Fox News' cable coverage of the death of a promiscuous sex symbol approximated its Iraqi war coverage. During the first quarter of 2007, Fox News devoted 10 percent of its coverage time to Anna Nicole Smith, compared to 15 percent to the Iraqi war.
Anna Nicole Smith on cover of Playboy in June 1993. (Wikipedia)
Smith, a former Playboy Playmate, had married in 1994 the 89-year-old Texas oil magnate J. Howard Marshall, who was worth $1.6 billion. He was 63 years older than Smith and died the next year, launching a lengthy inheritance battle between Smith and Marshall's son. Smith became a reality TV star and tabloid celebrity.
Between her death on Feb. 8 and burial in late March, the Smith saga garnered widespread attention on cable news programs and network morning television, none more than that on the Fox News Channel, a cable network that conservatives watch religiously.
MSNBC and CNN were much more concerned about the war in Iraq than with Smith. CNN devoted 25 percent of its coverage to the war and 4 percent to Smith. MSNBC allocated 31 percent of its time to the war and 6 percent to the controversial former stripper, according to a section in a study by The Project for Excellence in Journalism.
PEJ is part of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan "fact tank" that does public opinion polling and analyzes news coverage.
The network morning TV coverage was similar to that of MSNBC and CNN. CBS's "Early Show" devoted 6 percent of its time to Smith, compared to 4 percent for NBC's "Today" and 3 percent for ABC's "Good Morning America."
Not only did Fox News offer less coverage of the Iraq war, it provided less coverage of the firings of the U.S. attorneys, another issue that reflects negatively on the Bush administration.
Only 2 percent of Fox's total news time focused on the crisis around Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, compared to 4 percent for CNN and 8 percent for MSNBC.
The PEJ report provides evidence of what critics have charged about Fox News' bias in favor of the Bush administration, despite the cable TV's claim of "fair and balanced" reporting.
Fox News clearly downplayed bad news for the Bush administration—the war in Iraq and the scandal with Gonzales.
Fox News clearly played up a sexually titillating story about a woman who left the paternity of her five-month-old daughter in question with several men claiming to be the father.
Fox News' political chicanery diverts the public attention from news that matters--the terrible war and political corruption--to fake news: how did Anna Nichole Smith die and who is the real father?
If religion was the opiate of the masses in the 19th century, then sexual scandal is the opiate of mass communication in the 21st century, dulling the moral senses of cultural and religious conservatives.
None should be more outraged about what Fox News has done than conservatives who claim to be the real patriots and keepers of traditional morality. Diverting attention from war to sexual promiscuity is hardly "pro-American" and "pro-family."
Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, perhaps Fox News viewers have watched that cable network for so long that they can no longer detect the real nature of the water, leaving them unaware of the danger posed by TV executives and hosts, who apparently don't want the public focused on what really matters.
When Fox News anesthetizes the public, neither an informed democracy nor the common good are served.
Isn't it time for religious conservatives to change the channel?
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
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