The best in news

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
January 10, 2009

My day usually begins and ends watching BBC World News. Along the way, I generally catch both CBC and CTV news, and CNN and MSNBC, too. I commend these all to you, but I especially commend the gold standard in television news and commentary, the one TV channel indispensable to obtaining an understanding of the events of the day: FOX News.

If you don’t watch FOX News Channel regularly, this advice may surprise you. Most people I know can’t refer to FOX without sneering. Outstanding journalists including the National Post’s own Robert Fulford have lambasted FOX. Democratic presidential candidates spent most of the presidential race boycotting FOX. During his campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly dissed FOX, and in particular Sean Hannity, the co-host of the No. 2 rated show in cable news, Hannity and Colmes.

I can understand none of these critics, aside from Obama, who had good reason to go after Hannity. No one was more partisan or more relentless in attacking Obama, or more effective. Hannity was the one who first broke the story about Obama’s inflammatory pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and when the rest of the media studiously ignored the story, Hannity repeated his Wright attack ad nauseum. It ultimately became a major controversy in the presidential campaign, forcing Obama to explain himself to the voters.

Does the presence of pit-bull Hannity, also one of the biggest names in conservative talk radio, discredit FOX’s claim to be “Fair and Balanced?” Not to anyone who has seen the “Colmes” of Hannity and Colmes in action. Co-host Alan Colmes, one of the most popular hosts in liberal talk radio, is every bit as tough and partisan as Hannity.

FOX’s Bill O’Reilly, the boisterous and opinionated host of The O’Reilly Factor, is even more reviled than Hannity. But those who identify O’Reilly as a knee-jerk conservative have come to knee-jerk conclusions of their own. O’Reilly does not pigeon-hole easily. He campaigns against greed on Wall Street. He especially campaigns against Big Oil, believing the oil majors manipulate supply to gouge consumers. He wants government to be pro-active on the environment, calling people who deny global warming “idiots.”

Watch him and you will come to realize why his show has been rated No. 1 in cable news for 97 consecutive months now. He is a gifted questioner, deceptively so because of his unslick, working class demeanour. I’ve never seen him ask a gotcha question. To the contrary, rather than try to trip up a guest, he often frames questions by restating his guest’s views, a technique that gives guests a jumping off point from which they can elaborate their views, rather than merely restating them themselves.

Who watches O’Reilly? According to Pew Research Center, his viewers are the most knowledgeable on the air, only 17% of them considered to have a low knowledge level. By comparison, Pew found that the audience of Newshour with Jim Lehrer, the high-brow flagship news show at PBS, had 28% with low knowledge levels.

FOX not only has the No. 1 and No. 2 shows in cable news, it has the No. 3 show and 12 of the top 15 shows, making it far and away the most popular news channel, a position it has held for seven years now. FOX dominates not because it appeals to those on the political right – only 38% of FOX viewers consider themselves Republicans – but because it appeals to people across the political spectrum. More people who identify themselves as Democrats watch FOX than watch CNN, the No. 2 news channel. In fact, FOX’s non-conservative viewership exceeds CNN’s entire viewership.

But good as the rough and tumble opinion shows are, I even more appreciate those at FOX that present calm analysis. The FOX formula – to always provide balance via hosts and/or guests with competing viewpoints – attracts high-calibre analysts of the left and right who are willing and able to civilly challenge each other. The upshot for the viewer: superior information due to a wider exposure to expert opinion.

To take a current example, only recently have mainstream journalists in goodly numbers begun to question the rash of stimulus packages that began with President Bush’s $700-billion bailout package of September; FOX viewers were immediately and consistently exposed to informed scepticism. A second example: FOX viewers knew that the Surge in Iraq was working weeks if not months ahead of those of rival networks. A third: Only FOX did not skew its presidential reportage in favour of Obama, according to Pew, which found that only FOX treated both John Mc-Cain and Barack Obama similarly.

In another measure of FOX’s objectivity, of all the debates that occurred in the presidential primaries, FOX’s hosting of the Republican primary debate is generally seen to have posed the toughest and smartest questions. And in yet another, FOX analyst Scott Rasmussen, a pollster with a remarkable record for accuracy, was bang-on in forecasting a 52% to 46% win for Obama. The FOX News/Opinion Dynamics Poll proved almost as impressive, coming to within one point in predicting the margin of victory. In contrast, polls from media outlets with an axe to grind, such as the CBS/New York Times and Newsweek, gave Obama an 11 and 12 point margin of victory.

My advice to FOX’s critics: Try it before you slam it. You will soon learn what the other networks don’t report. And you can then decide to watch FOX or not, in a fair and balanced way.

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