fox viewers, can find out where Fox is going wrong by browsing what's out there in the media.”
One thing that most critics overlook about Fox News is that it is the only mainstream network that is asking alternate questions compared to the left leaning news networks and that is not a disadvantage to our democracy. In addition to that, Fox is the only mainstream network on the right that has the resources to produce vigorous and topically robust segments and it has the viewership numbers because of which guests who would otherwise sideline Fox News are compelled to go on it. It is, after all, the No. 1 cable news outfit in the country.
Hillary Clinton, who blasted Fox as “superb propaganda,” has appeared on it albeit a handful of times. She sat with them in 2014 to sell her newly released book and then in 2016 to promote her presidential run. Clinton campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri remarked, “They have a very large audience which includes Democrats, so I’m sure we will…be doing interviews…We’ll certainly do more with Fox.”
Still, there is a problem of fake news or more accurately deceitful reporting in the mainstream news media. When my students asked me for a solution I reminded them that it is a prerequisite in a democracy that citizens do their own research. I know that it takes time and effort and many of us would rather binge shows on Netflix but I want to remind everyone that democracy was created out of the belief that ordinary people can reach an informed conclusion should they be willing to educate themselves.
Turner agrees: “it reminds me of the opinion of a great justice on the Supreme Court Louis Brandeis in a 1927 case called Whitney v. California. His theory is that we the people are in charge here, not the government, and we have an obligation as citizen critics to criticize the government, to participate in the debate about the issues and personalities of the day. The remedy for the speech you don't like is not to suppress the speech that you loathe but rather more speech that will counteract the evil effects of false news by exposing it as false.”