Fox in the Hen House: Fair & Balanced, Depending on Which Way the Wind Blows
When Walter Cronkite, America’s most respected news broadcaster, reported that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, President Lyndon Johnson sighed: "If we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost the nation."
Anti-marriage forces are saying something similar, only this time it’s "If we’ve lost Bill O’Reilly."
Fox News’ roster of on-air stars might continue to throw red meat to its core audience by fulminating against the "war on Christmas" and the "forced resignation" of the head of Mozilla. But if one starts peeling the onion of Fox’s ideology, it appears that Fox News is following polls that show the marriage battle has decisively gone our way.
"Unlike abortion, nobody gets hurt when gays marry," wrote the network’s biggest star, Bill O’Reilly, back in May 2012. He hedges by complaining that anyone opposing marriage equality is branded a bigot. Look even further back: In 2002, O’Reilly called self-styled "ex-gay" poster boy Stephen Bennett an "idiot" on his radio show and "religious fanatic" later on TV.
Another primetime anchor, Shepard Smith, stated bluntly of the marriage issue that the Republican Party was "on the wrong side of history." Fox’s second-biggest star, Megyn Kelly, has expressed similar sentiments.
Although many LGBT observers dispute the major national TV news source of America’s right wing coming over to our side, there was enough evidence for a widely distributed report from a group called America’s Survival, Inc. Authored by the rabidly homophobic leader -- and apparently only active member -- of the Chicago-based Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, Peter LaBarbera, the 2013 report piled up the evidence that Fox News has become a tool of the "Homosexual Agenda."
LaBarbera’s screed did get one thing exactly right when he wrote that Fox was "mimicking current trends in the Republic Party." Most Fox anchors have found the best way to deal with the issue is not to deal with it; Sean Hannity, for instance, has studiously ignored any and all gay-related stories.
Last year, Fox’s sister sports network didn’t waste any time in firing commentator Craig James from one of its regional subdivisions. Fox Sports executives were reportedly deeply unhappy with the hire. They leaked to the press that they had not vetted James’ hire in the first place.
James, a former running back for the New England Patriots, had used homophobia as a campaign issue during his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in Texas. When his anti-gay campaign comments resurfaced, he was quickly given the boot.
THE NLGJA CONNECTION: UNLIKELY ALLIES
The report cited Fox’s heavy support of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association that include full-page ads trumpeting Fox’s "fair and balanced reporting" in program books; the heavy presence of Fox’s on-air talent at various NLGJA functions and fundraisers; and Fox’s participation in NLGJA job fairs. The report missed the wealth of Fox-branded swag that has permeated NLGJA functions as a reminder of the network’s bona fides when attendees return home.
The sins in the eyes of the anti-gay right extend to the on-air talent, many of whom mingle freely with association members and even competitors from the other all-news cable channels. It is no longer noteworthy when Kelly is clinking cocktail glasses with her counterpart at CNN, Anderson Cooper.
Smith and Kelly are regulars at New York City NLGJA fundraisers. They are among the many Fox stars who make up what has become the largest wattage by far at such events in New York City.
In fact, Fox News has become one of the major corporate sponsors of the organization. The NLGJA has maintained that, as a group representing journalists in all newsrooms, it can’t ban any specific news organization. Nor, it should be added, would it be in its own best interests to turn down a corporate sponsorship.
An NLGJA insider has told me that any question about Fox’s participation is a nonstarter. And an out-gay Fox News veteran TV news producer told me that he has found Fox to be not only gay friendly, but also probably the most pleasant place for a gay man to work.
Smith himself is not quite out of the closet, but it’s been an open secret since the editor of the Washington Blade related how Smith tried to pick him at a New York bar a decade ago. A few years ago, Gawker reported on a kerfuffle at a bar where Smith appeared with his regular male companion.
A month ago, right-wing media watchdog castigated the network for having the second-largest contingent of on-air talent on hand for a fundraiser in New York City. Even more tellingly, the network also regularly participates in the NLGJA’s annual job fairs -- in other words, the avowedly right-wing network is actively seeking to hire LGBT producers and others who formulate its program content.
Even the non-ideological Pew Research Center has confirmed that Fox News is decidedly pro-marriage equality -- more so even than NPR.
The shift reflects the way Fox News has been able to wriggle to appear as though it were leading the American public, when in truth it more likely is following it. In a list of citations dating back to 2004, New York magazine showed how O’Reilly’s shifting views on gay marriage neatly reflect the national polls.
From "If gay marriage, then chaos would follow" to "The compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals. The other side hasn’t been able to do anything but thump the Bible."
Liberal media watchdog Equality Matters got close to the heart of the seeming contradiction in the Fox newsroom when it pointed out that the news channels has always been consistently inconsistent in matters ranging from immigration to climate change -- and points to Rupert Murdoch as the reason.
THE MURDOCH EMPIRE
Murdoch cut his teeth in the cutthroat newspapers wars of his native Australia. After he inherited his father’s newspaper chain, he took on the even more competitive British national newspapers, where he defied the powerful trade unions by moving from Fleet Street, the papers’ historic home, to the new business center of Canary Wharf, where he undercut the unions by converting from antiquated hard type to digital production.
His ruthless ambition inevitably led him to New York, where he acquired the New York Post, Hollywood studio Twentieth Century Fox, publisher HarperCollins and the Wall Street Journal, the top newspaper by circulation in the U.S.
Murdoch has never been bound by ideology. A major backer of the union-busting "Iron Lady," Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he quickly switched allegiance to Labour’s Tony Blair, then back again to the Conservative Party. He privately loathes the royal family for its unearned place on the top of the U.K. hierarchy and has been embroiled in a wide-ranging phone-hacking scandal that, among other outrages, hacked into the voicemail of a murdered girl.
Fox, his upstart network, found an audience with its first big hit "Married With Children", probably the most subversive satire of the nuclear family that has yet appeared on network television, with "Family Guy" second only to "South Park" in its gleeful skewering of traditional values.
Although he usually is counted on to back Republicans, he has a cordial relationship with Bill Clinton, and an even closer one with Clinton’s wife. In 2006, he hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s senatorial campaign and recently said he would consider voting for her if she runs in 2016.
If Murdoch has any ideology at all, it’s that of making money and having as much influence as possible in its service. So far, it’s a philosophy that has served him well. He’s one of the richest men in the world and has ready access to the corridors of power, whether the door leads to a liberal or conservative.
Fox News will likely continue its double-sided policy. Equality Matters, a short-lived subgroup within the liberal watchdog group Media Matters, castigated the network a year ago for several recent distortions that included misstating the intent of a nondiscrimination ordinance in San Antonio and mocking participants at New York’s Pride March.
SPLIT NEWS PERSONALITIES
Equality Matters noted Megyn Kelly’s "mixed record": She defended Chaz Bono and supported marriage equality, but mocked the appearance of a transgender prison inmate and glossed over the vitriolic homophobic statements made in the past by one of her talking heads.
Meanwhile, Murdoch himself gleefully continues to skewer gay rights. He has called for a boycott of Guinness over its decision not to participate in New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade because of its exclusion of a gay Irish organization. He has called gay activists bullies and said last year he was "old-fashioned" about the matter.
In a recent interview, he dismissed his network’s promotion of the Tea Party as "bullshit," despite a long record of support. Last month, the notoriously by-the-book right-wing editorial page of the Wall Street Journal called the Tea Party and other amnesty opponents racists and pulled Sean Hannity from a Tea Party fundraiser in Cincinnati after being called out for violating its network policy.
For the best indication of where Fox News is heading, the best place to look is at public opinion polls. Like its owner, Fox adheres to the basic premise that the purpose of a TV network is to make money, whether it’s peddling entertainment or political opinions.
With its audience rapidly aging, Fox finds itself in an increasingly precarious position: While it is by far the dominant all-news channel, its audience is also the oldest, and growing older by the minute. Like the Republican Party it champions, it has realized that white, rural Americans cannot provide a broad enough base of support.
Murdoch’s own sons and appointed heirs, James and Lachlan, haven’t spoken publicly about gay issues, but several gossip columnists have noted that their inner circle of friends and closest employees include several gay men.
Over the long term, Fox (and the GOP) risk losing younger Americans, who prize diversity and LGBT rights in far greater numbers than their elders. At 83, Murdoch is beginning to pass on the reigns of power to the next generation. With America changing, it’s likely that Fox News will change along with it.