Thursday, April 20, 2017

Spun Out

“And right now we have about half the population who is—who have been conditioned, conditioned, one might even say brainwashed by close to 50 years of right-wing media, which has characterized, demonized mainstream media and characterized it as unpatriotic and un-American and has talked about grossly misogynistic way and in grossly racist terms, in Islamophobic and xenophobic terms and has allowed about half of our population to bathe in a sort of humiliation. And I use that term advisedly, because some of us are nervously paying attention to the parallels with Weimar Germany.”
 —Bob Garfield, co-host of NPR’s On the Media, hyperventilating on MSNBC in the wake of Donald Trump’s election last November
As I listen to the coverage of Bill O’Reilly’s sudden and thorough fall, I cannot help but wonder what my mother would have thought of it all.

My mother was something of a fan of The O’Reilly Factor, and she clearly was not alone. It was long the single dominant show in the cable news landscape. There is a bit of irony in Mom’s attraction to the so-called No-spin Zone, as she was not a particularly political person. It was my father who followed the news closely, had a definite political philosophy and loved a good back-and-forth about issues of the day. Mom had human reactions to people in the news but generally was not inclined to get into policy.

For the last decade or so of her life, though, she did have a weekday ritual. At five in the evening—the time that The O’Reilly Factor aired on the West Coast—she would switch the TV to Fox News and watch Bill for five minutes or so, that is, as long as it took for him to deliver his Talking Points Memo. Then she would switch to another channel to join in progress a syndicated rerun of one of her favorite sitcoms, usually The Golden Girls. Five minutes a day of O’Reilly was enough for her, but she did like to see him for those five minutes.

In hindsight, I find her idiosyncratic viewing habit impressively efficient. In absorbing Bill’s bullet points, she quickly got the gist of his thinking on current events, and by changing the channel she avoided all the longer monologues, features, debates with guests and commercials that filled up the rest of the hour. As with most programs on so-called news channels, the format yielded much more heat than light.

When Ted Turner’s Cable News Network debuted—and I finally got around to owning a TV and subscribing to cable—back in the 1980s, I thought it was a great idea. The evening newscast of the traditional broadcast networks had always been frustratingly brief and superficial. The idea of getting news 24 hours per day seemed like a news junkie’s godsend. It did not take long to realize, however, that as tantalizing as that promise was, the result was disappointment. CNN simply spent much of its time repeating the same major news stories over and over. Otherwise, the hours were filled with “discussion,” as exemplified by the program Crossfire which debuted in 1982 with Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan. The program and its inevitable imitators soon devolved into a formula of liberal and conservative sniping back and forth at each other, making politics a spectator sport where viewers could cheer on their own side.

What many of us found about CNN was that watching it did not make one more informed. It simply offered the opportunity to spend more time absorbing the same information. In terms of world view, the editors of CNN were not much different from those of the news divisions at ABC, CBS or NBC. In the end, CNN’s main advantage was that it did not have to cut back to regular entertainment programming during major news events like the Challenger shuttle disaster and the first Gulf War.

The real game changer in cable news was when Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes perceived that the reigning world view at the major broadcast and cable news outfits was not only fairly uniform but that it reflected an educated urban population that was not reflective of a large portion of the country. These are the many people for whom a quote like the one above from Bob Garfield sounds like pure and utter gibberish.

Despite its name, Fox News Channel has never been a channel that broadcasts mostly news. It has relied on the “political talk” staple that CNN—and later MSNBC—have relied on. The difference was that the hosts and guests reflected a more rightward bent. In a way, FNC’s format long reminded me, more than anything, of National Public Radio’s. One got five minutes of headlines at the top of the hour followed by programs featuring discussion or interviews, and in the evening there was an hour of two of block news coverage.

The idea behind Fox News was clearly a winner business-wise. The channel has long been the top cable news channel, luring in—for at least five minutes a day anyway—a one-time Roosevelt Democrat like my mother. And, I’m guessing, probably quite a few others. Personally, I had little patience for news chat shows like O’Reilly’s, but I was always amused that he drew such ire from modern liberals. He was, in fact, what would pass for a moderate voice on FNC. Despite his deliberately abrasive style, his opinions were by no means lock-step conservative. His main shtick was bloviating against political correctness which, as it happens, was how Bill Maher started out his TV talk career years ago on ABC.

Fox News is successful enough—and will probably continue to be successful—that it does not need me to defend it. I do, however, think it gets a bad rap on a couple of counts. For one, people who only know about it through attacks by the left will not appreciate how much diversity of opinion is showcased in its programming. I am not talking about the presence of token liberal commentators. As last year’s Republican presidential primaries and the recent Georgia primary demonstrated, while Democrats have no trouble flocking to a single candidate, there are numerous factions with Republican politics vying against one another and ranging from libertarianism to traditional paleo-conservatism to disturbing excesses of the so-called alt-right. Left-of-center-oriented news organizations, having learned nothing from their own clueless coverage of the Trump phenomenon and the large-scale collapse of the Democrats, still seem to see everything right of center as a monolith instead of the vibrant and exciting and scary free-for-all that it is.

The other bad rap that Fox News gets is that, despite its regular depiction as a Republican party organ, its actual news organization—as opposed to all its talk-talk programming—is really quite good. Unfortunately, hard news only accounts for about an hour a day of its programming, but people looking to be informed could do worse than watching Bret Baier’s weekday evening newscast or Chris Wallace’s Sunday show. Their shows cover the same issues and events as the major networks but devote more time to them and without the soft features that often eat up a large part of the ABC/CBS/NBC blob’s scant 22 minutes of nightly airtime. In addition to the same stories everyone else is covering, Baier and Wallace also give you stories the others do not have time for, which may be the real reason Democrats hate Fox News.

FNC news consumers got way more coverage of stories like Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s email server than people watching other channels. Does that mean that Fox was part of some anti-Democratic conspiracy? I’m not much of a conspiracist, but maybe if more Democrats had been watching Fox they would not have been so blindsided when those issues helped to derail their candidate.