They report. We deride.
We deride Fox News Channel for saying "us" and "our" in talking about the American war effort, a strategy that conjures images of gung-ho anchor Shepard Smith, like Slim Pickens in "Dr. Strangelove," riding a Tomahawk straight into Baghdad.
We deride Fox for playing ratings politics with the news, turning Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers' public call Tuesday for media to be "fair and balanced" into a back-door endorsement, pointing out frequently afterward that the general had echoed a Fox News marketing slogan.
And we deride the channel for the infamous and canny "we report; you decide" slogan, because, I learned all over again after watching five straight hours of Fox News earlier this week, there isn't, comparatively speaking, that much reporting, and because the channel's very point seems to be to reaffirm the opinions of people who have long since decided.
Picking at the efforts of the Fox News Channel is great sport these days among the nation's media critics, people like me who tend to use the royal "we" for the sake of a catchy lead paragraph.
This, the folks in the bunker at Fox would argue, is due to the rest of the media's liberal agenda, an agenda Fox News slyly re-alleges with every repetition of "fair and balanced" (the others aren't) and "we report; you decide" ("they" don't give you that chance).
A less calculatedly paranoid worldview would recognize that scrutiny is the price of success, of the channel becoming, in a sense, the Scud stud of this Persian Gulf conflict. Ratings during the war have confirmed that Roger Ailes' and Rupert Murdoch's upstart operation has become the clear leader in cable news popularity.
Even when the bombs started falling, viewers did not, as many had predicted, jump wholesale over to CNN, which made its name during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, in a time without cable competition, and which continues to have far more newsgathering resources than Fox.
Fox News has held the lead it built in peacetime by following its well-established and fairly simple recipe: dollops of news reported by comely anchors and correspondents tossed atop a main dish of attitude and argument led by charismatic and right-leaning hosts.
As important as the politics is the feeling of chumminess, the nicknames ("Shep") and frequent references to the Fox News enterprise that suggest a club into which like-minded viewers are invited. To the outsider, however, it can feel like spending time with a cranky uncle.
But it adds up to precision-targeted marketing, a smart bomb of a channel that speaks, alone among American TV news outlets, to those who want their news to resemble a Washington shout show and to include open sneering at, among other targets Tuesday afternoon, the New York Times, Europe, Turkey, the United Nations and, of course, the former and current military men who were questioning the U.S. battle plan and the media who reported on such questions.
A thorough job
It plays to the choir, often beautifully. It does not, however, offer the most thorough news presentation. In areas such as depth of coverage resources and quality of onscreen graphics, in most everything but ratings and a statistic I'll call OPM (opinions per minute), Fox News Channel clearly trails its rivals. It also continues, perplexingly, to use the distinctly small-time, borrowed-from-local-news label of "team coverage" for what could be called, simply, "coverage."
This is not a question of ideology. Yes, Fox might be said to be the American answer to Al Jazeera, seeking to put every nugget of information in the best possible American light.
But every U.S. TV news operation has shown pro-American bias during this conflict, taking most of what the Pentagon says at face value, for instance, and doing nothing to hide embedded reporters' sense of identification with their military units.
And NBC, after initially supporting contributor Peter Arnett in the controversy over his sycophantic comments to Iraqi TV, decided the next morning to cut him loose. With so much competition, no one wants to risk becoming the Dixie Chicks of television news.
Fox, of course, turns the patriotism dial up to 11, sticking the rabidly pro-service Oliver North in the field as an embedded "commentator," for instance. But the channel is, for the most part, honest about it, defending its patriotism frequently on air as the righteous stance.
Truth and support
"I don't think we're cheerleaders," the excitable Smith said at one point Tuesday. "You tell the true story, and you still support the troops because you're an American before you're a journalist."
"Fair and balanced coverage of the war in Iraq," said an item in constant rotation in the channel's bottom-of-the-screen verbiage. "Fox News Channel will not compromise our military."
But where was the Fox patriotism -- or its news judgment -- in covering the deeds of cowboy correspondent Geraldo Rivera, who angered the Pentagon in a weekend report by drawing a sand map that outlined where the troops he was with were and said where and when they were going?
Fox, so vocal on the topic of Arnett's perceived anti-Americanism, was strangely silent on the topic of Rivera all afternoon Tuesday, as the correspondent's fate was apparently being decided. (After the Pentagon initially said he would be removed, he was allowed to voluntarily withdraw from Iraq, a courtesy that was not extended to a Christian Science Monitor reporter who had earlier revealed too much for the Pentagon's taste.)
If Rivera had done what he did on any other network -- especially without being immediately withdrawn -- you can bet that his actions, and what they said about how the "rest" of the media misbehaves, would have been one of the provocative questions with which Fox likes to lead each hour.
Pretty faces on the news
Over and above the absence of Geraldo, in my Tuesday afternoon with Fox, I saw lots of the shapely legs of anchor Linda Vester and the square jaws and penetrating eyes of field correspondents Heather Nauert (Jordan), William La Jeunesse (Kuwait) and David Lee Miller (Qatar). No TV operation is innocent here, but Fox seems especially enamored of putting a pretty face on the news.
During the Q&A segments used to answer the provocative questions, I heard a seemingly endless supply of retired military men question the judgment of the other retired military men who would question the military during war.
La Jeunesse seemingly had a reporting coup in interviewing a prominent Muslim cleric who said sources told him the Iraqis in the checkpoint incident that left women and children dead had been forced into provoking American guards to shoot. But that news did not resonate through to the next day's major papers, and even Fox played it in a minor key.
I saw the same few field reports essentially offered over and over again. These were fine, as far as they went, but they offered a distinctly narrower picture of the news than was offered on CNN during the same time period.
Ditto for the comparison between the two channels' screen crawls. CNN's stretched far afield to incorporate other world news. Fox stayed mostly with the war.
Scoop for correspondent
Embedded Fox correspondent Rick Leventhal did score a coup when his unit came across abandoned Iraqi missiles whose range apparently violated pre-war munitions restrictions, though the Fox screen crawl labeling it a Fox News discovery stretched the point.
Embedded reporter Chris Kline was solid on the northern front, although by the third live report it became clear he was being used primarily for the sake of having something live to offer (the other newschannels have also been guilty of this).
Kline, at least, was much more on point than the several live reports from a Georgia air base where, earlier in the day, a fancy spy plane had taken off.
Fox was on top of the afternoon's key breaking stories, the strong Pentagon response to critics within the military, the appearance in Jordan of the Newsday reporter and photographer who had been missing in Iraq, and the potential quarantine of an American Airlines plane suspected of carrying severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, cases to California from Asia.
Both Fox and CNN, however, stayed with the live news conference with health officials who had boarded the plane in California for too long, and Fox host Neil Cavuto seemed to miss what was said there, that it was looking as if the crew had overreacted.
Fox also was still saying the Newsday journalists hadn't yet provided details of their ordeal when CNN had already shown them explaining that they had been held prisoner by the Iraqi government.
Fox News, however, was the day's clear leader in playing up Myers' comment, at the Pentagon briefing, that "reporters just have to be fair and balanced, that's all."
Showing the clip again, as a highlight pulled out of a long and news-rich briefing, anchor Vester said, "I'm not trying to be flip, but it just gives you a sense of why we take that motto so seriously. It's just one of the key values of this network."
It's right up there with talking about the network on the network.
Live from Baghdad
Coverage of this war is no easy assignment, and it can be especially challenging for the TV networks and TV reporters when the information and misinformation come fast and furious. Nonetheless, some have excelled, and others have faltered, and Tempo is here to assess them.
↑ Freelancers. May not have health insurance, but they're the ones, for the most part, who stayed in Baghdad.
↔ Al Jazeera. Excoriated by American right, but a fascinating window on Middle Eastern sentiment.
↓ WBBM-TV. Frequent promotions oversell reporter Jay Levine's place in war.
↔ Big 3 Networks. Shirking civic duty by minimizing war coverage almost from the outset, but best at context (see next item).
↑ Old-fashioned TV news. Taped, edited pieces and the newscasts they appear in provide context the cable nets don't.
↓ Ashleigh Banfield, MSNBC. What happened to television news' hero of 9/11, who dyed her blond locks brown to cover Afghanistan?
↓ 24 hours live. Tough to pull context, meaning out of relentless flow of images.
↑ Pentagon correspondents Jim Miklaszewski, NBC; David Martin, CBS; and John McWethy, ABC. Three outstanding reporters who put the military expectations into context.
↓ John Roberts, CBS. Who does he think he's kidding, driving around in that mobile studio of his?
↑ David Bloom, NBC. He's got a mobile studio, too, but at least he looks sexy with his windswept hair.
↓ Fox News Channel. One pundit considers the flag-waving networks an unofficial White House press office. Apparently balance and objectivity are casualties of war.
↑ Gen. Barry McCaffrey, NBC, MSNBC. The best of the many military analysts, he avoids Pentagonspeak and isn't afraid to challenge his former colleagues.
↑ Ted Koppel, ABC. Embedded at his age, (63), playing the wise veteran to other correspondents' cowboys.
↓ Bill O'Reilly, Fox. So full of hot air, he has to be tethered to his chair.
↑ Nic Robertson, CNN. He got kicked out by the Iraqi government, a badge of honor after what happened to Peter Arnett.
↑ Discovery Times. The just-launched collaboration between The New York Times and the Discovery Channel has put together a series of documentaries ("The Real Saddam," "Bioterror: The Invisible Enemy" and "Thomas L. Friedman Reporting: Searching for the Roots of 9/11") that go beyond what is happening and explore why we are at war.
↓ Aaron Brown, CNN. His halting, over-reflective style somehow seems out of place in wartime.
↔ Chuck Goudie, Ch. 7; Jay Levine, Ch. 2; Phil Rogers, Ch. 5. Our local TV boys in Iraq have been solid but not spectacular.
↑ Lester Holt, MSNBC. His network's ratings are way up proportionally, and his smooth anchor style is one reason why.