Tuesday, May 04, 2010

MEDIA: A Tale of Two COMPLETELY Different Americas

See update (FOX's response on May 5th) at end of story. 

While munching a little late lunch yesterday afternoon, my wife Carolyn and I were watching a bit of cable news. With the BP oil leak, the attempted terrorist bombing in Times Square, the flooding in Tennessee, ongoing financial reform efforts—it’s a busy news world these days. It was the top of the hour, where most news outlets stack the top stories of the day. Monday May 3, the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico lead all broadcasts.

Here’s a little bit of what we saw on MSNBC:

There’s some good background in this clip, especially putting the current BP leak in historical context. Simmons started a private investment bank in the early 1970s that specializes in energy. He’s an oil and energy man, no doubt about it. But his company has also been a major consulting and research entity in the field, and his latest book Twilight In The Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy deals not with vampires in arid climates but with what will happen globally when Saudi oil supplies dry up. Because the oil-dependant industrial world cannot obtain any true measure of what kind of oil reserves Saudi Arabia has, Simmons’ purpose in his book is to warn economies like ours that we may want to consider alternatives now to prevent a massive global crisis when Saudi oil dries up.

As for the credibility of Simmons, as an oilman, he was taking a reasonably measured approach. He pointed out that this is first drilling incident in this country in 41 years. Simmons was witness to the 1969 drilling accident off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA that spilled 80,000-plus gallons of oil into the ocean and onto the beaches. (He started his company a few years later partly in response to that situation.) Simmons cautioned about getting a witch-hunt going before we know the full extent of who is responsible and why this current leak occurred. Simmons acknowledges the severity of the BP spill—“a global tragedy”—and doubts that some of the current ideas about how to control the leak have any real chance of working. He points out that drilling in deep water isn’t a problem—it’s the risks of drilling so deep below the Gulf floor that is revealed in this tragedy.

As for host Dylan Ratigan, his agenda is pretty clear: how can the leak be stopped, who is responsible, and why hasn’t there been tighter regulation on the oil industry that might have disallowed this kind of drilling so deep under the Gulf floor. He compares this spill to Chernobyl, and tries to link the “self-regulation” of Wall Street to the same kind of self-regulation done by the oil companies. Ratigan’s schtick ever since he joined the MSNBC on-air staff has been to go after the big moneyed interests that have so much control over our economy. So it’s no surprise Ratigan is looking to finger a villain in this story.

When MSNBC goes to commercial, I switch over to FOX "news." My wife Carolyn doesn’t much care to watch FOX. It annoys her, especially FOX personalities like Sean Hannity, and she is rightly angered by the disinformation and outright lies the station offers as “news.” As readers of Roadkill know, I can’t help myself—FOX "news" to me is like watching news from a completely different world. I’m fascinated by the station's alien ways, and I admit I marvel sometimes at the willful misunderstanding FOX “news” engages in to rile up—but ultimately insult—their low information viewers. I’m sure it’s never stated in the hallowed halls of FOX, but you know the general working attitude toward their viewers is “Don’t worry—they don’t know any better.”

So here’s what we saw on FOX "news" coverage of the BP oil leak:

Heckuva job, Brownie.

You remember Michael Brown, don’t you? The FEMA director when Hurricane Katrina hit?

Carolyn was more surprised than I was that FOX’s coverage of the oil leak was not about what happened, how to stop it, or what can be done for the future but rather a political broadside about how the Obama administration was trying to exploit the leak to its advantage. The Obama administration that recently agreed to open up more coastal drilling. And how does this FOX “news” story angle help inform people of this ongoing environmental crisis?

I must admit even I was a little surprised that FOX would bring on Michael Brown of all people to comment on the oil leak in the Gulf. Near New Orleans. Where are Brown’s friends or family advising him to keep his name and face as far away from New Orleans as possible for the rest of his life?  Asking Michael Brown to comment on an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico that will directly impact the city of New Orleans is like asking the sleepy driver of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker to come on the air to talk about why we should drill for oil in ANWAR in Alaska. (I wouldn’t put it past FOX to do exactly that.)

Brown’s appearance is part of the FOX “news” fable the cable outlet has been pushing since this oil leak began: this is Obama’s Katrina, the Federal government failed to respond soon enough (despite the Coast Guard’s immediate appearance after the initial rig blast), Obama wants to use this crisis to stop all offshore drilling, and, of course, the rest of the media is blowing the leak out of proportion and it’s not REALLY as bad as everyone is making it out to be.

Watch FOX’s coverage for any chunk of time and you’ll see one or more—or all—of these story lines being repeated and reinforced. To be fair to Michael Brown, months after Katrina hit we learned that the blame for the government’s exceedingly slow response was as much the fault of the Bush administration as it was Brown’s work and knowledge on the ground in New Orleans. During the above interview, Brown even admits what he feels was his biggest failure—not making a big enough stink quickly enough to let the Bush administration know how serious the Katrina situation was and how bad things were getting. Fair enough, but did you notice how FOX “newsman” Neil Cavuto tries to help out Brown’s credibility and history? Cavuto suggests it was BOTH party’s fault for the response to Katrina, despite the fact that one party—the GOP—controlled the White House and the Congress and that the other party—the Democrats—were the ones doing exactly what Michael Brown claims he should have done to hasten the rescue efforts. The best Cavuto assist is when, after Brown admits his biggest failure, Cavuto adds, “It wasn’t as if you failed to try.” So Brown really was doing all he could, right? Even after he admits that he didn’t.

I can’t find a link on the FOX web site to what follows the Michael Brown interview, but it’s a doozy. Cavuto brings in Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi to advance another element of the FOX fable: that the oil leak really isn’t that bad and that the media is blowing it out of proportion. Barbour, former head of the RNC, tells Cavuto that he has just been down to the Mississippi coast and hasn’t seen any repercussions from the oil leak on his state’s shores. So everything’s fine, right? Barbour then goes on with a what can only be described as an optimist’s assessment: there’s really just a sheen on the water in most places, which isn’t harmful, and the heavy goop is being dissipated by the gulf waters. So what’s everybody got their panties in a bunch about, right? No need to stop offshore drilling Barbour warns.

So here’s my question: what is the purpose of FOX “news” coverage of the oil leak? Is it to inform their viewers of the ongoing crisis? Is it to give their viewers a sense of how this will effect not only the Gulf region but the country as a whole? Is it to find out how and why this leak occurred and let people know who is at fault and how we can avoid similar disasters in the future? Not at all. FOX claims to bring viewers the news so the viewers can decide themselves, but FOX “news” has already decided, hasn’t it? Based on the coverage I’ve seen on FOX over the past week or so, their primary purposes seem less about informing their viewers of the ongoing crisis and all about blaming the Obama administration and protecting the interests of the offshore oil industry. They report AND they decide for you. Which means you don’t have to do much thinking about the whole situation. In FOX “news” America, thinking and analysis isn’t really required. Like all good fiction, suspension of disbelief is mandatory.

MAY 5, 2010 UPDATE: "FOX Defends Michael Brown Interview: He's An 'Expert on Botched Responses."
Sounds like a headline from The Onion, but they're not kidding. Check out FOX's response to the criticism they received for having former FEMA head Michael Brown on to discuss the oil leak in the Gulf. You'll rarely read such labored logic—except by an outlet like FOX.

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