The light flickered and jumped.
A figure shifted on the couch, reached for the remote.
And then an explosion of noise came from the TV. “Shut up! Shut up!”
Fox News Channel star Bill O’Reilly was red-faced furious, again, and moving in for the strike.
Fox News, launched in 1996 to compete with CNN, reaches more than 90 million homes and, according to its press releases, dominates the cable news lineup, especially in prime time. At the top of the heap is O’Reilly, with the most-watched program on cable news — “The O’Reilly Factor.”
When critics challenge Fox’s claim that the network presents “fair and balanced” news, network executives sometimes bristle and O’Reilly shouts, “Shut up!”
But Media Matters says there is far more than political bias on the Fox News Channel: There are fabricated stories and rumors reported as fact, as well as consistent manipulation of photographs and video that distorts reports. Wisconsin residents might recall the video accompanying a Fox News broadcast reporting on the pro-union protests in Madison in February 2011. The snarling protesters were dressed in T-shirts and shirts, shaking their fists menacingly as they stood against a background of palm trees. Meanwhile, Madison lay buried in snow with temperatures hovering in the teens.
Media Matters also noted vitriol and venom in Fox commentary when the issues involve race, immigration, health care, women’s rights, LGBT equality and also the president.
As for Fox’s coverage of LGBT issues, media watchdog Carlos Maza said the network is “the primary promoter of LGBT disinformation.”
Maza is a researcher with Equality Matters, an initiative launched by Media Matters, the web-based nonprofit founded in 2004 to monitor for “news or commentary that is not accurate, reliable or credible and that forwards the conservative agenda.”
EM keeps tabs on right-wing groups such as the Family Research Council and Liberty Counsel and watches over the media for LGBT misinformation. Monitors watch the news from the early a.m. to the early a.m. to flag problematic coverage. “We have eyes on Fox basically all day long,” Maza said.
And a lot of flags go up.
At the Oct. 11–13 Values Voter Summit hosted in D.C. by the Family Research Council, a right-wing hate group, Fox personalities at the podium included Allen West, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Cal Thomas and Sandy Rios, who said ex-gays are everywhere but closeted because they are “maligned.” Homosexuality, she added, puts the lives of young men at risk and it is a “dangerous time to be a Christian conservative” because in the country today “good is called evil and evil is called good.”
Overall, with polls showing greater acceptance for gay people and majority support for marriage equality, Maza said he’s noticed shifts in how Fox’s broadcasts address LGBT issues.
On marriage, Fox often frames the issue as an attack on religious freedom, with Christians “as the victims of intolerance and the gay activists who have become the bullies. Those stories, they get a lot of traction.”
A recent example is how Fox covered the conflict over amending a non-discrimination ordinance in San Antonio, Texas, to include gender identity and sexual orientation.
“Fox ran segment after segment describing it as a war against Christians,” Maza said.
The researcher also has tracked an uptick on Fox in coverage that demonizes and ridicules transgender people. “On Fox, it’s still very much OK to make rape jokes about transgender people,” he said.
Last January, in a segment on “The O’Reilly Factor,” Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly joked about a transgender prison inmate.
“Couldn’t they do a better job for a million bucks than this guy? Look, there he is. For a million you figure he might look like Annette Funicello or somebody. I don’t know?” O’Reilly said.
Kelly said, “He’s in a male prison.”
O’Reilly added, “All right, but I don’t think he’s in any danger.”
That month, Oregon LGBT civil rights activists protested the use of a still of Robin Williams as “Mrs. Doubtfire” to illustrate a story about regulations requiring that insurers in California and Oregon provide equal coverage to transgender customers.
In late August, Fox personalities complained about using feminine pronouns for Pvt. Chelsea Manning, the transgender soldier convicted of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks. They mocked Manning’s appearance.
That month, Fox characterized as a “bathroom bill” landmark legislation signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown that guarantees transgender public school students access to facilities and programs that correspond to their gender identity.
On “The O’Reilly Factor,” Greg Gutfield said if he was a devious teenager he’d “tell girls that I’m a girl trapped in a boy’s body, just so I could sneak into the girl’s bathroom. In fact, I do that now at Fox News. Gretchen Carlson threw me out of the bathroom just last week.”
Carlson, commenting on the legislation, said, “Can you imagine now, the boys want to go into the girls bathroom and the girls want to go into the boys bathroom, and they can just say, ‘Oh, well, I was transgender for the moment.’ I just can’t get my head around this.”
O’Reilly called the legislation “the biggest con in the world.”
Hannity said government was forsaking the 99 percent to accommodate the .00001 percent.”
“It’s like red meat for their viewers,” Maza said. “They are very comfortable turning those kinds of stories into horror stories.”
For the creepiest commentary on transgender issues, Fox relies on Dr. Keith Ablow, who has said a transgender person on “Dancing with the Stars” could kindle “gender dysphoria” in others and that Chaz Bono suffers from a “psychotic delusion” because “there is nothing substantially different from a woman believing she is a man than there is about a woman believing she is a CIA agent being followed by the KGB” when she is really a salesperson at J.Crew.
Maza said, “Very flawed and medically inaccurate” information is pervasive on Fox.
About 41 percent of American voters trust the information they get on the channe and 46 percent do not, according to a survey by the liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling firm. PPP president Dean Debnam said the survey also found that Democrats trust most TV news sources other than Fox, while Republicans don’t trust anything except Fox.
Maza said, “I think that for some Fox News employees, they know there is a segment of the audience that this really resonates with. So they really get on board with the transphobic stuff and that is good for their national profile.”
But there are those at Fox, Ablow for example, who seem to Maza to “harbor real resentment or animosity” toward LGBT people.
The consequences of that animosity?
A Pew Research Center report released on Oct. 11 found that dedicated cable viewers average 72 minutes of home viewing per day. CNN reaches slightly more adult viewers than Fox, but the study found Fox narrowly has the largest singularly dedicated audience — 24 percent of U.S. adults watch only Fox News.
That’s a lot of people getting information from a source that Masen Davis, who heads up the Transgender Law Center, has described as “dangerously uninformed.”
At the National Center for Transgender Equality, Mara Keisling has said Fox’s coverage contributes to violence and harassment.
Maza and others said Fox’s disinformation and animosity also can embolden campaigns against equality and “really impact the same-sex couple raising a family in San Antonio or the transgender student in California.”