The Dark Art of Being FAIR

Henry St. John


A “national media watch group . . . offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship” is a great idea. And that is how Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) describes itself, which, on the face of that, makes it a welcome initiative.

According to their website, they “work to invigorate the First Amendment by greater diversity in the press and scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints”. Who could object to that?

Certainly, there needs to be greater diversity of opinion in the press, and minority viewpoints are under-represented—unless one considers the viewpoints expressed by mainstream media outlets to be minority ones, a case for which could well be made.

The organization was founded in 1986 by Jeff Cohen, and—certainly in his mind, at least—has been serving the public good ever since. Cohen has had the honour of being mentioned by this website once previously (see here).

Yet, amazingly—and in this they are not alone—their view of media bias is the complete opposite of how readers of this and similar websites experience it. In fact, one would think that the organization inhabits a parallel universe, which is a complete inversion of ours, because, in their opinion, the mainstream media in America is biased in favour of a white, male, Right-wing viewpoint.

Yes, you read that correctly.

When they say “greater diversity in the press”, they mean not opinion, but skin colour. When they say “minority . . . viewpoints”, they mean viewpoints from people with different skin colours. And when they say ‘dissident viewpoints’, they mean, weirdly, progressive ones.

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I suspect the founding of this organization during the height of the Reagan era is significant, for people who describe themselves as “progressive” view that era as a sort of Dark Age.

Their view is that the media should be representative of the society they report to. And this is a very laudable principle—one with which I totally concur. But their belief is that American society is way more progressive and biologically diverse than the media would lead you to believe.

I suspect former TOO contributor, Edmund Connelly, would have a few comments to make on the matter.

Inevitably, since this is an American outfit and the times are what they are, their blog evinces a crude fixation with skin colour: a search for the words “racist” and “racism” aggregate to no less than 614 results. This is the biggest category by some margin, ahead of sexist (50), sexism (41), homophobic (26), homophobia (24), ageist (1), disableist (0), and even anti-Semitism (63). Still, the blog hits all the categories of victimhood, keeping the wounds of privileged groups raw.

Interestingly, however, the word “Israel” produces 594 results. It would appear that, among the progressive causes espoused by this organization, criticism of pro-Israel bias in the American media is the second biggest one. See here.

Altogether this would put FAIR in Noam Chomsky’s camp—not in the sense that Israel is doing the United States’ bidding, which is another strange inversion of the facts, but in the sense, albeit in a roundabout way, that private corporate capitalist interests exerts undue influence in policy, which is another of FAIR’s targets. Exactly how corporate interests advance those of the white, male, Right-winger is something I’d be interested to hear.

This congeniality with Chomsky is no coincidence, for it turns out that Cohen and his brand of media FAIRness was inspired by Chomsky in the first place. Indeed, Chomsky was a guest speaker at one of FAIR’s events.

And it is not only Chomsky’s media readings that inspired Cohen. The latter also seems to share with his guru a hostility to the West. Note how Cohen concludes his birthday tribute to Noam Chomsky:

While he didn’t succeed through that one TV appearance in bringing an end to Western imperialism, or what passes for Western Civilization, he goes on trying at age 85. Happy birthday, Noam! [My emphasis]

A TOO contributor pointed out two years ago that

Chomsky’s politics rest on one main overriding assertion . . . He claims that all European Christian politics are racist. To Chomsky, the existence of European Christians, whether in their homelands in Europe, in the United States, Canada or Australia, is not a normal human historical project, but a trans-historical racist one, part and parcel of defining one’s self as a White. Therefore, he claims, one cannot self-describe as a White or Christian and also do work in solidarity with Palestine, because to identify as a White or a Christian is to be a racist.

This only contributes to the stereotype of Jewish campaigners as being typically at the vanguard of ‘progressive’ social and political causes, pushing the frontiers of liberalism ever further to the left.

So we have a mixed bag: some good, but much evil, in the form of inversion, deflection, confusion, and hostility to our civilization, which, for these gentlemen, is little more than planetary bullydom.

But the good is certainly worth dwelling on, for it is instructive—perhaps not for you and me, but certainly for many. Even if you don’t agree with the idea that the US corporate media represents a pro-White, pro-male, and pro-Right-wing viewpoint, some of their critiques overlap with those of TOO, which means there is much to be learnt from their dissection of selected news stories.

My favourite part is their media activism kit, a page on their website where they show how to detect media bias. This is applicable in all cases, irrespective of whether you think the media is run by Marxist hoodlums or fascist pigs.

The first question to ask is, Who are the sources?

Be aware of the political perspective of the sources used in a story. Media over-rely on “official” (government, corporate and establishment think tank) sources.

Establishment think tank sources . . . —that is an interesting one, because I can’t think of any Right-wing ones regularly employed by the media. Can you? The most cited think tanks in the United States are the Brookings Institution, the Council of Foreign Relations, and the American Enterprise Institute, otherwise known as “neo-con central”. For information about genuine “Right-wing” voices, the media relies on $PLC boilerplates. So I suppose it’s a question of what is “Right-wing” for whom—the Socialist Workers Party in the UK shows that if you are on the outer fringes of the Far Left, even a progressive liberal is “Right-wing”.

In the case of research findings, a related issue is not so much who the sources are, but how the data came into being. In recent years we have seen pseudoscientific studies according to which Right-wingers were ‘proven’ to have lower IQs; immigration was ‘proven’ to boost the economy; racism was ‘proven’ to be a curable anxiety disorder; and so on. Upon critical examination, the studies producing such data have obvious design flaws, stemming from their initial assumptions. Too often, it becomes clear that the study in question was designed from the outset to confirm an a priori conclusion.

FAIR suggests the next question: Is there a lack of diversity?

Diversity of skin colour, certainly. But diversity of opinion? Not so much. What is referred to as “debate” is usually a simulacrum thereof: the scope is kept very narrow, with cacophonous exchanges of views that, though nearly identical, though sharing all the essential suppositions, are presented as polar opposites. Varieties of skin pigmentation and physiognomy are but added methods of concealing the lack of difference under the appearance of difference, for the “diverse” voices authorized to speak all share the establishment’s essential suppositions, except they may represent future development along the same continuum.

Third question: From whose point of view is the news reported?

In FAIR’s universe,

[p]olitical coverage often focuses on how issues affect politicians or corporate executives rather than those directly affected by the issue. . . . Economics coverage usually looks at how events impact stockholders rather than workers or consumers.

There is truth to this. CNN exemplifies this with reports like “Political Chatter: Obama blamed for immigration influx”, the first two paragraphs of which read:

In what has become a dire and politically explosive situation at the border that includes droves of unaccompanied young border-crossers, overcrowded holding facilities, angry protesters and finger-pointing politicians, Washington struggles to get the situation under control. Politicians, however, easily point fingers of blame.

On Sunday, politicians from both sides of the political aisle said President Barack Obama is not doing enough to stem the influx of immigrants — some young children — from coming to the United States.

Indeed, immigration stories are typically told either from the point of view of politicians and how immigration affects them or from the point of view of immigrants, emphasizing their difficulties, their law-abidingness, their willingness to work hard, and their humanity.

When reference is made to public anger at excessive immigration, the news reports seldom personalize that viewpoint, speaking in generalities and focusing on how politicians are reacting to it. It is the view of an anonymous, dark crowd, which is everywhere, but which does not have individual stories; the only individual is the politician, who has to solve this “difficult” problem. Ironically, that problem is the ever-present viewpoint of the majority, not some anomaly or freak phenomenon.

The fourth and fifth questions need no elaboration: Are there double standards? Do stereotypes skew coverage? Hm. I wonder . . .

The next two questions deal with more subtle and insidious problems: What are the unchallenged assumptions? And, Is the language loaded?

A report published in March this year, with the headline “Immigrants DON’T Cost UK Taxpayers More Than £22m A Day, Despite What Migration Watch Say”, begins:

Immigrants have cost UK taxpayers more than £22 million a day for 17 years, a report by an anti-immigration lobby group has claimed, a figure strenuously denied by the academics who did the original research.

Migration Watch UK research claims that the public purse was £140 billion worse off between 1995 and 2011 as a result of people moving to Britain.

Migration Watch based their claim on figures from the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, at University College London.

Notice how MigrationWatch UK is described as an “anti-immigration lobby group”, while the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) is presented, neutrally and unprefixed, as simply an academic research centre. Yet, CReAM states on their website that their purpose is to help “steer the current policy debate”. Note the word “steer”, instead of “inform”. The word ‘inform’ would be consistent with their stated desire to do so “without partisan bias”; the word “steer”, on the other hand, implies direction, which is not consistent with lack of partisan bias. The unchallenged assumption in the report’s wording is that CReAM is simply an unbiased academic collector of data, and that they are, therefore in a different category from MigrationWatch UK, which is not academic but a politically motivated organization. Notice the words “lobby”, which immediately bring to mind politics and pressure, and “group”, as opposed to think tank. Accordingly, both in the headline and the copy, the article implies that CReAM “finds”, while MigrationWatch “claims” or “says”. In other words, one publishes findings based on empirical data, while the other merely spins and asserts. Yet, both CReAM and MigrationWatch UK are, in fact, think tanks, relying on empirical data for their published findings or opinions.

As to the loaded language, the moment you describe an organization as being ‘anti’ something, you are giving it a negative connotation. It says the organization is there to negate, to block, to say no; they are not for anything, they are against something. When you are against something, it is because you either fear it or have been angered by it. These are negative emotions, so the “anti” elicits a negative emotional response.

Finally, notice the angry capitalization of “DON’T” in the headline, and the word “strenuously” in the opening paragraph. This also suggests anger, but a very different type of anger: not one arising from fear and prejudice, but a righteous anger, arising from indignation at an outrage.

For a media watchdog that denounces loaded language, however, FAIR seems peculiarly prone to it. In a recent blog discussing John Huppenthal, the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Arizona who spearheaded a ban on ethnic studies, FAIR described him as a “racist internet graffiti artist”, who wrote “screeds”. His crime? Posting on a blog (anonymously) opinions such as

We all need to stomp out balkanization. No spanish radio stations, no spanish billboards, no spanish tv stations, no spanish newspapers. This is America, speak English.

Now, is there a lack of context?

We carry on with the above example. The above quote appears in a piece in the Arizona Republic, linked to directly from FAIR’s blog post on this issue. You would think from the above that Huppenthal wants zero immigration. Well, let’s examine the quoted text with the two paragraphs that preceded it and were omitted by the Arizona Republic:

We are now going to see the dark side of controlling immigration – fewer jobs for caucasions. [sic] In an improving economy, free flowing immigration creates more jobs for caucasions, not fewer. Economic growth is one part productivity growth and 2 parts population growth.

Caucasians aren’t reproducing themselves, so all population growth has to be immigration.

We are condemning ourselves to a second rate future if we don’t reestablish the melting pot with a strong flow of immigrants engaging in economic activity, not crime.

We all need to stomp out balkanization. No spanish radio stations, no spanish billboards, no spanish tv stations, no spanish newspapers. This is America, speak English.

So, it turns out that Huppenthal is actually for lots of immigration.

But FAIR is not wholly unfair. It also provides a good example of information out of context in another blog post:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made headlines (e.g., “Abbas Takes Defiant Step, and Mideast Talks Falter,” New York Times, 4/1/14; “Talks in Limbo After Move by Abbas,” Washington Post, 4/2/14) when he decided on April 1 to apply for membership in a number of international conventions and treaties. That decision was portrayed as a serious breach — one that forced Israel to pull out of negotiations.

What was happening in reality was much different — but still fairly easy to understand. The agreement that established this round of talks, as Yousef Munayyer (Permission to Narrate, 4/4/14) explained, required that Israel release 104 Palestinian prisoners, a move intended to put off any Palestinian appeals to the United Nations. The final prisoners were to be released on March 29, but Israel failed to do so, apparently thinking they could use these prisoners as a lever to extend the talks. The Palestinian move came in response to that decision.

It seems then that, like the British MP George Galloway, this public service does serve the public on occasion, even if for all the wrong reasons.

Next: Do the headlines and story match?

On the anniversary of the 7 July, 2005 bombings in London, the Huffington Post led with the headline “‘Blair Lied, Thousands Died'”. Did you notice the extra set of quotation marks? It turns out that the article does not report on a condemnatory statement by an establishment figure nor on a finding by a think tank against Tony Blair, but on graffiti painted on the 7/7 London memorial. The copy focused on the outrage of politicians and the sorrow of the victims and survivors. This mismatch is particularly interesting because it reinforces its nearly endless stream of negative reports about Tony Blair (I’m not complaining: he deserves it): the outrage of politicians is a distraction, a mere veneer of decency and concern; what is important is the juxtaposition of ire at Blair and the victims of bombings caused by Blair’s war-mongering. Front and centre, however, is the ire.

FAIR points out that many people just skim the headlines, and don’t actually read the copy, so this can be used to mislead, to shape attitudes; the copy, once read, if read at all, may give the headline a very different meaning, but simply by being there responsibility for deliberate deception can be averted on a technicality.

The mismatch practice can occur within a news report itself. Often, readers are sold a viewpoint in the first part of the copy, but this viewpoint is refuted further down. Typically, inconvenient or contradictory information is hidden somewhere in the middle or the bottom third, before the copy carries on, “pretending” there has been no refutation or contradiction. A reader has to be very careful to spot it, or go into the story looking for evidence of media attempts to deceive.

Are stories on important issues featured prominently?

Whether it is a question of a story being featured at the top or buried way down in the news, or its being reported nationally as opposed to locally, or its being given plenty of space as opposed to very little, or its being subject of vast amounts of commentary as opposed to none, or is reported with strained voices or shouts as opposed to a soothing murmur, or is deliberately eclipsed by a big story, prominence or lack thereof has many facets.

Yet the question goes beyond whether a story is given prominence or not, because prominence itself can be a tool for obfuscation. Important information and insights can be hidden in plain sight by swamping them with vast amounts of detailed and very noisy discussion and commentary that keep the focus on only a subset of the facts, or on a specific interpretation of them.

Such would be the case with FAIR’s blogging on examples of “racism”, a word with an infinitely elastic definition. Racism is more or less universal, particularly in multiracial societies, like the United States. Jared Taylor’s White Identity is crammed with examples of racism from Afro-Americans and Hispanics, but you would think that there is no such thing from reading FAIR’s media analysis, which otherwise provides a blizzard of blog posts about racism. Also not given prominence are the efforts by white Americans to eliminate any form of racial bias anywhere, and their strenuous condemnations whenever and wherever it is detected. No. In FAIR’s universe, only racist whites—real or imagined—are given prominence.

Ultimately, while FAIR’s stated aims are admirable, it is yet another tool in enforcing media bias—one that is doubly deceptive because the outfit claims to be against media bias. They are, in fact, fully in agreement with current trends; they are just unhappy that the mainstream media doesn’t go far enough in supporting them.

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