I missed the wacky behaviour – “Barack-orama”? – of Diane Sawyer on ABC News. I missed the guy on the same channel who said, “This may be the last election we see two white men run against each other for president.” I missed TVNZ’s Tim Wilson looking, according to one commentator, like Sigmund Freud. Sadly, I didn’t miss One News’ Jack Tame’s nerve-shattering 3-Minute Guide to the US Election, during which he kept shouting “El Presidente!” It was possibly a prescient tribute to the crucial role of the Hispanic vote in 2012. There had to be some reason for it.
Mostly I was stuck, as if by some toxic industrial-strength epoxy adhesive, to Fox News, the American right-wing cable channel, the closest approximation we’re likely to get in my lifetime to stumbling upon a rogue transmission from Mars. Depending on your point of view, the channel is “fair and balanced” or, as The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart prefers, “Bullshit Mountain News”.
These two spectacularly incompatible realities collided with considerable force on election night. During the lead-up, such Fox stalwarts as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity – “We’ve seen what your ‘hopey, changey’ thing has brought us all,” sneered Hannity – whipped themselves up into such a pro-Romney frenzy that if he didn’t win, you feared their heads would explode. Which is pretty much what happened. Guests on their shows contributed to the general air of reckless optimism. “We’re going to win by a landslide,” declared contributor Dick Morris. “I will be back on Wednesday night for the victory party,” cried columnist Ann Coulter.
Cooler minds had crunched numbers. As an Obama win became increasingly certain, the headless chookery at Fox made compelling television. It was also a case study in the denialist mindset, where the only data that matters is what proves what you thought in the first place. Fox revealed itself to be not so much a conservative cable news channel as a cult whose believers – the sort of people who take a back-to-basics view of education – seem to have a poor grasp of maths. The wheels really started to come off when the channel called Ohio for Obama. Fox commentator Karl Rove disagreed. Thus the extraordinary sight of anchor Megyn Kelly leaving the desk and tottering off to confront her own channel’s decision desk, where a startled geek informed her the call had a 99.95% chance of accuracy. Rove was still not having a bar of it.
Even before this unarguable statistic, fact was inexorably gaining the upper hand. Megyn put a highly revealing question to Rove: “Is this just maths that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better or is this real?” This is a question I will be storing away for future use, with a little tweaking, when dealing with denialists of climate change, the Holocaust, evolution, HIV/Aids …
As the truth slowly dawned on the bewildered faces at Fox, the waves of schadenfreude washing about the globe reached such a critical mass they probably presented a hazard to shipping. Then came the anger. Several commentators proclaimed bizarrely that if the country had the demographics of the Reagan years, Mitt Romney would have romped home. “It’s not a traditional America any more,” railed a grim-faced O’Reilly. “The white establishment is now the minority.”
What Stewart described as “the voters’ inexplicable decision to be less white” somehow came as a shock at Fox. Or, as Hannity described his bruising confrontation with reality the next day, “It’s like you got punched in the head and it’s like ow! Whoah! Hello!” Many commentators blamed what Sarah Palin called “the complicit lapdogs” in the mainstream media. What the Fox election coverage demonstrated was, paradoxically, the invaluable role of the mainstream media in a world of niche information. Hearing only the news that confirms your own beliefs and prejudices is a one-way ticket to Bullshit Mountain.
FOX NEWS, Sky TV 092.