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Jewish World Review July 9, 2001 / 18 Tamuz, 5761

John H. Fund

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Passing Lane: Left-wing attacks help boost John Stossel's and Brit Hume's audiences -- SOMETIMES the best measure of a reporter's effectiveness is the virulence of the attacks against him. Case in point: Last month, left-wing groups ganged up on two dissenters from the liberal media orthodoxy: ABC's contrarian reporter John Stossel and a former ABC colleague of his, Brit Hume, who is now Fox News's Washington bureau chief.

Environmental groups have been furious for years with Mr. Stossel, a former consumer-affairs reporter who is now a skeptic about ecological doomsayers. Last year, they finally caught him in an error. They extracted an on-air apology from Mr. Stossel after he mistakenly reported that a test had shown organic food was no more healthy than processed food. In fact, the tests had not been conducted; the error originated with an ABC producer. Ever since then, every one of Mr. Stossel's broadcasts has been subjected to microscopic analysis by advocates who hope to discredit his work.

When the Washington-based Environmental Working Group heard that Mr. Stossel was filming a special called "Tampering With Nature," challenging horror stories about global warming and genetic engineering of food, they sprang into action. After Mr. Stossel interviewed several young children about what they were learning in school at a California Earth Day seminar, one of the teachers conducting the seminar became concerned. She had one of the parents contact the Environmental Working Group to express concern about Mr. Stossel's "confrontational" approach. Mike Casey of the Environmental Working Group then contacted several other parents whose kids had been interviewed by ABC.

Those parents then wrote ABC to revoke their permission for airing of the interviews. Mr. Stossel noted that several of the parents were present for the interviews and had been pleased with the results. But he and ABC agreed to respect the wishes of the parents.

When the special aired on June 29, Mr. Stossel explained how the disputed interviews came to be pulled and then showed a segment of him interviewing a brand-new group of kids from Manhattan public schools. They confirmed that much of what passes for environmental education in school today is bunk--the polar ice caps are melting and the air is dirtier now than it has ever been.

Watching the Stossel special, it became clear why environmental groups are so afraid. Mr. Stossel puts people on camera who almost never get interviewed. Among them were a group of leading scientists who reported that the science fueling the global warming fears is anything but settled. Another was Patrick Moore, a former director of Greenpeace, who said the environmental movement has been hijacked by political activists: "They're using environmental rhetoric to cloak agendas like class warfare and anticorporatism that, in fact, have almost nothing to do with ecology."

The audience seemed to agree. The Stossel special won a Nielsen rating of 6.8, an audience of more than 10 million households. It had a bigger audience than "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and was the second-highest rated show that evening. Left-wing pressure groups will continue to attack ABC for giving Mr. Stossel a platform, but he really represents a limited form of equal time for a network whose coverage usually tilts to the left.

It also takes chutzpah for the left to attack Fox News Channel for being biased and unbalanced. For years the left ignored Fox as a hobby horse of Rupert Murdoch. But starting last year, it caught up with and then surpassed CNN as the most popular cable news network. June was the eighth straight month Fox finished first in primetime, with an audience that is up 40% over last year. The two networks are nip-and-tuck when it comes to daytime ratings, but Fox (available in 68 million homes) is now a clear challenger to CNN (82 million homes).

So it's no surprise that Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal watchdog group, has come forward to claim that Fox's signature political show, "Special Report With Brit Hume," is unbalanced. FAIR claims that 71% of the show's guests for the first 4 months of this year were conservative and 89% of the political guests were Republican. Mr. Hume responds by noting that during the entire period that FAIR conducted its analysis Republicans were the ones in power, controlling the White House, Senate and House for the first time in 50 years.

Mr. Hume could have made more of an effort to have Democrats on his program. But his show doesn't follow the pattern of most other shows in which two opposing players face off and debate a topic. The only political interview segment is a one-on-one and usually involves a newsmaker. Mr. Hume is right that most of the newsmakers in Washington before Jim Jeffords left the GOP were Republicans.

Besides, liberal figures like Sen. Hillary Clinton boycott Fox. If leading Democrats won't appear on Fox, it seems passing strange for FAIR to complain about the network's lack of "balance." Moreover, other Fox shows, such as "The O'Reilly Factor," "Hannity & Colmes" and "The Edge with Paula Zahn," feature debate formats. I've appeared on those shows, and I've always been paired with a liberal. The FAIR report simply ignores those shows.

ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, no conservative, says he watches Mr. Hume "and I don't see the bias." In contrast with Dan Rather, Mr. Jennings is remarkably candid in acknowledging that conservatives have a legitimate beef about network television. Last week he told the Boston Globe that "[for] those of us who went into journalism in the '50s or '60s, it was sort of a liberal thing to do. Save the world." As a result, he says, "conservative voices in the U.S. have not been as present as they might have been and should have been in the media."

That's not how James Wolcott, a contributing editor of Vanity Fair, sees it. In a story touted on the cover as "Bully Boys of Fox News," he portrays the network as "a vanity showcase catering to the Angry White Male in his autumn plumage." Mr. Wolcott goes so far as to say that a regular viewer of Fox News is subjected to a propaganda barrage in service of a "game plan." That plan includes "an end to legal abortion, the privatization of Social Security, a never questioning support of Israeli might, a salivating worship of weaponry, . . . crediting the economic success of the Clinton presidency to anyone but Bill Clinton, and glorifying Ronald Reagan as the quintessence of American majesty." This guy is as conspiratorial as Reed Irvine.

Expect more attacks on alternative media sources, ranging from Fox and John Stossel to Rush Limbaugh and the Drudge Report. Their success at attracting an audience shows, as Mr. Wolcott admits, that the established networks have "opened up a passing lane" for competitors.

Half the country, and a larger percentage of the news-junkie audience, voted for George W. Bush. The big three networks and CNN have often failed to treat the views of this audience with respect.That imbalance is now being corrected, sometimes in the brash and brassy manner of a John Stossel or a Bill O'Reilly. It's a different style than the modulated tones of a Tom Brokaw or Brian Williams, and it rubs liberals the wrong way. If they were smart, they'd be trying to understand and learn from their competitors' successes. Instead they're lashing out. The main effect is to alert viewers where to go if they really want something different in network news.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


06/25/01: Man vs. Machine: New Jersey's GOP establishment is doing everything it can to stop Bret Schundler
06/15/01: A Schundler Surprise? Don't count out "the Jack Kemp of New Jersey"
06/06/01: Memo to conservatives: Ignore McCain and maybe he'll go away
05/29/01: Integrity in Politics? Hardly. Jim Jeffords is no Wayne Morse
05/22/01: Davis' answer to California's energy crisis? Hire a couple of Clinton-Gore hatchet men
05/07/01: Prematurely declaring a winner wasn't the networks' worst sin in Florida
04/23/01: How to fix the electoral process --- REALLY!
04/11/01: A conservative hero may mount a California comeback
03/30/01: Can the GOP capture the nation's most closely balanced district?
03/09/01: Terminated
03/06/01: Leave well enough alone
02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
02/15/01: In 1978 Clinton got a close look at the dangers of selling forgiveness
02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
02/06/01: How Ronald Reagan changed America
01/16/01: Why block Ashcroft? To demoralize the GOP's most loyal voters
01/15/01: Remembering John Schmitz, a cheerful extremist
12/29/00: Why are all Dems libs pickin' on me?
Dubya's 48% mandate is different than Ford's
12/13/00: Gore would have lost any recount that passed constitutional muster
11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
10/25/00: She's really a Dodger
09/28/00: Locking up domestic oil?
09/25/00: Hillary gives new meaning to a "woman with a past"
09/21/00: Ignore the Polls. The Campaign Isn't Over Yet

©2001, John H. Fund