How Fox and MSNBC Are Transforming American Politics

In October 2010, a Rolling Stone reporter asked President Obama what he thought about Fox News.  The president laughed, and compared Roger Ailes’ enterprise to early 20th century yellow-journalism newspapers. “I think Fox is part of that tradition – it is part of the tradition that has a very clear, undeniable point of view. It’s a point of view that I disagree with. It’s a point of view that I think is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world.”

According to the panelists at Tuesday night’s Delve Into ’12 event, Red Channel, Blue Channel: How Fox and MSNBC Are Transforming American Politics, the president was right about one thing: The overtly biased reporting style of partisan television outlets like Fox and MSNBC takes a page from the William Randolph Hearst guide to journalism. But reviving that tradition may not be a bad thing.

Today’s politicized media, popularized by outlets like Fox and MSNBC, is a “return to the normal state of affairs,” said panelist Matt Welch, the editor of Reason magazine.  After World War II,  the journalism industry decided to scrap the sensationalism of Hearst’s era, Welch recounted. “They suppressed everything tabloid-y about American media for a long time,” forgetting that “people want to talk smack about politics the same way they want to about sports.” The resulting media environment felt artificial, Welch said. Outlets like Fox and MSNBC “make it more interesting and competitive, a richer ecosystem.”

But Fox and MSNBC don’t exert equal power in their respective partisan ecosystems.
That’s because Fox is a superior product, Welch said, arguing that the conservative channel maintains faster-paced, more cohesive programming than MSNBC .

New York Magazine’s Gabe Sherman agreed. “Fox is better,” said the reporter, who is currently writing a book about Roger Ailes and Fox.

“In what way?” New America Schwartz Fellow and Editor of The New Republic Frank Foer asked Sherman.  

“Every way,” he responded. “It’s faster, funnier, brighter and bolder…”

“This is a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome,” Foer joked.

Really, Sherman’s perspective is the outcome of his investigation into the organization as a business model – rather than as an ideological mouthpiece.

“From a free market perspective, what Ailes and Fox have created is an amazing story,” Sherman said. “It’s a free market, they identified it, they reached it, they sell it every day.”

Sherman was referring to the conservative market – a cross-section of Americans who the liberal, east-coast mainstream media was, in Ailes’ eyes, failing to represent.

Sherman underscored the fact that Ailes runs a business, not a PAC, by pointing out that Fox’s content often hurts the GOP’s brand.

“[Former White House Communications Director] Anita Dunn would say that Fox is the megaphone of the GOP, and that’s a misdiagnosis of what Fox is,” Sherman said. “ It’s a network that’s conservative in its view, but it isn’t helpful to the GOP because Ailes cares about ratings and profit. “

Take, for example, Ailes’ hiring of Sarah Palin after the 2008 presidential election. “People like Karl Rove were privately lobbying Ailes not to put her on the network,” Sherman explained. “She was great, compelling TV, but not good for the Republican brand. “

Ailes’ decisions are  particularly striking because of how passionate he is about the Republican party outside of TV, Sherman noted.  Ailes has worked for former presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. “He has a tension at the core of him. He’s a TV guy and a political person…those things are sometimes in concert and sometimes in conflict.”

Ailes hired Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, for example, so Fox would corner the market on conservative commentary, not because he supported their presidential runs. “In private, he lobbied Chris Christie to get into the race because from a political and image standpoint Christie was a more compelling candidate,” Sherman said. “He runs a TV channel, but in private, he wants people of substance, compelling candidates, to run. But the fact that Christie didn’t get into the race is because the political environment has been turned into a circus because of Fox.”  

And that’s a critical point, one that Sherman made again later: “Ailes has created a political environment that has hurt the actual party he has devoted his life to.”

Because even when Ailes makes decisions according to the bottom line, not the party line, his choices still influence political discourse.

“[Fox] filters a world view” that speaks to an audience of millions, Welch said. “The stakes are bigger because [that filtered coverage] has consequences outside of media world in the political world. You have all [these] Republican candidates who filter their world view to conform to the Fox world view.”

Bottom line: GOP candidates want to discuss the issues on the minds on of their constituents. And their constituents are thinking about what they watched on Fox news that morning.

That can be a dangerous cycle – especially when what they heard on the channel isn’t factual.

“If you look at a lot of what Fox news has injected into political discourse --birtherism, anti- gay stuff, anti immigrant stuff -- often times they are taking a slim kernel of truth and building this whole show around it where it gets blown out of any realistic proportion,” said Foer.  

That’s especially perilous because of the echo chamber effect: “ A lot of America goes to seek confirmation for things it already believes…no matter what evidence is presented to the contrary, you simply don’t believe it,” he said.

Welch disagreed. “I don’t think we all live in these cocoons and get craziness reinforced constantly,” he said, adding that “there’s use to having a political filter…it digs up stories that wouldn’t otherwise get there. “

The problem, the panelists seemed to agree, isn’t necessarily the perspectives of these pundits – but rather when they try to mask those biases behind veils of supposed journalistic integrity. Ideological purity has been revered historically in the news business.  But the future of reporters and broadcasters could be an army of ideologues who are simultaneously transparent about their viewpoints and eager to uphold the tenets of good journalism, the panelists suggested.  

There’s room for journalists who say to their sources “’hey, you disagree with me about everything, but I’ll tell you where I’m coming from,’” Welch said. With that attitude, “people from way outside your cocoon will reward you,” he added. 

Photo credit: Fred Prouser / Reuters and Flickr user afagen.