It now seems a certainty that we will soon have our very own "Fox News North" cable channel as Quebecor is poised to launch "SUN TV News," a 24-hour news channel aimed at "more conservative viewers." While Quebecor has recently tried to deflect accusations that it will adopt a conservative point of view, its main architects are a bastion of Canadian conservatism, with Quebecor CEO and Tory supporter Pierre Karl Peladeau bankrolling the project and Kory Teneycke -- a former chief spokesperson for Stephen Harper -- slated to run the channel. Rumours that right-wing media darling Ezra Levant is being courted to host one of the station's opinion shows further points to the channel's conservative credentials.
While critics of the proposed channel fear it will be divisive and polarizing, supporters counter that the channel will offer much needed diversity of viewpoint in the Canadian media. Those of us on the left who study media might argue that we need another right-wing media source like we need a hole-in-the-head, with the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Sun Media, and the Asper's Global News Channel serving the ideological right just fine (and no, CBC's reflexive nationalism and pro-establishment news content and opinion does not qualify it as a "left-wing" alternative).
However, rather than debate the need for more "right-wing" diversity in the Canadian news media, I think it is more important to inform Canadians about what a news channel modeled on Fox News will actually deliver. While we can only speculate on what SUN TV will ultimately contain, it certainly appears to be a Canadian version of Fox News, built on a mix of news reporting (from SUN media staff) and opinion. Teneycke's past calls for a Canadian version of Fox News and his characterization of the new channel as "unapologetically patriotic," in contrast to the supposedly "smug, condescending, and politically correct journalism" of the mainstream certainly seems akin to the Fox News model.
However, it should be plainly stated, the Fox News model is barely "news" in any sense that we understand the term here in Canada. Indeed, Fox News -- and I am speaking here specifically of its news content -- not opinion, has violated perhaps every standard of journalistic practice in its brief 15 year history. For instance, Fox News has plagiarized -- typos and all -- from a Republican press release and tried to pass it off as legitimate reporting; Fox News has altered photos without informing their audience that the images had been manipulated; they have reported factually inaccurate news items that disparage Democrats; they have used "conservative blogs" as a supposedly credible news source; skewered statistics to bolster Republican politicians and have routinely failed to fact-check news stories.
All of these violations have not sat well with those Fox News employees who actually have some modicum of journalistic integrity. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, "several" former Fox employees "complained of 'management sticking their fingers' in the writing and editing of stories to cook the facts to make a story more palatable to right-of-center tastes." Said one former employee: "I've worked at a lot of news organizations and never found that kind of manipulation."
Indeed the infamous daily "internal news memos" from management that direct Fox News staff on what stories to cover and what slant to take illustrate the degree of control that management attempts to exact upon reporters to ensure the "right kind of story."
So what has been the result of such shoddy journalism and ethical malpractice? A 2003 Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) out of the University of Maryland found that 80 per cent of regular Fox News viewers were likely to harbour one or more misperceptions about the Iraq war. In contrast, for National Public Radio/Public Broadcasting Service viewers, only 23 per cent held false beliefs.
The PIPA study showed that 67 per cent of regular Fox News viewers it surveyed believed that there was direct evidence linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda, despite the fact that the U.S. government itself has publicly admitted there were no links. Thirty-three per cent of Fox News viewers believed that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were found after the American invasion of Iraq, despite the conclusions of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) that Iraq had no stockpiles of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons before the US-led invasion. Lastly, 35 per cent of Fox News viewers surveyed believed that world opinion favoured the U.S. invasion of Iraq, despite the fact that the majority of world opinion was vehemently opposed to such an action. In every category the PIPA study considered, Fox News viewers consistently displayed the highest level of misperception and false belief -- beliefs that directly translated into support for the war.
That an audience can be so misinformed about the issues surrounding one of the most important decisions a nation can make -- whether or not to go to war -- is a damning indictment of Fox News and its ability to inform its viewership. Summing up these findings, media critic Robert McChesney notes that:
"For any self-respecting journalist, if you're told that the more people that consume your media, the less they will know about the subject and the more they will support government policy ...that's the worst thing a journalist should want to hear."
Certainly, this should be our major concern with the introduction of our very own Fox News North here in Canada. If SUN News TV follows the Fox News model, we can expect to have a highly misinformed segment of our population that will base their political decisions on erroneous and specious information. Perhaps the only thing more dangerous than an apathetic and disengaged electorate would be an electorate -- duly stoked with demagoguery -- acting on myths and falsehoods. Our democracy can only be as strong and vibrant as the information its citizens act upon. To invite a Fox News North into our political debate will not be a guarantee of diversity, but rather a guarantee that our political discourse will only become further impoverished.
Simon Enoch is director of the Saskatchewan office for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He holds a PhD in Communication and Culture from Ryerson University.
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