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Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2002 / 14 Adar, 5762

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports

10 minutes with ... Tony Snow -- TONY SNOW, the smart and friendly host of "Fox News Sunday," picked the right news horse when he jumped to the upstart Fox TV Network in 1996 (pun intended). The network and Fox News Channel, its cable/satellite news-and-talk operation, has become both popular and controversial because of its conservative (i.e., non-liberal) approach to news and commentary.

A former newspaper columnist, editorial page editor and director of speechwriting for the first President Bush, Snow's only non-TV work are occasional stints as Rush Limbaugh's back-up and his JWR columns.

I talked to Snow about bias in the news media and the origin of his conservative politics when I called him Wednesday at his offices in Washington, D.C.:

Q: With Fox drawing so much attention and criticism for its conservative political slant and questions of fairness from liberals, does it mean Fox is doing something right or wrong?

A: It means Fox is doing something right. Look, the only thing we have in terms of marching orders is to present both sides and do it fairly. What you often see in the mainstream press is caricatures of positions on both sides, but more often conservative positions, where they go out and find the biggest nut available and make that person the spokesman or spokeswoman for conservative causes.

Well, we get smart conservatives and we get smart liberals and we let them have their say. And you know what, we have found that not only do conservatives love Fox News but we've got a lot of liberals who do too, because here you don't see stick-man arguments about big issues.

You see the best positions of both sides debated fully and freely. As a consequence we really do take seriously the "We report, you decide" slogan or logo or whatever you call it.

Q: Is Fox News more or less balanced than CNN or the other Big Three networks?

A: I've got my obvious biases here. But speaking both as a consumer and as a company man, I think we're fairer. I don't think there's any question about it. Once again, you get both sides.

You will look in vain many times on the mainstream networks for a conservative position, mainly because the people running the networks, the people doing the reporting for the networks, the people editing for the networks, the people making the news judgments for the networks, all come from liberal backgrounds and simply don't know that another side exists.

So when you ask them for a conservative position, they don't know where to look. They don't know where to turn. At least here at Fox, we have people who are familiar with both sides.


Q: Before we go on, tell us exactly what your politics are and where they came from - books, people, whatever.

A: Well, I'm not going to get into my politics too much because, frankly, my job now at Fox is not to be making a big show of my political views. People know where I come from: I'm well-known as a conservative.

But let me give you a quick sense of the things that were the most influential.

I grew up in a household where my parents were both made Democrats by John Kennedy and they were both made Republicans by George McGovern. Interestingly enough, both of them had what you might call a civil rights background.

Not that they were civil rights workers, but my mother was a nurse in an all-black neighborhood. My father taught at such places. As a consequence, we were deeply interested and committed to the cause of making sure that everyone in America had a chance to taste the full fruits of freedom. That to me was what the civil rights movement was all about.

We were conservative in the sense that we thought that fundamental, traditional values made sense. They weren't simply made up. As a matter of fact, they had been tested and approved over a series of centuries, really, so these were hardy virtues that would serve us not only politically but in our daily lives. And if you had a politics that managed to honor those virtues and extend freedom, then you'd be in pretty good shape.

Now I get to college. I'm a philosophy major. I read Karl Marx. I don't say it's a great regret of my life, but boy was it a waste of time. Frankly, it was ponderous and when you tried to make sense of it you found it was simply impossible to do so.

The writers who later on ended up exerting a great deal of influence over me were people like Friedrich A. Hayek, or F.A. Hayek as he's more commonly known here in the United States, and a little bit of Ludwig von Mises - these are the Austrians.

And obviously going through and reading the basic documents - the Federalist Papers and so on. And in addition, my faith was important to me. You could go to apologetic writers like C.S. Lewis; you can look at some of the great church writers - Aquinas or obviously the Bible. These things are important to me, so they all have exerted influence on me at various times and places of my life.

Q: I can't say that I've had such a high-toned development myself. But Hayek and von Mises and people like that sent me to where I am now - which is a libertarian. So I'm a little bit off-center from you.

A: Well, no, these are both libertarian writers. I would consider myself in many ways more libertarian than Republican, if you will.

Q: When you were getting into journalism 23 years ago, how many people who thought like you and held these cherished feelings about liberty and economic and political freedom did you find in the world of journalism?

A: There weren't a whole lot. I worked for guy named Terry Eastland, who's now the publisher of The Weekly Standard. Terry hired me as an editorial writer in Greensboro, N.C., in 1979. I have to say that being a conservative anywhere in the press was a fairly lonely business then. There weren't many.

But you know, you still have the same job when you're being a journalist - you try to get the facts. You try to get it right. And if you make mistakes, you own up to it and make sure you don't make them again. So quite often ideology was less a factor in my journalism career than simply what you often do - which is going out, gathering facts, doing research and trying to get a story right.

Q: How much of Fox's ratings success and CNN's ratings troubles do you attribute to this whole question of bias and politics?

A: I think that's part of it. A lot of Fox viewers are very happy that they can see conservative views. But there are a lot of other things at work too. We look better. You turn on the TV. You put Fox and CNN side-by-side and you're going to find your eyes go to Fox.

Why? Well, it's superior graphics packages. We find ways to draw people in. No 2: We have fun! We like each other. Greta Van Susteren was in my office just a minute ago. I said, "How do you like it?" "I love it here," she said. "We're having fun."

At CNN now it's really like living in an al-Qaida bunker. People see incoming bombs exploding everywhere. They don't know where they're coming from. They don't know who's in charge. All they know is that it's chaotic and they are scared. And I've got a lot of friends at CNN.

People who are watching can tell if somebody loves their job or if they're going through the motions. And right now, CNN isn't sure of itself. When Judy Woodruff puts leather on, you know something's weird (laughs). So at Fox we're not sitting around trying to figure out what we want to be. We know who we are.

Q: And we can't expect you to be making a jump to CNN anytime soon for the big dollars?

A: No. No. No. And you know what's interesting? CNN is not interested in me anyway. Although I've heard rumors to the contrary, it's simply not true. I have spent 23 years in journalism. I've never been on a winning team before. Why should I leave the Yankees (laughing)?

JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

02/12/02: Has Soldier of Fortune gone soft?

© 2002, Bill Steigerwald