HARPER: In attacking Fox News, author overstates the case

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It’s liberal columnist Jonathan Alter vs. Fox News President Roger Ailes.

That’s one of the main subplots in Mr. Alter’s new book, “The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies,” chronicling the 2010-2012 political cycle. Mr. Alter expresses his vitriol toward Mr. Ailes, whose Fox News receives its own chapter in the book. Mr. Ailes alone rates more than 50 specific references.

A longtime columnist with Newsweek and now at Bloomberg, Mr. Alter admits he’s biased in favor of the president, but the author makes Mr. Ailes seem like the devil incarnate who created Fox News simply as a GOP propaganda machine.

I asked Mr. Alter if he considers the Fox boss the most sinister and powerful of Mr. Obama’s detractors. “I don’t rank the president’s enemies,” Mr. Alter replied in an email.

But in a variety of anecdotes, the author paints Mr. Ailes as so paranoid that he is concerned Islamic terrorists or gays may come to kill him. Mr. Alter claims the Fox president once had security guards throw a “Muslim-looking man out of the building.”

Nearly all of the same claims are made in an article in 2011 in Rolling Stone, but Mr. Alter has only one reference to that article in his poorly organized endnotes. Mr. Ailes dismisses the assertions.

I have no specific insight into the truth or falsity of Mr. Alter’s statements. But his other musings about Fox News itself are inaccurate, overblown or untrue.

The author propagates the myth that Fox, the No. 1 cable news operation for the past 11 years, is some sort of Republican propaganda machine. He apparently missed a recent Pew Research Center analysis that found both CNN and Fox each offer roughly 50 percent factual reporting vs. opinion, while the liberal cable-news alternative MSNBC tilted 85 percent toward opinion, with a mere 15 percent of its coverage devoted to factual reporting. That would qualify MSNBC as a “Democratic propaganda machine.”

I find both Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, the two top Fox News hosts, hard to take. Their programs have a point of view — usually conservative, although Mr. O’Reilly argues he is independent — that triggers sparks and not much light.

Much of Fox News other programming, however, seems quite “fair and balanced” — the network’s famous motto — although I honestly think the slogan was conceived in part to tweak other media for their often-liberal political leanings.

For example, anchor Bret Baier of Fox’s nightly “Special Report” presents a straightforward newscast, although “The All-Star Panel” of news analysts tilts toward the right. Like most Fox News programs, “Special Report” lasts one hour rather than the 30-minute broadcasts on the non-cable networks. That allows for more stories, including a recent series on charges that the Department of Veterans Affairs had misdiagnosed patients.

Anchor Shepard Smith delivers two broadcasts during the day, “Studio B” at 3 p.m. EDT and “The Fox Report” starting four hours later. He’s a bit too breathless for me, but his program resembles most network newscasts except the broadcast also lasts an hour, which allows reporters to look at stories like the National Security Agency surveillance program from a variety of angles without sacrificing coverage of other events.

Mr. Alter criticizes what he describes as Mr. Ailes‘ interference in news coverage. “[He] covered the Benghazi story as if it were Watergate just before Nixon’s resignation, with almost wall-to-wall coverage.” In my view, it’s unfortunate other media outlets failed to follow that example.

Because of the vagaries of publishing deadlines, many of the current scandals plaguing the Obama administration occurred after Mr. Alter’s book went to press, so they are not covered in the book. Nevertheless, I think the author would be hard-pressed to blame these problems on Mr. Ailes and his alleged cadre of Obama enemies at Fox News.

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