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How AMERICAN Is It?

It's easy to hate Fox News — it's loud, simplistic and relentlessly self-promoting. Its slogans — "Real journalism, fair and balanced" and "We report, you decide" — are repeated over and over, like a spin doctor's mantras, until they drum themselves into your skull. In fact, much of the time, Fox reports and decides, all in one breath, and the decisions invariably favor the Republicans. Fox's anchors — Shepard Smith, Bill O'Reilly, John Gibson, Neil Cavuto, et al. — are cocksure city slickers who operate in a doubt-free zone. They don't just present the news, they enact it with their body language, wisecracks and smirks.

But Fox, the news channel liberals love to hate, is now the top-rated cable outlet in the nation, leaving "the most trusted name in news," CNN, in the dust. Why? Well, putting aside the awkward revelations of CNN's chief news executive, Eason Jordan, about his rather cozy prewar relationship with Saddam's regime, and the way ex-CNN star Peter Arnett took to Iraqi state TV like a duck to water, perhaps it's because Fox proudly presents itself as an American network, as opposed to a global one that just happens to be located within our borders. In wartime, that's what you call home-court advantage.

Then there's the fact that, unlike CNN's Aaron Brown and its fumbling new presenter, Anderson Cooper, the anchors at Fox still exude confidence in kick-ass capitalism and good old-fashioned American know-how. Sure, things are a little chaotic in Iraq, they seem to say, but we'll sort it out. We're Americans, for chrissakes — of course we'll sort it out. How the hell do you think we got to be a superpower in the first place?

A good example of Fox's can-do, self-confident take on the world occurred on its contrarian, freewheeling afternoon news roundup, The Big Story With John Gibson. A pale, frosty-haired anchor who looks like a ghost with an attitude, Gibson was discussing the knotty problem of who has legal authority over Iraq's oil following the demise of Saddam's regime. "Apparently," he said mock-pleadingly, "we have to go back to the Security Council and say, 'Oh, please, give us the right to sell it on behalf of the Iraqi people.'"

Gibson then interviewed Bill O'Grady, a commodities and futures analyst for A.G. Edwards. O'Grady, who wore a bow tie, laid out the intricacies of the situation with a worrywart's relish. At the moment, he explained, no one has the right to sell Iraq's oil, since the Iraq state oil company, the only organization authorized by the U.N. to do so, no longer exists. The quick way to jump-start Iraq's economy would be for the U.S. to sell the oil rather than the U.N., but there's an image problem. We've told the world we didn't invade Iraq to fill up our SUVs, but if we create an entity to sell the oil, it may look that way to Muslims . . .

Gibson seemed exasperated by this dilly-dallying display of global sensitivity. "But Bill," he said, "I fail to see how this is such a big deal. I mean, a bunch of international lawyers could come in and say, 'Okay, we've set up this entity, it belongs to the Iraqi people, this guy's administering it, these people are looking at the books' . . . What's the problem?"

"The problem is that you've got to have somebody to run it," O'Grady replied.

"Well, you pick somebody."

"Well, yeah, but who do you pick?" O'Grady persisted. "Do you pick a Sunni? Then the Shiites are upset. Do you pick a Kurd? Then the Turks and others are upset . . ."

O'Grady went on piling up the dilemmas like a man who'd just read 20 New York Times op-ed pieces in a row, until finally Gibson had had enough. "All right, I get the complications," he conceded, "but it seems to me that somebody with a little common sense, as I'm sure you and I have, could just blow by this stuff."

Blow by this stuff — it was a classic Fox moment, and it summed up the divide between its approach to foreign policy and that of the media's more liberal outlets. While the latter are as obsessed with appearances and perceptions as a Broadway diva, Fox emphasizes getting the job done, and to hell with asking for anyone's approval. It's a "By their deeds (and their tax cuts) ye shall know them" kind of thing. In short, real men don't go to the Security Council. And for vast numbers of Americans, it plays.

 

Unfortunately for left-wing news junkies, the best cable-news alternative to Fox isn't CNN, it's CNN International (CNNI), the branch of CNN the rest of the world sees but which Americans normally don't. While the war was on, that changed, however, as CNN Financial (CNNfn), which has 24 million American subscribers, morphed into CNNI for the better part of a month. (CNNI still shows on CNNfn on the weekends, when markets are closed, and in the small hours of the morning during the week.) The differences from American CNN were revealing.

On CNNI, which reaches 170 million households in over 200 countries, there is no Aaron Brown or Judy Woodruff, and retired generals are as scarce as bleeding hearts on Fox. Instead there are anchors with names like Zain Verjee (a woman, in case you're wondering), Daljit Dhaliwal (ditto), Anand Naidoo (male) and Michael Holmes (Aussie, mate). This is an American network, but it's canny enough to present itself as a thoroughly denationalized one. Most of the accents are plummy upper-class English (the channel smacks more of the British Empire than of any putative American one), and the use of language is considerably more refined than it is on CNN. Anderson Cooper, who sprinkles his sentences with "kind of" and "like," wouldn't have a prayer at this outfit.

Unlike the domestic version, CNNI really is a global network (although it's also based in Atlanta), and during the war it often displayed a skepticism toward all things American that was just as pronounced as Fox's pro-war stance, if far more subtly delivered. Tailoring its news to a foreign audience, CNNI carried the Iraqi information minister's press conferences live, dwelled at length on civilian casualties and broadcast far more of Al-Jazeera's footage of American POWs than was permitted on U.S. TV. But the most telling discrepancy between CNNI and its domestic counterparts occurred during the live shot of Iraqis toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Al-Firdos Square. Whereas every American channel gave it the full-screen treatment — "There's a see-ya-later-buddy quality to this," crowed Fox's Brit Hume as the statue came down — CNNI reserved a quarter of the screen for footage of yet more Iraqi war-wounded it had just received from the Arabic network Al-Arabiya. The decision to do so was made in Atlanta, but the view of the war being promulgated was, broadly speaking, European-bordering-on-French.

Does articulate, in-depth reporting necessarily equal accurate, intelligent reporting? Sometimes, flicking between CNNI and Fox as the war was going on, it seemed doubtful. On occasion, CNNI's journalists combine impeccable cultural awareness with a complete lack of common-sense understanding. A good example was when Zain Verjee, having been told by a reporter that local Iraqis had persuaded American Marines to search a mosque because they thought some fedayeen were hiding there, asked if the Marines were aware of the sensitivity of entering an Islamic holy place. This after neighborhood Muslims had requested that they go there! That kind of thing is what you don't get on Fox.

But politics aside, CNNI is easily the most informative cable news channel in America. Serious without being deadly, it doesn't take its eye off the ball for hours on end to cover ratings bonanzas like Jessica Lynch or Laci Peterson, it doesn't launch jihads against Hollywood liberals, and its viewpoints are genuinely global. (Only 50 percent of the news originates in Atlanta; the rest comes from CNN's production centers in London, Hong Kong and elsewhere.) A further point about CNNI could be made: Although its target audience is overseas, its view of the world is probably closer to that of the average American journalist than can be seen on any of our domestic news services. Which does suggest that the much-vaunted divide between the "media elites" and the heartland isn't entirely mythical.

And that, of course, brings us back to Fox. Fair and balanced? Er, no. But entertaining, provocative, and on occasion smart? Absolutely.