Monday, August 23, 2010

Saying it with a straight face

Over the last decade and a half Fox News has become a cable powerhouse by following a simple but powerful strategy. It has four parts:
1. Exploit the belief among Americans -- particularly conservatives -- that the “mainstream media” are biased; owned, managed and staffed mostly by left-wingers.

2. Promise that you’ll be different, putting it right in your slogan: “fair and balanced.”

3. Without coming out and saying so, redefine “fair and balanced” to mean, “If other media do something we think is unfair, we’ll balance it out by being even more unfair on the other side.” In other words, provide the conservatives with the TV voice they’ve long sought.

4. Make sure all of your news readers and commentators continue to look the camera right in the lens when they repeat the claim -- often -- that Fox is “fair and balanced.”
Brilliant. Truly. Fox now dominates cable “news” (in truth, the “news” part of cable died, oh, about 2003 or so). There are imitators on the left -- MSNBC tries to provide a left-wing alternative but is short on superstars. CNN can’t decide whether it wants to do journalism or give in to the “Age of Entertainment.”

Fox’s approach is unabashed. While the content of its daily lineup -- there’s little, if any reporting -- is so obviously designed to support a conservative agenda, no one has been caught on camera bursting into laughter when repeating the “fair and balanced” slogan. Yes, it’s so obviously a lie that it’s become a joke line for anyone who attempts any sort of fair-minded analysis of what the network does.

Seth Ackerman provided one of the best reviews of Fox News nearly 10 years ago in his piece, “The Most Biased Name in News.” He quotes what has become one of my favorite tease lines from Bill O’Reilly:
"Coming next, drug addicted pregnant women no longer have anything to fear from the authorities thanks to the Supreme Court. Both sides on this in a moment."--Bill O'Reilly (O'Reilly Factor, 3/23/01)
Now, that’s genius, and O’Reilly repeats the approach every day. Since those early days, Fox has gathered the Holy Trinity of TV conservatives: O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. It’s the TV equivalent of the Miami Heat’s Big Three: Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. It’s a powerful lineup, providing a steady stream of fair and balanced reporting, which in this case is a repetition of this sort of question that used to be a joke among journalists: “So, do you still beat your wife?”

To be sure, Fox is not alone. The aforementioned MSNBC and CNN are trying to learn the game, but Fox is much better at it. It has the better ratings and the better talent, and, apparently, a more willing and loyal audience.

When it’s said and done, the only thing wrong with Fox News is that it still purports to be “Fair and Balanced.” It quite clearly is neither, and it's unlikely any of its audience would care if its slogan became, “We Tell You What You Want to Hear.”

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