08 December 2009

Why I Watch "Fox News" (And Why You Should Too)

Among the places I get my daily news is Fox News. Given my line of work (academic professor) and where I work (New York), I get a lot of grief for this. When asked, I give three main reasons why I watch it:

1. By viewership, Fox boasts the top 13 news and commentary programs in the country, garnering approximately 20 million viewers per day combined. That is many millions more than any other television news programs. Thus Fox is what Americans are watching, and I think it is important to know what Americans are watching. I also think that people who comment on the American political, economic, or cultural scene--as I sometimes do--have an obligation to pay attention to the central organs that reflect and influence that scene, whether one agrees with what those organs offer or not. Fox is clearly one of them.

(Incidentally, the New York Times used to be one of those central organs, and perhaps it still is; but with a daily readership now below 1 million, its best days are probably behind it.)

2. Fox often presents viewpoints that the other news sources do not. Fox has guests and commentators representing conservative, libertarian, free-market, constitutionalist, Christian, Republican, and other perspectives that often get short shrift, or no voice at all, in other media outlets. Yet Fox also gives the news and perspectives that other media outlets do give. So on Fox one gets the news and comment that one gets from other news sources, and in addition one also gets news and comment largely absent from the other sources.

3. Finally, I find that Fox has less of the condescension toward Americans that one gets on other news sources. Watching MSNBC or CNN, for example, one gets a lot of frustration and consternation--and condescension--at the beliefs, folkways, mores, and conventions of Americans.

Exhibit A for this is the treatment these outlets have given to the Tea Party protests that swept across America over the summer months this year. These were amazing phenomena, in numbers of participants, in numbers of events, in lack of violence, in--most striking to me--the degree to which leaders and participants actually made substantive arguments about first principles of government (liberty, rights, natural law, competing theories of constitutional interpretation, economics, etc.).

Yet non-Fox coverage of these events tended to be grudging, and, when it was covered, the reporters and commentators were dismissive, superior, smug, rolling their eyes at the benighted "fringe" (despite numbering in the millions) "extremists." They rarely listened to what they had to say, they rarely presented, let alone evaluated, their arguments, and they rarely took the time to ask themselves whether this spectacular grassroots phenomenon might warrant taking seriously. (The Garofalo/Olberman segment--in which protestors are called "tea-bagging rednecks," "racists," "capitalist tools," and "teabag suckers," and in which it is asserted that protesters don't know anything about taxes, don't know when the Boston Tea Party was, don't know what they're protesting or why, etc.--is perhaps the most egregious example of this smug condecension, but there was a lot more of it to be found in smaller, sometimes thinly veiled, doses in other coverage.)

Now of course one gets some dismissiveness on Fox as well. Some Fox commentators and guests are not charitable toward their opponents either, so some of this goes both ways. But there is a lot less of it, which, for me at least, makes it more tolerable to watch.

One final thought. I believe in and subscribe to John Stuart Mill's principle that the truth can be discovered, if at all, only through a crucible of contentious debate. In conversations and discussions, in my teaching, even in my writings (including both published work and blog postings), I have sometimes deliberately adopted and defended views I did not hold, precisely because I thought the consensus (with which I agreed) was too complacent and not sufficiently engaged with alternative views. I think this is part of my job as an academic. And although it has occasionally cost me dearly--when, for example, people mistake my intellectual agitation for a sincere profession of belief in things they dislike--nevertheless I believe the pursuit of truth, which is after all the business I am in, requires it.

Insofar as Fox News adds different perspectives to the national conversations, then, I applaud them for it, whether I agree with those perspectives or not.

[UPDATE 12/9/09: Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, which owns Fox News, wrote an op-ed in the WSJ today under the title, "Journalism and Freedom."]


Brad Birzer said...

Jim, I need to give this more thought, and I need to read your blog again more carefully. I'm almost always in full agreement with you. But, this time, I'm incredibly skeptical. There have been some great things on FOX--Hume, Snow, Pestritto--but my own sense is that Fox News has gone down hill over hte last decade. I can't watch it without getting angry at how tacky (and loud) the presentation of ideas and news is. Anyway, I'll give this more thought. Though I fundamentally disagree with the perspectives presented by NPR and CNN, I find myself turning to each--if only because the presentation is civil.


Anonymous said...

I find that some of Fox News's programming has a little bit too much shtick, which gives it a lowbrow feel. That said, I do appreciate the balance that the station gives to overall news programming.

Ben said...

Jim, you've got me thinking...Usually I dislike watching the news altogether (if only because it's editorialized and usually out of context, to say nothing of the violence which is certainly not good for the spirit). Reading the WSJ seems to be the least mind numbing news gathering I can do, though I find your first point most convincing. But for that matter, why not just watch one of the big networks. I'm pretty sure they get far more viewership than FOX.

Anthony said...

Dr. Otteson, first of all, I couldn't find a way to contact you through Yeshiva or any other outlet, so I decided to use your blog. I apologize for using this avenue to ask a professional question. I recently started teaching a high school course on social justice. I have been looking for social justice readings that deal with economic criteria (different ways to view the world...efficiency, fariness, etc.) and a professor (Kosnik) at UMSL recommended you. Could you contact me and breifly let me know your thoughts (adagostino@iwacademy.org)? Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hi I am from Australia.

This reference points out why you should not watch Fox "news".


James R. Otteson PhD said...

Brad, I agree that Fox can be a bit glitzy and over-the-top, especially some of its shows. I don't know whether it's gone downhill over the last decade, since I've only been watching it for about a year.

For me, though (and this is to Anthony too), the main benefit remains that you hear on Fox news stories that other outlets often ignore.

Anonymous said...

"For me, though (and this is to Anthony too), the main benefit remains that you hear on Fox news stories that other outlets often ignore."

Well with that criteria, might I recommend international outlets such as the BBC or Al Jazeera English? They truly offer a wide variety of unique perspectives on a global scope that get minimum traction on national American news agencies.

Anonymous said...

'outlets give do give.'?

You can't even be bothered to read your own blog posts properly. Why should we pay any attention to your opinions?

Your nation and its institutions can be summed up quite neatly as 'full of it', simply by the fact that they award 'professorships' to people barely out of diapers. What a joke. And to think that people will pay your institution to hear the opinions of someone who forms his by watching 'FOX'! Unbelievable - and just remember that while you (America) are engaged in your quaint little Tea party/Democrat civil war, China is awakening.

James R. Otteson PhD said...

Anonymous, the typographical error has been corrected. The rest of your post warrants no response.