A few months ago, I had a brief Twitter exchange with a prominent tech blogger (whom I won’t name so nobody thinks I’m link-baiting here). We’ll call him Fred (not his real name). It started with a comment he’d made about the political bias of Fox News.
I took him up on the issue, and said I didn’t believe their reporting (as opposed to their opinion shows) is any more biased than the other networks, but since it leans the other way than the other networks, by comparison they seem more biased than they are.
Put another way, if you’re standing at a 15-degree angle to the left of vertical, and you think you’re standing up straight, then people who aren’t leaning at all will seem to you to be leaning to the right.
If you encounter someone who’s leaning 15 degrees to the right of vertical, then to your perspective they’re practically falling over. But it’s not the magnitude of their bias that you’re seeing; it’s the magnitude of the difference between yours and theirs.
So it is (I posit) between Fox and pretty much the entirety of the other other televised news outlets. (MSNBC is an outlier which actually HAS fallen over after leaning too far left, and it can’t get up and wouldn’t want to if it could, so let’s just quietly move on and let it lie there peacefully.)
Now, “Fred” is a smart guy, and a compelling writer. He’s also quite liberal in his politics (from all the indications I’ve ever seen from him). He may, in fact, be considerably more liberal than he realizes, simply because of his peer group.
I’m a techie, and I’ve been roaming around the Interwebs since before Al Gore invented them, and I’ve noticed something over the 20 years or so I’ve been soaking up the culture: people in the major tech centers (the sort of places Paul Graham says you can’t just create) are overwhelmingly, breathtakingly liberal as a group. That doesn’t mean you won’t find there individuals of tremendously varying political positions. But the median tech-head from Silicon Valley, SF, Portland, Redmond, MIT, Caltech, or Stanford is so far to the left of the country-wide median, they may not even know anyone as far right as what passes for “the middle” in modern American politics.
That’s a long way around to saying this: I know people whom I consider friends in the tech world who will (I think) be both shocked and a little ashamed for me to know I voted for George W. Bush not once, but twice, and would again over either of the two clowns currently running. They’d be shocked because I had not previously given them indications of being either brain-damaged or an evil minion of Dick Cheney’s Halliburton Cabal. And they’d be a little ashamed for me (and probably of me) because they’d know that all right-thinking people were appalled at my lack of clue and lack of class. It would be like my vomiting in the punchbowl at a wedding and then passing out and falling on the wedding cake. It’s a faux pas, unheard-of in any polite circle they can imagine.
And it’s the “circle that they can imagine” part that’s oddly childlike. Their political spectrum has a left and a right, and they argue with great passion against those on the “other side”. It’s just that their entire spectrum, if translated to the color spectrum, would fit between Angry, Pulsating All-War-Is-Wrong Violet and Indigo-tinted CO2-Covered Global-Warming-Death Blue. The very existence of an all-out Green is but a rumor, and no one — except the insane and those in tune with the Dark Arts — even speaks of Yellow. Red and Orange are simply inconceivable to them. If there were a Yellow, surely there could be nothing beyond it but utter madness.
I’m overdrawing it a tad. But the fact is, someone sitting comfortably in the middle of the spectrum would see them all as about as purple as they could be, with no difference worth commenting on among the lot of them.
In the same way, someone sitting deep in the Red area wouldn’t be able to see much past the “left-wing nutjob” sitting at Green, and would dismiss anything insufficiently red as a “bunch of hippies anyway” and not think more about it.
Now, in this maelstrom of provincial cluelessness, what would an ‘unbiased’ news network look like if we had one? What would they say? And if they said it, who would like it? Is the middle of the political spectrum even very populated? Is that even a fair question? Many people have pointed out that most of our politics don’t line up in a linear fashion at all. There are at least two dimensions in the political grid, as our Libertarian friends are fond of pointing out. I think there are many more than that.
This brings me back (at long last) to Fox. I don’t think that Fox is conservative, though they lean to the right compared to the other networks. However, compared to a legitimately conservative outfit like National Review, Fox is hardly conservative. (Keep in mind, I’m only talking about the “news”, not the various opinion-tainment shows on Fox).
What they are is populist, and wildly so. There are political issues where populists graze freely among the fields of conservative ideas (but without ever knowing whose land they’re on). On others, they wander happily among the poppies of liberalism (again, blissfully ignorant of the fact). But Fox, I think, doesn’t care, as long as their audience is engaged and growing.
The funny thing is that, for both Left and Right, typically populism is seen as a sort of “politics for stupid people”. It’s a different beast than Conservatism, which is “politics for evil, greedy people” and Liberalism, which is “politics for narcissists and commies” (depending on who you ask). Everybody hates everybody, and everybody thinks everybody else is evil, stupid, ignorant, or all three.
Fox, I think, noticed that nobody was serving the populist herd in the news game. The liberal wing had pretty much locked down control of major media, and the conservatives had gone a different route, with think tanks, foundations, magazines and so on. Fox jumped in and fed the masses the sort of news the masses like.
To conservatives (and I know whereof I speak), Fox is an occasionally welcome relief from the relentless agenda of liberally slanted major news networks. But it’s hardly conservative, and is sometimes maddeningly obtuse about issues that (conservatives think) shouldn’t even be debatable.
To liberals (and I have observed this as an almost unanimous reaction), Fox is a hideous conservative menace, an aberration that does not deserve to exist and is corrupting and destroying All That Is Good in the Universe (sort of Dick Cheney if he were a news network instead of a Sith Lord).
But it’s ironic that so many people, particularly people from my professional herd, genuinely believe that Fox is pretty much the house organ of the Republican Party, and can’t conceive of the notion that it could be anything else.