(/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/03/brock.jpg)Of all of Fox News’ 2.6 million prime time viewers, none may be more troubled by the network’s success than Media Matters CEO David Brock. Obsessed to the point of paranoia by Fox’s reach and popularity, Brock has publicly dedicated Media Matters, the self-styled conservative media watchdog, to a campaign of “guerrilla warfare and sabotage” against both the network and its employees, whom he has contemplated harassing by staking out their homes and by hiring private investigators to sift through their private lives. Brock’s almost prurient interest in Fox News has now culminated in a new book compiled with the aid of his Media Matters researchers, The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network into a Propaganda Machine. Perhaps not surprisingly given its provenance, the book reveals far more about Brock and Media Matters than it does about Fox News.
The book begins with a potted and tendentious history of Fox News’s founder and president, Roger Ailes, much of it a rehash of media critic Michael Wolff’s earlier biography of Rupert Murdoch. What this history lacks in originality it does not make up for in gravity. As Brock and company tell it, Ailes is not only a smash-mouth partisan but he is a ruthless overlord, punishing anyone who dares to defy his dictates. As evidence, the book cites such bastions of credibility as online gossip site Gawker, which ran a story claiming that Ailes was having some of his employees followed. Sure, Ailes denied the allegations, saying they were “untrue and not in fact even reality based.” But Gawker’s word is plenty good enough for Brock, who muses that Ailes was using News Corporation’s “personal security to deal with a personal conflict.” Curiously, such lapses in journalistic professionalism don’t prevent Brock from insisting that “our research and reporting stick to the facts and are painstakingly documented.” One dreads to imagine what he would consider shoddy research.
Still, one must be fair and balanced, to borrow a phrase. So it should be noted that the book does include the intermittent reference to things that actually happened. For instance, much attention is given to the partisan statements of conservative commentators who appear on Fox News. But what does this prove, precisely? Brock thinks it proves that Fox News is the leading “communications” and “mobilizing arm of the Republican Party.” A less excitable reading might be that Fox News is a center-right network whose shows feature conservatives and Republicans who express – scandal! – conservative and Republican views. One might point out in this connection that the network also regularly features liberal and Democratic commentators, including among many others Bob Beckel, Juan Williams and Kirsten Powers. Indeed, Brock at one point cites a heated exchange between Beckel and Fox News host Sean Hannity. But Brock is too invested in his caricature of Fox News as a right-wing monolith to consider the implications that the network’s intellectual diversity may have for his “propaganda machine” thesis.
Equally unconvincing is the book’s suggestion that Fox News served as an uncritical PR-arm for the Bush administration. To make that case, Brock relies on an unnamed “former Fox employee” who complains that “[w]e were a Stalin-esque mouthpiece” for President Bush. Never mind for the moment the less-than-impressive source. The claim is demonstrably wrong, as would have been clear to anyone who watched Fox News with something other than the selective lens favored by Media Matters. Throughout Bush’s two terms in office, Fox News programs and personalities criticized the administration’s policies on everything from civil liberties, to immigration, to hurricane disaster relief, to the environment. That is a far from exhaustive list, but it sufficiently gives the lie to the book’s claim that Fox News’ purpose was to “cheerlead for George W. Bush.”
Having failed to show that Fox News is the propaganda machine suggested in the title, the book turns its ire on Fox’s audience. Did you know that Fox News watchers are politically clueless idiots? Brock maintains that they are, asserting that “Polls consistently find Fox News viewers to be the most ignorant on a variety of issues.” No doubt this claim will warm the hearts of Brock’s liberal readers, but it has no basis in fact. What polls and surveys actually find is that Fox News viewers’ knowledge of current affairs is higher than the national average. Even worse for Brock’s theory, the Fox viewers that demonstrate the highest levels of political and current affairs knowledge, scoring well above the national average, are viewers of more polemical Fox News fare like Hannity and The O’Reilly Factor. Thus viewers of The O’reilly Factor, a regular target of Media Matters, have some of the highest levels of current affairs knowledge, placing them on par with listeners of National Public Radio. Liberals can look down on Fox News viewers all they like, but then snobbery is seldom cured with anything so banal as facts.
If you are a diehard devotee of Media Matters, you will likely come away from _The Fox Effect_ more alarmed than ever by the ostensibly awesome power that Fox News wields over our body politic. But the dominant impression on those not predisposed to agree with Brock is not of Fox’s alleged journalistic flaws but of Brock’s own stalker-like fixation with the network. Brock reveals that in 2009, 33 percent of Media Matters’ work focused on Fox News. By 2011, it was 54 percent. Naturally, Brock attributes this to Fox’s increasing mendacity. But it seems more likely a product of Brock’s disturbed fixation with the network. Which is to say that there really is a “Fox effect.” And nowhere is it more menacing than inside the conspiratorial mind of David Brock.
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