At the onset of the Iraqi war of 2003, Saddam Hussein’s media clamored about the Baathist Army’s impending victory. Its conviction was so strong, you had to wonder if they possessed information the West was not privy to. Then, within hours of the invasion, the house of cards imploded. It was clear that Iraq’s State-run media had broadcast pure propaganda, not news.

Five years later, consider FOX News.

I was in Israel for a week, where the only American news station available on basic cable was FOX (Israel replaced CNN back in 2006 in retaliation from what it perceived as biased coverage of the Hezbollah war) – so this is what I was stuck with to keep up with TV election news.

Watching FOX for a whole week was frustrating to the core, but fascinating as a social experiment.

It truly felt like the Twilight Zone.

On the web, diverse polls and news sources seemed to convey momentum by the Obama campaign and its message. But if all you saw was FOX News, you’d bet McCain – and Palin – would be clear victors. You’d assume nobody in their right mind would ever vote for Obama – the communist, socialist, liar, and terrorist.

As an independent skeptical of all news stations and wanting to understand diverse perspectives, I tend to navigate between CNN, ABC, PBS, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, CNBC, and yes, FOX. On the web, I surf across an even broader spectrum of sources particularly including those I disagree with, to get an insight into the vantage point of viewers of Al Jazeerah, or Egyptian and Lebanese newspapers, then contrast those to Israeli news. I recognize that every station or every show has some slight or pronounced bias.

But FOX has migrated to a different league (closer to government-run propaganda mouthpieces detached from any sense of objectivity). Everyone that is not an ultra-conservative recognizes the irony of FOX’s “Fair and Balanced” moniker, which only accentuates its actual bias.

FOX had until recently been oriented to the right, but it remained a valuable source of information nevertheless. Not anymore.

Just like John McCain threw his lot with the base of the Republican Party by selecting Sarah Palin as his Vice-President, so too FOX seems to have decided it was to appeal, err, pander, to the far right, and give up any effort to appeal to independent viewers.

The transformation has been so deep that an impartial viewer cannot escape the opinion that FOX has given up on broadcasting news and committed to telling its viewers what they want to hear, substituting “information” for “affirmation”, and that the “affirmation” it is going for is of the basest kind, fomenting hatred, stereotypes, suspicions and divisions.

Sean Hannity’s coverage is so appalling, one cannot describe him as anything other than a whacko. A typical show expounded 10 reasons why Obama is unfit to be elected and included the typical innuendos about a “foreign” religion, about associating with terrorists, gangsters, and haters of America, about being a Marxist communist, and any other accusation that ordinary analysts would have rejected as baseless. How bad is he? He made me long for the time when Bill O’Reilly would come on and inject a sense of moderation to the discourse.

Then there is Megyn Kelly, whose cynical bullying of Obama spokesperson Bill Burton was recycled by FOX across all its shows with pride. How mean was she? So mean that an otherwise stunningly attractive anchorwoman appeared downright unattractive and repelling.

So why should this matter, to FOX and its viewers, or to others?

This matters deeply because a pillar of democratic discourse is a well informed electorate and a free and critical media. Critical to civilized discourse is the ability to be self-critical and to demand critical thinking. A failure to question politicians or policies critically tends to result in epic tragedies from the rise of Hitler to the more recent genocide in Rwanda.

America already suffers from a uniformed and increasingly polarized citizenry. FOX seems to eagerly accentuate and bank on this pattern.

This should also matter to conservatives, who are traditionally rigorous and disciplined thinkers. Should they permit FOX to caricature political events and developments, this will cause enormous harm to the conservative movement.

America – and the world – perform best when the marketplace of ideas is vibrant, when opposing ideologies can be debated on their merits, and a common ground can be found.

Part of the harm we are witnessing from the financial crisis right now – and the backlash against capitalism – emanates from unfettered consumerism and knee-jerk commercialization and commodification that have not been counter-balanced by other considerations or ideologies. Communism is of course not an answer. But enlightened capitalism (otherwise known also as social capitalism, socially responsible business behavior, conscientious capitalism, and similar variations) would be a far more balanced and nuanced ideology to pursue.

If FOX as the strategic refuge of conservatives continues to transform itself into an extreme partisan, uncritical pandering machine, it will not just cause harm to the right, but also to American discourse as a whole. It will also eventually become a joke and face desertion from educated conservatives who want to understand what is truly going on.

A friend recently spoke with Rupert Murdoch, who let him understand he is not as conservative as his media outlets – he just saw a business opportunity by appealing to an audience that had been neglected by “liberal” media. That may be fine. But media should have a role and responsibility to report news – for its own sake also.

As elections approach on November 4th, either we will find out that FOX knew something that other media sources did not understand, or its logic and its house of cards, too, will fall.

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