The interview Fox refused to air revives issue of media ownership: Don Pittis

Wise media consumers know there are many ways to cover a story, but a covert recording of Fox News interview is a useful reminder.

Video the U.S. network didn't intend viewers to see is a hot property on the web

While Fox News did not air it, historian and author Rutger Bregman released his own amateur video of the interview, recorded in a Netherlands studio. (Rutger Bregman)

People who view the shaky recording of the interview, embedded below, between a Fox News host and a Dutch historian will not be shocked the U.S. network failed to air it.

Besides the profanity from show host Tucker Carlson, the points raised by Rutger Bregman — who shot to global prominence after comments on taxes at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month — are in dramatic conflict with traditional Fox coverage.

The fact we are not surprised demonstrates that we've grown used to the idea that despite claims of impartiality, news outlets have strong biases. But Bregman's comments, and the fact that the network tried to suppress them, also raise an old issue in the discussion of media freedom — that who owns the media matters.

What Bregman did at Davos, an annual gathering where the rich rub shoulders with the famous to ponder poverty and climate change, was certainly a subject worthy of news coverage.

It was a classic example of the kind of "man bites dog" story that journalists love, where one of the tame panellists invited to a gathering of the world's richest men unexpectedly spoke truth to power.

Ignoring the Davos panel moderator's questions, Bregman instead linked poverty to the fact that rich people don't pay enough in taxes, comparing the lack of discussion on the subject at the forum to attending a conference of firefighters where no one would talk about water.

"Just stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes," he told the audience despite protests from one of the gathering of billionaires. "We can invite Bono once more, but we've got to be talking about taxes. That's it. Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit, in my opinion."

At a panel titled The Cost of Inequality, Bregman sidestepped the Davos moderator's question, instead saying the solution was for rich people to pay more tax. (Twitter)

For Fox, the story was irresistible. An upstart chiding the Davos elite — U.S. President Donald Trump, a Fox favourite, did not attend this year — for flying in private jets to talk about climate change and ignoring the fact they didn't contribute their share.

And if that's where the interview had stopped it is very possible that Fox would have aired it. 

But just as he did at the World Economic Forum, Bregman had a surprise in store for his host. Clearly a smart cookie who had done his research, Bregman turned the tables, perhaps because he knew he had his own recording, and refused the self-censorship that would have increased the chances his interview would make it to air.

Making Fox the news

Bregman, author of the bestseller Utopia for Realists and How We Can Get There, lit into not just the Davos elite but Fox, its billionaire owner Rupert Murdoch and the Fox hosts, who he described as millionaires in the pay of billionaires. 

In the interview the news channel decided not to run, the historian and author repeated his comments that Davos billionaires had studiously ignored the obvious question of the importance of higher taxes on the rich. But he extended those observations to include Fox itself.

"I'm just saying what everyone around the world is thinking," said Bregman in the recording he released, pointing out that polls show a majority of Americans, including Fox viewers, want higher taxes on the rich. "But no one is saying that at Davos just as no one's saying it on Fox News."

The reason, he said, is simple, that the people at Davos and Fox have been bought by the billionaires.

"What the Murdochs want you to do is scapegoat immigrants instead of talking about tax avoidance," said Bregman in a comment that seemed clearly intended to make the Fox host blow his stack.

"And I'm taking orders from the Murdochs? Is that what you're saying?" asked the Fox host.

But of course that's not the way media owners exert their influence. What they do instead is hire like-minded publishers who hire like-minded editors, and so on.

As Bregman points out, the host didn't need to be Rupert Murdoch's finger puppet. He came ready-made from his association with the anti-tax, anti-government Cato Institute, which is itself funded by wealthy donors.

Little guy strikes back

Part of the fun of Bregman's release of the Fox interview is that it felt like the little guy striking back using social media.

But it was also a reminder of an issue many of us may have forgotten, that despite the supposed clout of social media, it is the surviving media giants controlled by rich people that still have the power to set the news agenda. 

From the Wall Street Journal controlled by Murdoch, Bloomberg controlled by Michael Bloomberg, the Washington Post controlled by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, and Canada's richest family, the Thomsons that controls both the Globe and Mail and Reuters, is it any wonder we don't get front pages filled with stories outraged that billionaires don't pay enough tax?

Like French economist Thomas Piketty before him, while portrayed by some as a radical, Bregman is not anti-capitalist. He is a firm believer in the economic system that has made the Netherlands the largest net contributor to the European Union.

Like Piketty, Bregman says if capitalism fails to redistribute wealth that will lead to its downfall. But you probably shouldn't  expect to hear that message promoted on Fox.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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