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The Party Line

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While this is as true on the left (from anti-WTO-ists to the free-Mumia crowd) as on the right, in pure media terms, the right is a much easier audience to reach and to hold. Conservatives are older and more settled in their political views and media habits; they are more rural and hence less restless in their pursuit of diversion; they are more anchored to their families and to their homes and to their televisions; they are more homogeneous in their interests -- it's easier to speak to them as one. Plus, and this should not be underestimated, they feel, largely because it's true, that the world is against them. That what they believe in is going away. That they are endangered. This creates a powerful bond.

Fox, having successfully exploited this bond, is flush with success. And success has made it trumpet ever more confidently its view of the world.

In that view, Bill Clinton is the twentieth century's most preposterous joke (one thing that distinguishes Fox from other news channels is that it's actually funny -- they have a good time on Fox); Ronald Reagan is the century's paramount leader (at the moment, Fox seems to be conducting an ongoing living funeral for the former president); and, most important, it's the other networks that are biased -- liberal-biased -- rather than Fox (what bias Fox has is merely a counterweight -- hence George Bush's cousin got a key role on Election Night in the Fox newsroom).

In the Fox world, you'll find Newt Gingrich, Dick Morris, Pat Robertson -- who, however discredited or marginalized in the larger world, are still bigger-than-life on Fox. You'll find a ragtag bunch of Democrats who have come out for tax cuts, or recanted one or another liberal orthodoxy -- all with hairpieces askew and, clearly, alcohol on their breath (the Fox vision of Democrats). And you'll meet the world's most tongue-tied liberals and neo-socialists (none of whom you've ever heard of), the straw men for O'Reilly to knock down. It's a chip-on-the-shoulder, love-of-mother, red-in-the-face, Reader's Digest, Irish Catholic world (although, in fact, its audience tends toward southern and western Protestants).

Fox is the red states, and CNN and MSNBC the blue.

The intuitive view, though, has been that the Bush victory will make it more difficult for Fox, that it takes away its reason for being, that it's the Clinton thing that fueled the channel's good fortune. But then the inauguration numbers killed.

Now, the counterview is that while Fox may lose something without Clinton, traditional news loses something more by having Bush. If the overriding trend is a diminished interest in politics, Bush, by his calculated or inherent blandness, by his aversion to conflict, his disengagement, makes politics even less interesting.

It's the fickle, general-interest public that tunes out first.

The core Republican audience holds.

Of course, the most sophisticated media view -- which in some sense goes to the heart of Republican resentment -- is to question what exactly the Fox audience, this older, downwardly mobile, less acquisitive demographic, is worth. From an advertisers' point of view, you're talking Preparation H wipes and Mylanta. You're not talking mobile telephony and a wide array of entertainment products.

In other words, we are at the fundamental schism in American cultural, political, and economic life. There's the quicker-growing, economically vibrant, but also more fractious and more difficult to manage, morally relativist, urban-oriented, culturally adventuresome, sexually polymorphous, and ethnically diverse nation (Bill Clinton's America, if you will). And there's the small-town, nuclear-family, religiously oriented, white-centric other America, which makes up for its diminishing cultural and economic force with its predictability and stability (the GWB-ies).

This is not by any means a new schism. There have always been two countries -- we just haven't had the bandwidth to create parallel media nations.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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