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Eric Burns: Fox News Does Not Air 'Irresponsible Right-Wing Ranting'
The host of Fox News Channel's media program "Fox News Watch" insists that neither his network nor fellow Fox host Bill O'Reilly are "unabashedly conservative."

By Patrick Phillips
I Want Media, 06/05/03

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Channel's "Fox News Watch," a program analyzing the news media's coverage of the major stories of the day, airing Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET with repeat air times through Mondays.

Each week, Burns engages in discussions of media issues with regular panelists Jim Pinkerton of Newsday, Jane Hall of American University, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, and media writer and author Neal Gabler.

Burns, who also writes a column for, spoke with I Want Media about why he believes Fox News has "less cynicism" than the other cable news networks, why public distrust of Jayson Blair-like inaccuracies in the press is justified, and why Fox News may one day become "a little old and tired like CNN."

I Want Media: What is "Fox News Watch" about? What's its mission?

Eric Burns: To analyze the performance of the media in the week past. We look back not over the news, but over the way the news was covered. And we try to spot a variety of things -- too much coverage, too little coverage, accurate coverage, politically biased coverage, sensationalized coverage.

IWM: What kind of viewer feedback are you getting? What are viewers concerned about?

Burns: They're most concerned about political bias and accuracy. And, of course, a lot of people lump those two concerns together, believing that if a media outlet is politically biased it ipso facto can't be accurate.

IWM: What do your viewers say about political bias in news? Do they say they see a lot of it?

Burns: Yes, and more liberal bias than conservative bias. One of the reasons Fox News Channel has been as successful as it has is that there are a vast number of people who for many years believed that all television news sources were liberally biased. That's a charge not made against Fox.

And because so many people feel this way, once a network came along that quite obviously did not have a liberal bias, those people who were opposed by what they perceived to be the liberal bias of the other media were drawn to Fox.

IWM: How is your show different from "Reliable Sources" on CNN, which also covers the news media?

Burns: "Reliable Sources" very often, if not every week, has guests. They'll have, for instance, a journalist who covered a certain story. And they seem to be perhaps a little more concerned with presenting information rather than opinion.

Jeff Cohen, a former panelist on "Fox News Watch," used to say "Reliable Sources" is a media apology show while "News Watch" is a media criticism show. I have never seen "Reliable Sources" when I've heard the media really being analyzed.

They'll often have a guest on, and they'll present information from this journalist. But if you have a guest on like that, chances are you're not using that guest to analyze or criticize the media. You're asking him how he happened to gather his particular story.

The assumption of our show is that people already know the story. Therefore, the goal of our show is to have our regular panelists, people of wildly differing political persuasions, analyze what was covered.

IWM: The Jayson Blair controversy at the New York Times was the lead topic of one of your recent shows. Has it tarnished journalism?

Burns: Any paper, any television network could conceivably have hired Jason Blair. I would like to think most outlets would have fired him more quickly. But there are many people out there who have suspected not only the Times but all journalists of inaccuracies anyhow.

One of the reasons that Blair was able to escape for so many years was that the Times apparently never got a phone call of complaint [about Blair's inaccuracies]. And the probable reason is that so many people expect the media to get it wrong anyhow that they figured this was just one more example.

And it's justified. About a month ago, I was asked to represent Fox at a luncheon for Eric Alterman's book, "What Liberal Media?" At one point I was called on to speak.

A media trade publication covered the luncheon and quoted one sentence of mine. And in that one sentence were two mistakes -- two mistakes in one sentence! Somebody said to me, did you call them [to request a correction]? I said, no, I didn't call them. First of all, it's only one sentence in an article. Nobody remembers it.

But I also think I probably felt the same way that a lot of Jayson Blair's victims did. Would they run a correction based on my words? Because obviously this reporter was going to say that he got it right. Very dismaying, very dismaying.

IWM: A moment ago you mentioned that Fox News is not perceived to have a liberal bias. In fact, it often receives criticism for presenting a "gung-ho, right wing, pro-Bush administration" approach to the news. What's your response to such criticism?

Burns: I think the fairest thing to say is that you have to compare it to other sources of news. In other words, I don't think Fox stands in isolation. Fox seems, to some people, to be a more conservative media outlet than CNN because of CNN's leftward tilt.

Fox presented its information about the war [in Iraq] with more obvious patriotism and with less cynical questioning than did some other networks. And I don't think it did that at the expense of accuracy at all.

We're so used in this country, in the post-Vietnam era, to seeing the media in an adversarial role when it comes to the government and military action. When a network like Fox drops some of that adversarial role and takes the government often -- although not always -- at its word, it seems to be toadying to the government.

In fact, it is more accurate to criticize other networks for their constant cynicism than it is to criticize Fox for a generally more accepting attitude. I think there is a little less cynicism at Fox.

IWM: In a recent New Yorker article, Ken Auletta wrote that Fox News is "blatantly opinionated and conservative, and the news is delivered by people who themselves are unabashedly opinionated and conservative." Is this just more carping from "liberal media"?

Burns: I don't like to get into name-calling. But as even Eric Alterman admits in his book that just savages the media for being conservative, Bill O'Reilly -- and I'm starting with the first of Fox's prime-time opinion shows -- cannot be considered unabashedly conservative. There are major issues on which he disagrees with conservatives. I don't know what O'Reilly is, frankly, politically. I truly don't. He is so obviously independent in his views.

IWM: You don't feel that Bill O'Reilly is conservative?

Burns: I feel that he's conservative on some issues, yes, without question. But, as pointed out in Alterman's book, there are major issues on which O'Reilly is very much a liberal. I don't think O'Reilly is easily identifiable -- no, I don't.

The next show is "Hannity & Colmes," and that's one liberal and one conservative. Then the next show is Greta Van Susteren, who -- I don't know what she is, frankly. But I've heard her described as more liberal than conservative. When I see her show, I can't really tell.

Fox probably gives voice to more conservatives than the other networks. But not at the expense of liberals. And to give voice to more conservatives is, in my view, a form of fairness. Because a lot of these people didn't have a voice in the media before.

IWM: Ken Auletta, who wrote The New Yorker article I mentioned, said in a recent interview with I Want Media that he believes Fox News chief Roger Ailes is "setting the agenda for 24-hour news." Would you agree?

Burns: Well, yeah, there's some truth to that. Certainly it was Fox that started relying heavily on opinion shows in prime time. Before Fox came along both CNN and MSNBC were running more conventional news programs.

But I don't think you can find a show on Fox that is unabashedly conservative. As I said, O'Reilly goes both ways, Hannity and Colmes are split, Greta Van Susteren is certainly not a right winger.

But the lesson that MSNBC -- well, CNN, too -- seems to have learned from Fox is that there are many conservatives out there, so they should go after conservatives as well. CNN has not been successful. It had conversations with Rush Limbaugh not long ago about doing a show. And MSNBC hired Michael Savage, who seems to be nothing more than a hatemonger.

But to the extent that Roger Ailes has set an agenda, it is in many cases an agenda misinterpreted. Fox does not provide -- regardless of what Ken Auletta says -- any irresponsible right-wing ranting on the air. But MSNBC has decided that the way to cope with Fox is to go much further than Fox, and present an irresponsible right-wing ranter like Michael Savage.

IWM: CNN and MSNBC are not performing as well as Fox News. Why is that?

Burns: Because there are so many people out there who believe that they cover the news with a liberal bias. But other factors are involved, too. I think CNN has gotten a little old and tired, which 20 years down the road will happen to Fox. That's inevitable. Every successful television show reaches a point at which it becomes a little complacent and has to hire some new people, change the format, come up with some new ideas.

What was unfortunate for CNN was that it reached this point of tiredness just at the same time that there was a very healthy competitor coming into the field. So the disparity between Fox and CNN was exacerbated.

IWM: Bill O'Reilly is regarded as the king of cable news right now. Why is he popular with so many viewers?

Burns: Like a number of politicians in the past, he has captured the right populist tone in his voice. Which is to say, he has the knack for finding the right issues to discuss. I used to fill in as host for that show during my first couple of years at Fox when he was on vacation. And I was struck by the fact that it was the only one of the news and opinion shows that would devote segments to stories you've never heard of.

And second, O'Reilly obviously has a knack for articulating views that a lot of people out there feel. There are a lot of people out there who are fed up with government, or fed up with these people who go on talk shows just to promote their own agendas. They love the idea that there's an interviewer so aggressively questioning them.

IWM: What's Bill O'Reilly like in person? Is he as aggressive in real life?

Burns: I can't comment on Bill's personality because I know him very superficially. He's extremely busy. He comes in, he does his radio show and then goes right in his office to prepare the TV show. Plus, he writes what he calls the talking points at the beginning of his show. So he's barricaded in a radio studio or his office or in production meetings with his staff most of the day.

To do a daily hour of which you switch topics every segment is like doing six totally different shows. When I hosted his show while he was on vacation it was the hardest job I've ever had in television.




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