Fred Argy, respected intellectual v Patrick, rugby fan

Fred Argy has written a letter to the AFR protesting changes to cross-media laws. In it appears, to me at least, the incredible implicit assertion that Fox News is bad for American democracy. Because I think he is an intelligent man and I quite respect his opinion on most subjects, and so as to reassure myself that it is he and not I who have taken ideological leave of their senses, I’ve highlighted the relevant parts below:

Australians seem extraordinarily apathetic about the planned watering down of the cross-media ownership rules and the prospect of increased media concentration – even though our news media is already one of the most concentrated in the developed world. Three types of arguments are being advanced to calm public fears. One is that Australia’s news media is commercially driven: it has no political agenda of its own and no impact on voting patterns. A second is that the internet is providing a major alternative source of news. And the third argument is that we are amply protected by existing competition laws. All three arguments are highly questionable. One can argue that the opinions expressed in newspaper editorials and opinion pages don’t matter greatly. However, the presentation of news – what editors choose to highlight and how – has a very significant impact on political outcomes. Two groups of well-respected American economists ( from Yale and from the National Bureau of Economic Research) recently examined the evidence and concluded that in the past few US elections, media bias (slanting the news in favour of one political party or the other) had a significant effect on voting patterns. Both studies found, for example, that pro-Republican news bias by the Fox News Channel played a crucial role in the final outcome of the 2000 election. This is of particular relevance to Australia where the Murdoch press dominates national and capital city news markets. The internet is certainly growing in importance but a recent survey found that less than 3 per cent of Australian voters relied on it as their main source of news. As for the present merger provisions of the Trade Practices Act, they have been greatly weakened by the amendments that passed the Senate last month. Schedule one of the Dawson bill will tend to enable big business mergers and acquisitions, including among media companies. Against this background, Australians should be very concerned about the recent acquisition by News Ltd of a 7.5 per cent stake in John Fairfax (with a further increase allowable). With Fairfax shareholdings widely scattered, this move by Murdoch threatens a further increase in media concentration. The other is the government attempt to stifle the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ability to reflect the wider diversity of political views in Australia, including the soft left perspective much despised by our Prime Minister. All this is happening when efforts are being made to silence other voices of political dissent in Australia, from Senate committees, independent statutory bodies and non-government organisations (such as charities, community legal centres, youth, Aboriginal and environmental groups) – and when the flow of official information is being increasingly restricted and government advertising is stretching the limits of legitimacy. Australia still has one of the most vibrant democracies in the world but it is coming under serious threat.

What kind of ‘crucial role‘ do they mean? Do they mean ‘as opposed to the non-crucial role of pro-Democrat bias by the rest of the media world‘?? Is Fred not taking the kind of reasoning he imputes to John Howard with respect of the ABC, presumably with disapproval, and applying it to ‘the soft-1 perspective much despised by‘ Fred Argy in equal measure? To go into a little more detail, I do think media bias is real, significant and inevitable, which might lead to thinking that I too am in favour of mandated diversity. However, I also think that people aren’t influenced by X, Y or Z despite themselves remember the old joke about Rupert’s spotting a niche in the news market of about 150 million Americans! Media bias reflects its proponents and caters to its consumers the Age might be biased because it is a refuge for softly-intellectual lazy leftism, but it only influences people who tend softly-leftly themselves. For example, it doesn’t influence me one way or another because I don’t read it. I am pretty sincere here, and more than ready to hear that I am an ideologically blinded nut if that is what people think. So what do you think: mandated diversity is a linchpin of our democracy, or this is all part of a Howardian plot to promote the Australian permanent majority? (I apologise for reproducing the whole thing in blatant breach of copyright, but I wanted to pre-empt any accusations of bad faith if Fred objects, even though he no longer has any copyright in this, I will take this down)

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17 years ago

It appears that any pro-Republican bias in Fox News made little difference in last week’s congressional elections. Or maybe Fred is saying that the thumping would have been a super-thumping without Fox News.

I’m very dubious about the extent (if any) that op-ed commentaries in media have much influence in elections. If they did surely we’d have a republic by now and a Labor government in Canberra these last ten years.

I’ve noticed that many people who consider themselves intellectuals have a contemptuous attitude to us hoi-polloi. We can’t think for ourselves, we are plasticene in the hands of the media and manipulative advertisers.

I’ve not heard the Murdoch niche joke, Patrick, but I like it! It has a great ring of truth from what I read about the American media.

Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

The thing about Fox is that it gives every impression of being orchestrated and directly biased, rather than simply ideologically biased. What I mean by that is that it starts campaigns. (I’m not deeply knowledgeable about this so perhaps I need correcting) but Fox seems to start campaigns – like the bizarre one that Al Gore was an ‘exaggerator’ (Gasp!)! They do what they can to get issues ‘running’ and since the media exist in a self-referential echo-chamber this is very effective at getting issues running which then gain their own momentum. I don’t know of any left of centre bias in the MSM that is as cynical as that.

17 years ago

Dan Rather got the boot because he was publicising fabricated evidence about Bush. It was only Blogs that did him in.That’s about as cynical as you can get.

Re Gore.

i lived there during that campaign. Gore was a dislikable candidate who did come across exaggerating his accomplishments. Yes , it may be true that Fox mocked him incessantly but after the Clinton cynicism lots of people seemed to have had enough of distortions of truth. Gore had a tin ear when it came to that as he couldn’t seem to read the people well at all. In any event Fox would be only preaching to the converted anyway.

You’re also giving Fox too much credit. They have a fraction of the audience carried by the MSM. Sure it has been growing but it is still small and was smaller during the 00 campaign.

Fox viewers may be conservative, and CNN viewers are left of centre. CNN was not called the C(linton) N(ews) (N)etwork for nothing.

Nothing wrong with bias as long as it privately paid for. Murdoch is a genius. In an overcrowded market with competitors holding strong franchses he found an audience for his product. Market segmentation and product differention does work.

david tiley
17 years ago

There’s nothing wrong with bias as long as its divergent.

Talk about a conflation of ideas. My head hurts. The question of media diversity, or even media depictions of the world, is tricky to handle.

I run an internet trade magazine which carries links to mainstream media. I get to read the papers in my sector comprehensively all the time, and then collide what they say with my own (limited) discussions with the people who are the subject of media attention. It’s not a pretty sight, even from the broadsheet press, and I have to say the national broadcasters are streets ahead of anyone else.

The deeper bias is that politicians are venal, the government is stupid, and that journalists know better than decisionmakers. Take one recent example. ‘The Glass house’ has been ‘axed’ and the ABC spent a week being told it was possibly a political decision relating to pressure from the Government. And that it was stupid. The entire press apparatus united to say it was a scandal and deeply painful to the artists etc etc. They had all talked to Courtney Gibson, the relevant person in the ABC. They quoted her selectively to appear stupid. I know all this because I did my own interview with Courtney, in which she presented a lucid explanation of the decision, and why it had nothing to do with the government, and why the audience might benefit.

But of course there is no story if you say this. The definition of “story” being someone making a dreadful mistake which can be detected by wise people from the press.


People who live in one proprietor communities live in a monoscopic world. It is not so much that it is politically biassed as it is reduced. Why do you think so many Americans still believe that Iraq did indeed attack the World Trade Center?
You feel folded into one set of concerns, one judgement about what you want. It certainly creates a hugely frustrating experience of politics for the participants. No matter what you do, the community will be told you are a nong, while the other side are wonderful.

Fox is extraordinary in this regard. The contempt, the mocking, the bullying I think does evil things to the body politic. To use a very extreme example, Rwanda radio had a vital role to play inciting the massacres. Almost literally stirring up racial hatred.

Various countries at various times place huge value on propaganda. In the West, we spend billions on advertising. The people who do this are not stupid – they know we as a social species are prone to manipulation. Just why did you buy that particular car again?


There is a huge amount wrong with our public commmunications system. There is no perfect model. But one tool we have to minimise the problem is to ensure media diversity. That means diversity of ownership by organisations large enough to cut through the chatter and compell the attention of large numbers of people.

It is a practical rather than theoretical decision.

The film industry, to seem to change the subject, has acquiesced in the idea that film should have one federal super agency. It is an extremely bad idea and we will regret it a lot.

17 years ago

The thing about Fox is that it gives every impression of being orchestrated and directly biased, rather than simply ideologically biased. What I mean by that is that it starts campaigns.

What? Like Seven Sunrise‘s ridiculous Cool The Globe wankfest?

Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

Great comment David. I thought the decision to axe the Glass House was fine. They axe shows all the time on the ABC. It had had a good run, had done a good job and then their run came to an end.

17 years ago

Fox is extraordinary in this regard. The contempt, the mocking, the bullying I think does evil things to the body politic.

Right, well given your next sentence maybe I had better pre-emptively kill kos’n’co, hadn’t I? Or for that matter even Tim Dunlop’s commenters.

Just why did you buy that particular car again?

Speak for yourself – I really appreciate advertising (when it is good), and if I bought a car it would be because it met my wife and my needs and desires.

But one tool we have to minimise the problem is to ensure media diversity.

By which you mean mandating the preservation of those idiot voices from Fox et al? Why not have some faith in Mill Jnr’s thesis – or perhaps focus your concerns on the schools that produce semi-literate journalists and the vacuous consumers of their inane fluffery (difference: you were talking about Tele and Sun readers; I am talking about SmAge readers :) ).

Otherwise, I agree about your comments about journalists generally, and with N Gruen’s sentiments two posts up, and with your comments about our films. I suspect that if Canberra stopped caring whether we produced good, bad or any films, we would do just fine.

Fred Argy
Fred Argy
17 years ago

Patrick, I welcome criticism but I hate having my views distorted. Where, pray, did I say that “Fox News is bad for democracy”

17 years ago

Thank you for responding. I certainly didn’t want to distort your views, which is why I published the whole piece. Nor, indeed, did you say explicitly that ‘Fox news is bad for Democracy‘ – which is why I called it ‘incredible implicit assertion‘. I hope this response satisfies you as to my good faith to at least some extent.

And my question was quite sincere: I wanted to see what other Troppodillians thought as to whether I was ideologically deluded into seeing what was not there, and whether I was alone in not fearing Fox. Fwiw, I thought that there was one study about Fox and one about the WaPo.

I agree about the value of diversity, subject to N Gruen’s comments. I don’t agree with mandating diversity, which I think sustains the mentality Gruen critises whilst protecting bad ideas that might otherwise not survive. What do you suggest that one does to protect diversity anyway, given that Fairfax without Murdoch will soon cease to have any readers, leaving Murdoch with 100% of the newspaper market by default?

I agree that competition is great and that Murdoch is part of it. I also think that that means, if it means anything, letting good media prosper and poor media die. I pretty much don’t believe in ‘culturally valuable’ areas that must be protected from the market, mainly because history shows that every area is such an area until it is not protected from the market when it just magically gets better and stops being culturally significant. If you are worried about bias and voting, I stick to what I responded to David Tiley – worry about education (a subject on which we may agree more).

On that note, real monopolies are very rare – I don’t see Murdoch getting one, even if Fairfax folds under its own weight or he buys it. Others will set up, and against the odds as conventionally calculated they will survive, endure and eventually prosper.

As for Fox personally I suspect that Fox is much less a danger, precisely because its bias is so easily identified, than papers like the NYT (ie we release details of a legal program to monitor international financial transactions that plays a role in making terrorism harder to support and operate and has never been abused at all, because prominent right-wing figures not actually involved with the administration have criticised us nastily (no official link)), who pretend that they are only presenting the critical truth when half the time they wouldn’t know it if it bit them in the bum and half the time they are not even trying – see eg David Tiley’s comments.


A quick digression on that study: Given their statement that every other major news network is actually left-biased by their preferred indicator, this is perhaps one of the key sentences for me:

The impact of Fox News on voting appears to be due, at least in part, to the mobilization of voters, and particularly conservative voters in Democratic-leaning districts.

That suggests very strongly that Fox was good for American democracy by increasing the number of people who were not getting enough information from their left-biased news sources, and who with that motivation decided to vote Republican.

Although for you, the following appears:

The Fox News effect is smaller in towns with more cable channels: an increase of 10 cable channels (.7 standard deviations) reduces the effect by .2 percentage points. When the Fox News message competes with a larger number of channels, its impact appears diminished (Mullainathan and Shleifer, 2005). The lower Fox News impact result could reflect exposure to more balanced reporting (though CNN and the network news are available in all towns in the sample) or merely lower audience rates for Fox News when more channels are available.

Or, of course, just that towns with more cable channels contain more rusted-on lefties..

very interesting is the following:

The change in vote share for Republicans is more positive in towns with fewer college graduates, fewer blacks and Hispanics, and higher unemployment in 2000. The change in vote share is also positively correlated with decreases in the number of blacks and decreases in the number of unemployed workers between 1990 and 2000.

In other words, places that were better off under Bush!

I note also that their ‘persuasion rates’ are at the lower end of the literature on such tools as advertising and telephone marketing.

17 years ago

media diversity is a canard, I live in a city with ONE newspaper, as does almost everyone.