Journalism was once a completely respectable profession.
Reporters traditionally have been trained writers, and for me one of their real virtues has always been that they write well — sometimes extremely well — on a tight deadline. Anyone who has struggled for years writing a novel — as I have, on several occasions — must of necessity marvel at the ability of a good journalist to tell a story, have it edited, perhaps re-write it and have it re-edited, all in a matter of a few hours before going to press or on camera. This is a charmed capability, and I have spent my entire writing life admiring good reporting.
Now we have Fox. Television journalism is of course nothing new, and has often been quite good. Jim McKay’s reportage on ABC of the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Olympic Games remains in my memory one of the most gripping examples ever of what good television journalism can do. Also, almost everything that came with television’s coverage of the Vietnam war was exemplary of what good journalism must do, which is to get the real facts, weigh all sides of the story, and then tell it as truthfully and clearly as possible, no matter the consequences. In war, the first casualty is truth, as we have learned in the engagements subsequent to Vietnam, with their “embedded” journalists and heavy military “minding” and censorship. The reporters in Vietnam kept the casualty alive and breathing for the duration of that conflict.
Fox News has now become the prime purveyor of yellow journalism. Originally the child of a circulation battle in the 1890s between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, “yellow journalism” sacrificed truth in favor of sensationalism in order simply to sell more papers. It was a business ploy, not an example of high journalistic ideals. Under the influence of the recently deposed Roger Ailes, Fox News has embraced the unbridled goal of increasing viewership and sales through neo-conservative shouting, so that, on that network, journalism has descended from any high ground it once may have occupied.
On Fox, commentators are no longer reporters; they are editorialists. They do not seek the facts and are not fair in their judgments. They turn the injudicious selection of certain facts to the service of their long-ago received political ideologies, gather themselves together for the camera, and once it’s on, they opine. This has all been documented and argued over for many years. But for the past decade or two, Fox has become so yellow that journalism itself barely exists there.
At such places, what may once have been healthy respect for proper journalistic practices has become a rabid pursuit of blowhardism and personal hubris. But Partisan Rant is not Journalism. A Rude Interruptive Voice is not Journalism. A Sneer is not Journalism. What qualifies Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, for example, to speak with such dismissive intensity when he’s exploring the few . . . well. . . ideas that he has? He brays about illegal immigration without having read much, it seems, about the proud history of illegal immigration to the United States, from the day the Republic was founded. He also makes the mistake of lumping traditional politicians from the Democratic and Republican parties together, implying that they are all…well, to be fair, Democrats more than Republicans… just a bunch of weak-minded, timid time-servers who can’t see, or won’t engage, the real issues facing the American electorate. And, of course, O’Reilly savages Black Lives Matter, seemingly knowing very little about it or its predecessors…the American Civil Rights movement, for example.
After the recent presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, much was made by several Fox TV commentators about the role the moderator played, NBC’s Lester Holt. Mr. Holt’s performance was criticized by Yellow Fox because, they believed, he could not possibly give balanced and fair treatment to Mr. Trump. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether Mr. Trump himself ever gives balanced and fair treatment to anyone, one need only look at a sampling of Mr. Holt’s reportage in general to conclude that he is an honest, judicious, and fair man, as corporate news readers go. He is not a purveyor of Yellow TV. He represents the more traditional notion of journalism, in which all sides be considered and the truth be told.
Bill O’Reilly doesn’t do that.
The expatriate American journalist Larry King (not the television host) has written that “the British media [are] as untroubled by logical inconsistency as they are by a shortage of facts, lack of knowledge, or deficiencies in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.” The same could be said of contemporary American Yellow Fox.
Terence Clarke’s new collection of stories New York will be published early next year. He is the director of publishing at Astor & Lenox.