WASHINGTON — Tired from a long, hard winter? Looking for a sunny getaway that won't break the family budget? Camp X-ray at Guantánamo Bay in tropical Cuba has fun for everyone.
Or at least, that was the word from Fox News last week. "Another young Afghan boy is saying that, contrary to complaints from Human Rights Watch, he had a wonderful time as a detainee at Guantánamo Bay," a Fox anchor reported. Fourteen-year-old Asad Olad returned from a 14-month stay at Gitmo with rave reviews. "[H]e spent his days watching movies, playing football, and going to class, where he says he was fascinated by lessons on the solar system," the anchor said.
Yes, better living through incarceration. We should all be so fortunate.
Asad's comments are not the issue here. If they are true, they are true and it's great he had such a fulfilling experience. But it seems odd to focus on one or two positive comments from detainees in a sea of negative comments and complaints of abuse.
But Fox doesn't concern itself with such trivialities. America, or more specifically the Bush administration, rarely does wrong; Democrats and "liberals" are making a mess of things; and the press is biased and untrustworthy.
In fact, many Fox segments aren't reports so much as little bits of media/societal deconstruction. Hollywood isn't full of "real people," but liberals. Women's magazines, like Cosmopolitan, are selling a liberal agenda. And were the media too easy on John Kerry for his open-mike slip about Republican "crooks" and "liars"? All of this, of course, comes under the heading of "fair and balanced" reporting, which is "a way of life" at Fox, according to its website.
Unhappy with Fox's characterizations of the news, liberals are fighting blather with blather - launching Air America, a radio network to offer their own picture of the world. It'll be a small, four-city operation when it debuts March 31, but it has big aspirations. "We are going to put it to Bush," says Al Franken, who will host one of the shows on the new network. "Bush is going down in November, and then we're putting it to the rest of the right-wing media."
All of which means, one assumes, that Franken and Co. will be dealing in the same one-sided, selective reporting that appears in Mr. Franken's books and the works of Michael Moore, another provocateur on the left.
So it is in 21st century America, where choice reigns even when it comes to what sort of news you are looking for. Don't like what you're hearing about the world on CNN? Try Fox. Is The Washington Post too conservative? Tune in Air America.
Of course, on its face, there is nothing wrong with any of this - though Fox's "fair and balanced" masquerading is at best good for a few laughs and at worst painfully dishonest. Opinion journalism has long been considered an important part of presenting a full picture of the news. That's why there's a section of the paper devoted specifically to it.
But we're seeing something different today. Traditional old-line outlets are being abandoned, according to a new study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. (I work for the Project and participated in researching and writing the report.) In the past 10 years, the number of people tuning in to network evening newscasts has fallen from more than 40 million to less than 30 million. Between 1990 and 2002, daily newspaper circulation declined at a rate of 1 percent a year. And remember, both those drops happened as the national population grew - meaning that the declines are actually much steeper than they appear.
Where are people turning? To smaller outlets that allow for more customizable news, and often to sources that validate viewpoints more than illuminate the larger world.
Opinion journalism is becoming less a way to round out the average American's news meal and more its main course. We've been living in the world of instant spin for some time, but we're now entering the world where the line between news and spin is vanishing. And of all the disquieting trends in journalism, this may be the most troubling because it touches on this country's ability to make decisions as a people.
Everyone has opinions, but for those opinions to be worth something, they have to be based on facts so that we can come up with an accepted version of reality. That's how democracy works. Some of the media are entering an age where facts are based upon opinion. And reality? Well, that all depends on whom you get your news from.