Columns, Opinions

Mitra ’18: Fox News’ obsession with Brown misses the mark

By
Staff Columnist
Sunday, February 12, 2017

On Jan. 25, Brown had a famous — or rather, infamous — visitor: Jesse Watters, the host of Watters’ World on The O’Reilly Factor. Watters came to Brown, ostensibly to interview students about toxic masculinity. In a short day on campus, he managed to interview bystanders about safe spaces, push the bounds of journalistic ethics and skate down College Hill near the Rhode Island School of Design. But what struck me the most about the three-minute segment was that it was, once again, all about Brown.

The segment seems to be based on a ridiculously offensive opinion piece by Todd Starnes, published last month on the Fox News website, that critiqued the discussion of toxic masculinity in American colleges. Yet Brown was just one of several universities listed as teaching students about toxic masculinity, along with Oregon State University and Duke University. So why zero in on us?

This isn’t the first time Fox has focused on Brown in detail. As Herald columnist Mark Liang ’19 pointed out earlier this semester (“Dear Jesse Watters,” Jan. 31), Fox has a long history of arriving on campus with film crews to cover everything from debates on free speech to Christmas trees. Watters himself has covered Sex Power God and Nudity in the Upspace, spurring controversy on both occasions. The channel has also sensationally reported on free tampons in Brown restrooms and even past Herald opinions columns. Just last year, Fox picked up a Herald article describing student activism and made it viral around the world. Fox certainly reports on other colleges as well, but the sheer volume of its coverage of Brown sets us apart from most other universities.

In the guise of reporting on colleges, Fox has fed into the larger narrative about elitist, oblivious Ivy League students sitting atop an Ivory Tower. But this deluge of coverage completely misses the mark. Fox loves to paint Brown as one of a few universities (along with the likes of University of California at Berkeley, Oberlin College and Wesleyan University) that propagate extremely liberal viewpoints at the exclusion of all others. Yet the Brown student body is not alone in protesting controversial speakers, embracing body positivity, supplying sanitary products, using inclusive language and engaging in student activism. There are numerous colleges across the country that do the same — and not all of them are traditionally liberal schools in blue states either. Nor is Brown a homogenous entity filled with like-minded drones. It may be a predominantly liberal institution, but the umbrella term “liberal” still encompasses a wide range of ideas and beliefs — not just the sound bytes presented and parodied on Watters’ World.

Like any other aspiring journalist, I take issue with Fox’s techniques and predilection for skirting basic ethics. But to me, a more pernicious problem with its coverage of Brown is the utter lack of context. In its coverage of Brown, Fox viewers don’t receive any sense of larger national debates or the reasoning behind liberal arguments. And, despite Fox’s selective coverage of colleges, conversations about social justice are happening all around the country, not just in liberal strongholds on the coasts. Satirical segments that poke fun at people are all well and good, but Fox’s brand of news and comedy falls short of achieving any sort of productive discourse.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m the first to admit there is a lot to criticize on college campuses and at Brown. But Fox doesn’t engage in intelligent criticism, rather it prefers to use straw men and play to the stereotypes.

And by stereotyping and otherizing colleges like Brown, Fox News has lost sight of reality and managed to lose touch with college-aged students. As numerous analysts have outlined over the years, Fox’s biggest weakness is its inability to expand to a younger audience, particularly along the coasts. The median age of its primetime viewer is 68; by comparison, the median age of an average CNN primetime viewer is 59. Younger viewers are more likely to identify as liberal or centrist and already view Fox as one of the least trusted news sources in the country. If Fox truly wants to expand its college-aged market, it can’t afford to spin its own alternative version of the truth.

Fox News and its proponents love to claim that we Ivy Leaguers are living in a bubble. Well, judging from their skewed coverage and obsession with Brown, so are they. Maybe I’m setting the bar too high, but I think even Fox can do better.

Mili Mitra ’18 can be reached at mili_mitra@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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