The Party Line

Some people think Fox News is on the verge of creating the kind of revolution that CNN made ten years ago – altering the basic habits and assumptions of why and how we watch news.

It’s certainly been killing the competition. On a series of big events, Fox – with its narrowcast approach – has taken larger ratings than its nonsectarian brothers (and, of course, Bill O’Reilly, one of the Fox hosts, has a celebrity book that’s competing with the various books of the network anchors). Starting with the Republican convention in July, building with each debate, then with notable peaks during the Florida phase of the election, and followed by Inauguration Day, Fox trumped both MSNBC and CNN. Now, it’s true that these events are all Republican-focused, but that’s the fear: In a Republican era, the Republicans will have a monopoly on such events – and so will Fox.

Or, really, what happens is that the Republicans will have enthusiasm for the news and will be eager to tune in to play-by-play coverage and postgame analysis, while the larger but less engaged (or more dispirited) Democratic and agnostic audience will forsake the news.

This is already a big transformation in the way we see the news: Republican news versus Democratic news. News, in other words, becomes not so much about the event itself but about how we identify with the event. We want our own spin.

It’s the European way – every newspaper, every news outlet, has its proud bias. There’s left-of-center news; there’s reconstructed-Communist news; there’s hard-line-Communist news; there’s Christian Democrat news; there’s neo-fascist news. It’s the nineteenth-century way – every paper a party paper.

Or you can look at it in exactly the opposite fashion: The larger trend is a systemic erosion of the audience for Washington-government-policy-politician-oriented news. But while CNN, MSNBC, and the networks are casualties of the militant disinterest in political news, Fox is the beneficiary. Except rather than Fox’s success representing some new ideological trend in America, it suggests the extreme winnowing of the politics-focused audience, and that the only audience left is one with a peculiar attachment to politics.

There’s something embattled about Fox. It’s a class thing, trailer-camp life on Sixth Avenue.

Ideological purity, in other words, meets media purity. In a highly competitive market, you want to focus on a core interest group, which, by the nature of its obsession, is an audience that is easy to attract, easy to hold, easy to service.

The networks, along with CNN and MSNBC, continue to represent the dispassionate tradition. This fifties-sixties-seventies-eighties objective norm came about because in a three-network world, the idea of broadcasting as a public trust had great currency (and the force of government regulation), and because the accusation of a liberal bias in the media was as dogged and widespread as it was true – hence the news was buttoned-down in tone and blurred in point of view.

But in a fragmented media world, that tradition can be a commercial disadvantage. What it means is that without a pointed bias, a single-minded reason for existing, a clear and persuasive shtick, you’re left to court a general-interest audience. This is an audience that demands wide variety, and constant new forms of stimulation (expensive stimulation), is fickle in its interests, and, because it lacks any sort of emotional attachment to what you have to offer, is easily attracted by somebody else’s clearer sell.

CNN, in its early incarnation, grabbed the easy-to-grab news-focused audience. But the thing about the notion of targeted media is that someone can always target you finer. The success of an all-news network invites an all-sports-news network (and then an all-golf network), an all-entertainment-news network (and then an all-hip-hop network), and, obviously, an all-conservative-news network.

I doubt, though, that this is what Murdoch had in mind. I think he thought he’d create a head-to-head, competitive 24-hour-news broadcast organization. If Turner could do it, he could do it; if G.E. and Microsoft were going to go for it, he was, too; plus, Murdoch just wasn’t going to cede the market to Time Warner after it bought Turner.

So when chairman Roger Ailes, at the launch of the Fox News Channel in 1996, said, “We’ll have more live news and produced programming than either CNN or MSNBC,” and that Fox would be more “balanced” in its reporting than the other networks, that opinion programming would be clearly distinguished from straight news reporting, he may have meant it (sort of, anyway).

But from the beginning, there was something embattled about Fox (indeed, it had to fight Time Warner for space on its cable systems). It was almost a class thing. Fox was trailer-camp life on Sixth Avenue. Moldy food in the green room, and, even in the world of television, women with way too much eye makeup. For a period last year, Fox, alone among news stations, refused to send cars for its guests (the Fox guests tend to be far enough down the guest pecking order to be willing to get there on their own). And, for on-air talent, you didn’t go to Fox – at least until recently – because you had alternatives. (After Fox, you hit Court TV.) Not only was Fox on the tail end of talent, but it was on the tail end of news. One Fox producer recounts having to carry his footage from satellite truck to satellite truck at the site of a European terrorist attack, begging for an upload to New York.

So on the one hand, you had a deep lack of resources and clout; on the other hand, you had the standard television imperative – mimic the competition, be as broad as possible. But then you had Roger Ailes – the purest melding of media and politics. He’s one of the few political consultants to actually come out of television. He meets Nixon in 1967 on the set of The Mike Douglas Show, which he is producing. After Nixon (Ailes is the most vivid character in Joe McGinniss’s book The Selling of the President 1968, about the Nixon campaign), he closely counsels Reagan and Bush. Then, out of power in the Clinton years, he runs CNBC and launches America’s Talking, the precursor to MSNBC, before joining Fox.

Media professionals and political consultants have a fundamentally contrary view. The media professional – the writer, reporter, producer, anchor – believes that politics is of large concern to a broad number of people, or if it isn’t, then it should be; that our job is to force-feed the public. The political consultant, on the other hand, recognizes the uniquely specialized nature of politics. That people are almost never interested in politics in general, but in their own self-interest and bias; that, in fact, fewer and fewer people are interested in politics in any shape or form; that it’s a shrinking market. Nonvoters, non-newspaper readers, nonparticipants, are the growth industry. Still, you have a core group of enthusiasts that remains loyal and strong – reaching it is the job.

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.


The Party Line