On the eve of the Alberto Gonzales confirmation hearings for attorney general, Fox's Bill O'Reilly was doing what he likes best Wednesday night, uncorking a verbal tirade against guests who believe -- unlike Gonzales -- that the U.S. should observe the guidelines of the Geneva Convention. Torture, Iraq and patriotism were all bound up in a typical us vs. them "debate." And the best part for Fox News? It had nothing to do with the tsunami that devastated South Asia. To date, the news outlet has covered the disaster haltingly, exposing itself once again as, first and foremost, the home of angry Republicans.
Whereas rival CNN has torn up its regular programming and dispatched an army of staffers to the ravaged region, Fox News appears to be going through the motions on the colossal story. Rather than breaking news, Fox feeds off partisan sparks. And it's hard to get angry about a natural disaster because empathy does not lend itself to outrage -- although that hasn't stopped the high-priced talking heads at Fox from trying to turn the tsunami into a contentious issue.
If the Republican National Committee doesn't have an angle on the story, then neither, apparently, does Fox News. And the last time we checked, there were no GOP talking points on natural disasters of biblical proportions. The best Fox News could do in terms of political spin was to bolster claims by the Department of Defense that the Bush administration was not slow to react to the crisis. Fox also routinely referred to the White House's "initial" aid package as being worth $35 million, not the more accurate and paltry sum of $15 million. At one point during the Dec. 31 telecast, a picture of George Bush appeared in the upper left-hand corner of the Fox News screen with the words "Stop the Bush Bashing," according to News Hounds, a Fox News watchdog site.
Two things have become obvious to news consumers in the aftermath of the tsunami. The first is that even when faced with covering a global humanitarian crisis, Fox News is incapable of turning off its robotic partisanship, not to mention its ever-present sense of victimization. Secondly, Fox News can barely call itself a serious news-gathering operation. Fox News is "not a news station," argues filmmaker Robert Greenwald, whose 2004 film "Outfoxed" was critical of Rupert Murdoch's news operation. "They put their money and resources into paying O'Reilly and [Sean] Hannity millions and millions, not into having reporters and real journalists around the world."
Over the past few years that limited approach, along with Fox's healthy dose of attitude and laserlike focus on domestic issues, has been enough to propel the network to the heights of niche cable news ratings. But when pressed to actually report on a story of worldwide significance, the cable news outlet looks distinctly second class. Flipping back and forth between CNN and Fox News this week for tsunami reports is like hopping between a Cadillac and a Pontiac.
As the Financial Times noted this week, "While CNN, the only U.S. news network with a strong global presence, was able to mobilize its correspondents in the region and fly in big-name reinforcements, Fox had to rely on untested freelancers, some of whom appeared to have never stood in front of a television camera before."
On Wednesday afternoon during "Studio B," Fox host Shepard Smith kicked off the latest relief updates and touted Fox News' "team coverage" -- which consisted of a single reporter in Phuket, Thailand, and a lone reporter in the network's Washington bureau. Back on the night of Dec. 30, when CNN was going wall-to-wall with its tsunami coverage, Fox was airing, as the Los Angeles Times noted, a rerun of O'Reilly interviewing actress/fitness guru Suzanne Somers.
That's why Variety concluded, "The most comprehensive coverage of the catastrophe last week came from CNN, which reaped the full benefits of its 24/7 news cycle, robust international bureaus and savvy field reporting by hotshot anchor Anderson Cooper."
Cooper wasn't alone. CNN has roughly 75 staffers fanned out across the region, including "NewsNight's" Aaron Brown in Indonesia, and morning host Soledad O'Brien in Thailand. At broadcast networks, "CBS Evening News'" Dan Rather and "NBC Nightly News'" Brian Williams were both sent to the region to anchor broadcasts, as was ABC's Diane Sawyer, and scores of other celebrity journalists.
But not Fox News. With its competitors dispatching their A-teams to South Asia, Fox's big guns -- O'Reilly, Brit Hume, Tony Snow, Chris Wallace, Greta Van Susteren -- all remained safely ensconced inside East Coast studios. That's because they're not reporters but Beltway creatures of comfort, who rarely stray beyond the 202 and 212 area codes.
While Fox News seems oddly bored with the tsunami coverage, CNN does at times seem a bit too enthralled by the story. Its wall-to-wall coverage has been reminiscent of the media's weeklong Ronald Reagan wake last summer. Just as it was impossible to distinguish between Day One and Day Five of CNN's Reagan coverage (the endless Republican remembrances simply bled into one another), the same is true of its "Turning the Tide." This Wednesday's reporting on the massive relief effort wasn't that much different from last Wednesday's, and probably won't be much different from next Wednesday's.
While CNN deserves credit for its Herculean efforts, there's a nagging feeling that if its ratings didn't spike, viewers wouldn't be inundated with reports from South Asia. But spike they did. According to Nielsen Media Research, CNN was up 75 percent overall with an 81 percent peak during prime time. Fox News, though, saw just an 18 percent increase in overall viewers and fell 6 percent during prime time.
It's not surprising that CNN, with a vast upper hand in resources, particularly with CNN International, has cleaned Fox News' clock on a story halfway around the world. What has been rather startling is how alternately mean-spirited and indifferent Fox News' coverage has been. For instance, on Jan. 3 the "Fox News Sunday" round table of pundits spent as much time, if not more, making lighthearted predictions for sports and entertainment in 2005, as they did discussing the largest natural disaster in 40 years.
Mostly, though, the coverage has been nasty. Fox News host John Gibson bemoaned the fact that U.S. relief -- getting water, food and shelter to millions of destitute people -- might be part of an insurance scam to simply pay for the cost of rebuilding a resort community. "This is the travel industry, major big hotel companies," he said last week. "How is it that United States taxpayers are going to be convinced you have to build hotels in Phuket?" He worried aloud that "Thailand, Indonesia, India, the countries that got hit [will] say, 'We need dough and we need buckets of it to fix all this so Swedes can go on vacation in Phuket again.'"
O'Reilly blamed the "liberal press, which hates Bush" for criticizing his early response to the disaster, noting the initial $15 million pledge gave "secularists" an opening to go after Bush. (Secularists?) Belittling a Democratic strategist on his show, O'Reilly bellowed, "Nothing in your liberal world is going to be good enough. You guys -- you've got to get off your contempt, your hatred." Yet the only ones surrounding the tsunami coverage with hatred were the team at Fox News, which apparently feels naked without it.
O'Reilly also mocked Germany for only donating $27 million: "They're America's biggest critics, France, Germany. And they're just pounding us day in and day out. And they -- and when it comes down to crunch time, they don't have anything to give." Germany has since upped its pledge to nearly $700 million, dwarfing the U.S.'s aid package.
Meanwhile, Hannity decided that the wake of the killer tsunami was the perfect time to attack the United Nations: "The U.N. has proven themselves incapable, not trustworthy enough, to handle this or any other humanitarian effort." Hannity dismissed the suggestion of his guest, Bill Orme of the U.N. Development Program, that, "This is a time to concentrate on the victims of this troubled disaster and what we can do together to help them out first."
Of course, this being Fox News, it's not surprising that partisan pundits bungled the facts. Hannity blasted U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland for having "the unmitigated gall and audacity to lecture North America and America and the world about being stingy." Egeland did no such thing. And Fox-friendly pundit Ann Coulter accused former President Bill Clinton of attacking Bush in public for being too slow to respond to the disaster, which is patently false.
Leave it to Fox News to make the tsunami story about Clinton. And leave it to Fox to grow bored with the biggest natural disaster news story in nearly half a century.