by Louis Menand November 2, 2009
In 2008, half the people who watched the Fox News Channel were over sixty-three, which is the oldest demographic in the cable-news business, and, according to a poll, the majority of the ones who watched the most strident programs, such as Sean Hannity’s and Bill O’Reilly’s shows, were men. All that chesty fulminating apparently functions as political Cialis. Fox News shows should probably carry a warning: Contact your doctor if you have rage lasting more than four hours.By effectively cornering the market on anti-Administration animus, Fox News has had a robust 2009 so far, and the recent decision by the White House to declare war on the channel is not likely to put a dent in the ratings. That decision has dispirited some of the President’s well-wishers. It has also puzzled them. In American politics, it should be considered a good thing when, after you have won a Presidential election by more than nine million votes, your chief critics accuse you of filling your Administration with Nazis, Maoists, anarchists, and Marxist revolutionaries. That is the voice of the fringe, and the fringe is exactly where you want the opposition to set up permanent shop.
One line of objection to the White House’s effort to ostracize Fox News is that Presidential wars against the press are always futile and self-defeating. Are they, though? So we are continually told by, well, the press. Actually, most people don’t especially love journalists, and press-bashing has a mixed history. Lyndon Johnson alternately schmoozed and browbeat editors and reporters and got nowhere with either tactic. On the other hand, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew demonized the press programmatically during their first term in office and were reëlected by a near-record margin. Still, wars of words are distracting, and Obama campaigned as a listener—a contrast with his supremely deaf predecessor that was evidently welcomed by the electorate. Why are his spokespersons throwing red meat to Fox’s angry white men? Wouldn’t it be better to supply them with only tofu smoothies?
There is no point in splitting metaphysical hairs over the concept of objectivity: Fox News is a politically biased organization. It is the creature of Roger Ailes, a man who has as much claim as anyone to be called the founding father of mass-media politics. In 1967, Ailes was a producer on “The Mike Douglas Show,” in Philadelphia, when he met Richard Nixon. Nixon had every reason, after his disastrous performance in the 1960 Presidential debates, to regard television with dread, but Ailes persuaded him otherwise. Ailes left “The Mike Douglas Show” to help Leonard Garment and others invent the New Nixon, one of the great feats of modern advertising and the subject of Joe McGinnis’s book “The Selling of the President 1968.” Ailes later took over the cable channel CNBC; in 1996, Rupert Murdoch hired him to create the Fox News Channel. He knows his business.
No more. As Jeffrey E. Cohen documents in “The Presidency in the Era of 24-Hour News” (2008), the media has changed since 1968, as has the public’s relationship to it, and in complicated ways. There is a lot more news out there, but the audience for it is much smaller. And although political reporting today is both softer and more critical, it has less effect on how the public regards the President than it did back in the days of balanced disinterestedness.
One manifestation of these changes has been mass-media niche journalism, a development, made possible by cable, whose opportunities Ailes was one of the first to appreciate. The more crowded and competitive this field becomes—more news chasing fewer newsies—the more journalism approaches the condition of coffee beans and major-league breaking balls: you never dreamed there could be so many varieties. But, unless you are an aficionado of political spin, you may prefer to grab the remote and start browsing for “Frasier” reruns. The market for news is narrowing down to people who need an ideological fix.
This has led to widespread distrust of all news media. According to a recent Pew survey, public belief in the accuracy of news stories is at a twenty-year low. Only twenty-nine per cent of Americans think that news organizations generally get the facts right; sixty-three per cent think that news stories are often inaccurate; sixty per cent say that reporting is politically biased. Republicans have traditionally held the press in lower esteem than have Democrats, but the Pew survey shows that Democrats are pulling even. In the past two years alone, a period when Democrats had a lot of news to feel good about, Democratic distrust of the press grew by double digits.
In a climate in which bias is increasingly taken for granted, cable channels have every incentive to enhance their appeal to their core constituencies. Among cable-news channels, Fox News is rated favorably by seventy-two per cent of Republicans against forty-three per cent of Democrats, and MSNBC is rated favorably by sixty per cent of Democrats against thirty-four per cent of Republicans. Many viewers treat Comedy Central as a news channel. Cable news, in short, is a sandbox. People throw things at one another, not just for fun but for profit. It is not a distinguished venue for statesmen or their surrogates to spend their time in.
The dubious efficacy of a war on Fox News is not the only reason to feel qualms. It’s hard to kill the press, but it is not hard to chill it, and this appears to be the White House’s goal in the case of Fox. “The best analogy is probably baseball,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said—meaning that throwing a few inside fastballs, a little chin music, gets hitters to back off the plate. Maybe, but he should also remember that deliberately throwing at a batter is grounds for ejection. The state may, and should, rebut opinions that it finds obnoxious, but it should not single out speakers for the purpose of intimidating them. At the end of the day, you do not want your opponents to be able to say that they could not be heard. It may be exasperating, but that is what the First Amendment is all about. ♦