questioning fox

While protesters in Wisconsin chanted “Fox News lies!” it really doesn’t, at least not as much as people think.

What Fox does, brilliantly, is dissemble, shade, omit, emphasize, shape, shout over. It uses the same tools of public relations that Edward Bernays laid out many years ago. (Oddly, Bernays is a minor villain in the Glenn Beck firmament. No matter.)

So when the network is caught out, as it was Monday, it’s a big deal.

Quick background: Coalition forces attacked the Gadhafi compound Sunday night. CNN correspondent Nic Robertson was among the reporters who went there and reported on the damage.

Monday, Fox reporter Jennifer Griffin reported that Robertson and the others were being used by Gadhafi’s people as human shields, and that as a consequence of them showing up at the compound, coalition forces canceled part of their attack, out of fear that a correspondent would be hurt or killed. The report was attributed to ‘sources’ and it suggested military officials were upset.

(Here’s the complete Fox News report on the network’s web site, as of Tuesday, March 22.)

Griffin reported that the Fox News correspondent on the scene, Steve Harrigan, chose not to go on the trip because he did not want to be used by Gahdafi.

Overall, the implication of the piece was that somehow the presence of the correspondents interfered with the mission. The story got good play on Fox Monday afternoon.

Then Robertson fired back on CNN. He pointed out that in fact Fox did send someone with a camera – though Harrigan and his crew didn’t go, they sent a security guard.

Robertson said Harrigan doesn’t spend as much time in the field as other correspondents do – he said “I see him more times at breakfast than I see him out on trips with government officials here.”

Most important, Robertson undermines the entire argument that the press was used as human shields. He points out that they were hustled to the site, spent 15-20 minutes there, another five minutes at Gadhafi’s tent and were then booted out.

(Read a transcript of Robertson’s remarks here.)

So he makes two serious charges:

– That Fox was on the trip, after all

– That the reporters were on scene for such a short time that you can’t conclude they were ‘human shields.’

Fox’s response?

Jennifer Griffin called into the Van Susteren show Monday night and walked back her reporting, in part. She acknowledged Fox was on the trip.

Griffin did not, however, move an inch off the original point of her story, that reporters were used as shields. She now changed her reporting to say that Harrigan had stayed in his hotel room because he wanted to ‘stay on the air’ and produce as complete a report as possible.

So several questions remain unanswered:

– Who told Jennifer Griffin originally that Harrigan stayed behind because he didn’t want to be used? And was it the same person who then told her Harrigan stayed behind because he wanted to stay on the air? And if Harrigan didn’t want to be used, why did he send someone with a camera (and who was presumably less sophisticated, more vulnerable to pressure) to the scene?

– After learning Fox had someone at the compound, did Griffin inquire as to how long he was there? The question of ‘how long’ would seem to be important in settling whether the reporters were used as human  shields.

– Why, in light of CNN reporting that the entire time at the compound was less than half an hour, did Griffin not at least write that there could be some question about what happened?

– Why did Fox continue to report the substance of the story, without qualification, well into Tuesday?

There are lots of conventions in tv news reporting, and in particular in cable – where the line between straight reportage and analysis gets blurry – and one of them is to tuck the source for information under the heading of ‘sources.’ Setting aside whether that’s a good idea in general, in a case such as this one – when a specific allegation is being made – it would be useful and appropriate to know a little more about who is making the claim.

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