Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Understanding Fox News

Responding to a debate between Michael Tomasky and Ross Douthat over whether liberals should appear on Fox News, Andrew Sullivan makes an important point:
Just as important, it seems to me is if Fox could give, say, Ron Paul his own show, and actually allow an internal conservative debate about issues, such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, or foreign policy, or the social issues, such as abortion, or even have a supporter of gay equality who isn't an easily dismissed leftist stereotype on prime time - like a Jon Rauch or a Ted Olson? Why not give Frum a show to counter the party line with smart conservative policy proposals and discussions? What's needed on Fox - and what you'll never see - is solid conservative attacks on and critiques of other conservatives, on matters of principle or policy. That's the difference between an opinion channel and a propaganda channel.
The point is that it's a real mistake to call Fox a conservative channel.  It's not.  It's a partisan channel.

Now, precisely how to think about Fox News and the Republican Party is a bit trickier. 

To begin with, bluntly, Fox is part of the Republican Party.  American political parties are made up of both formal organizations (such as the RNC) and informal networks.  Fox News Channel, then, is properly understood as part of the expanded Republican Party, just like Hill staff of GOP Members of Congress, or pollsters who only work for Republicans, or activists who volunteer for Republican campaigns, or think tanks that generate legislation for Republicans to support.  Son in the first place, Fox is simply part of the communications arm of the party.

The tricky part is that FNC isn't only a component of the Republican Party.  It's also a business, so it may have profit motivations beyond its partisan goals (both on the organizational and individual level, of course).  It's also, in format, a cable news network, and there are a variety of norms that come with that -- norms that may be important to both individual correspondents and producers on the one hand, and consumers on the other.  Fox may be part of the communications arm of the Republican Party, but it's not the same part as the RNC's web page, or ads for GOP candidates.

(Note that these sort of competing pulls affect all party actors.  Campaign pollsters are partisans, but they're also running a small business, and they also have professional standards they may care about upholding.  Formal party organizations are obviously partisan, but they're also bureaucracies, and those who study parties have long noted that within these organizations bureaucratic incentives can trump party goals).

Thinking of Fox as Republican, rather than conservative, helps organize the Tomasky/Douthat debate over whether liberals should appear on Fox.  Fox, of course, is free to call itself whatever it wants, but liberals shouldn't fool themselves about what it really is.

That doesn't mean that the case for boycotting Fox is clear for liberals.  Liberals participate in AEI public panels, even though they realize that AEI too (in Tomasky's words) "wants liberalism to perish from the face of the earth."  They do so because (or at least to the extent to which) AEI also upholds norms of civility and scholarship.  I don't think I need to spell out how that applies to FNC.

Beyond that, I don't think the decision to go on is one of principle, but one of tactics.  Is this particular Fox program one with a history of upholding broadcasting norms of giving people a fair chance to make their case (in which case Douthat's argument for reaching out to Fox's audience makes sense), or are guests used to provide a thin cover of "balance" but otherwise given no reasonable chance?  Would a full boycott (if such a thing was possible) discredit FNC among casual viewers who currently don't understand what they're watching?  (In my opinion, that's easy: it wouldn't). 

By the way, to me the word "propaganda" has more of a pejorative connotation than I would want to use in these circumstances...there's nothing at all wrong with parties having means of communicating with supporters and interested others.  Indeed, there's a long history of partisan newspapers in the United States; that's the main way that people learned about current events in the 19th century.  As one who supports strong (although not necessarily hierarchical or ideologically consistent) political parties, I'm mostly happy about the reemergence of the partisan press, even if its quality isn't what it might be, and I like the 20th century "neutral" press, too.


  1. A slightly different point, but..... As I said last week, I'm skeptical of your argument that GOP hardball tactics don't work -- I think they've played a role in keeping an otherwise noncompetitive hard-right party afloat -- but I will say, FWIW, that I think that that point applies well to Fox News. That is, I don't see the existence of Fox as doing much harm to Democrats or preventing them from winning elections. I don't actually know if that's right, and I'm just speculating about the reasons why it might be, but here are two possible differences:

    (1) Fox preaches to the choir, whereas hardball campaign tactics -- if Dems don't respond in kind, as they usually don't -- reach beyond the true believers to larger circles of low-information and possibly persuadable voters.

    (2) No matter how obviously un-"fair and balanced" Fox may be, it still does, in some fashion, report actual news, which means it can't entirely conceal reality from its viewers -- say, by creating an alternate universe in 2008 in which McCain was winning easily and Obama was not emerging as a hugely popular national figure.

    As I say, just speculation. But Fox just does not feel as worrisome to me as Rovianism and unlimited post-Citizens-United money in campaigns.

  2. Johnathon -

    IMHO, the word "propaganda" as applied to FNC is not pejorative enough. The comparison to print media is not apt. FNC misuses the public airways, as do a multitude of right-wing commentators on AM radio.

    FNC pretends to be a news network, and this fools more than just the choir - casual viewers can get taken in as well, by the veneer of newsiness; and there are few, if any balancing voices.


  3. FNC pretends to be a news network, and this fools more than just the choir

    In fact, it also fools the beltway journalists, even the hardworking, honest journos among them. Get them alone in a private conversation, and they mount a full-throated defense of Fox news as a legitimate news organization, quickly citing the quality of Shep Smith's international news show, and they have great affection for Major Garrett (who has since left Fox but the point remains) and many of the day-to-day Fox producers and correspondents like Wendell Goler.

    They tend to see Fox as similar to the Wall Street Journal, whose "wall" between editorial and news reporting is legend. Interestingly, the journos I have asked and who have strongly defended Fox to me, never actually watch Fox News. So it's kind of a pack mentality, kneejerk defense because Fox "reporters" are in the beltway social network, they do pool duty, are in the travel pool, and those social ties immunize Fox from criticism by their peers. It just isn't done.

  4. I take James' point that Fox has more indirect influence than it should thanks to its acceptance as legitimate in Beltway circles, including those of other (or rather, actual) journalists. But as to Jazz's points: Is it actually operating on the "public airways"? Isn't it entirely on cable? The distinction is important, because the reason for restricting the public airwaves is that there's a limited supply of them, whereas in theory you can multiply cable channels indefinitely. Also, I don't worry so much about Fox's impact on "casual viewers" because it seems to me that, by definition, casual viewers would be those who are just tuning in occasionally and who are therefore exposed to other sources as well. So I wouldn't expect that they would instantly believe everything they hear on Fox. I do expect that of regular Fox viewers, but that's why they're regular Fox viewers, and that group we have always had with us even before there was cable news or, for that matter, television.

    None of this is to say that the presence of Fox is anything but a blight on the Republic. I'm just suggesting that it may not deserve to be top among our many political worries.

  5. Part of the problem with Faux News for me is that it's kinda like I'm a moth to flame. What they do is so odious to me that Faux News gets mentioned and I become less sure about my arguments against it, because I recognize my own bias in this regard. My revulsion of them is so pure, that I have to take seriously the idea that I misread their impact and importance, and I could be wrong in either direction.

    With any standard Republican talking point or Republican themselves, I can understand the motivation: politicians have constituencies, and one of their jobs in this system is to represent those constituencies. Fine. But, there's this notion of an unbiased press that's this "received wisdom" that's harder for me to step outside of.

  6. Disagree strongly with Tomasky & Sullivan. It's far better to have a viewpoint represented poorly on Fox News than not at all. Sure, a liberal pundit may go on the air and be set up to look bad; but there's still a positive effect in that it still forces the viewer to humanize the opposing side. Like it or not, a lot of people watch Fox News. Fox couldn't care less about a liberal boycott; they want nothing more than to insulate their audience, and watch the "liberals hate America" rhetoric catch on even more easily.

    Why do think U.S. military and Israeli officials appear on Al-Jazeera? They often go on the air alongside a hostile personality, and face a hostile audience. But they do it, because Al-Jazeera is the most watched news network in the Arab world, and they've learned it's much better to have their viewpoint portrayed negatively than not portrayed period. In fact, of all the countries that are either in the middle east or hold a presence there (to include the UK and the US), Israel is the only country that has never blocked access from Al-Jazeera's reporters.

  7. I'm mostly happy about the reemergence of the partisan press

    A partisan network or newspaper is fine as long as it admits what it is and is both truthful and scrupulous about its facts. FOX News doesn't do any of those things. It doesn't even attempt to do any of those things. It is nothing more than a brainwashing tool that uses lies and distortions, 24 hours a day, to trash Democrats while passing itself off, with considerable success, as a respectable news outlet. It is not a partisan network, it is the GOP's Pravda.

  8. Frum has a piece on tieing together the old "epistemic closure" idea and Fox.

  9. " Fox is part of the Republican Party"

    I remember when gas prices were soaring two years ago. Do you know what O'Reilly was saying? He blamed it as a conspiracy by the oil companies. This is not something that GOP congressmen would ever say.

    Fox has also highlighted illegal immigration. Bush, Rove and many GOP businessmen didn't want any crackdown or criticism of illegal immigrants.

    How can you call Fox a "part of the communications arm of the Republican Party" when it sent out messages about oil prices and immigrants that Bush, the head of the party, strongly disagreed with? There is a difference between a network that is targeted at GOP voters and one that is controlled by the GOP party.

  10. I'm fine with Fox as a partisan propaganda network, mainly because I don't see any way to legitimately regulate the way they do business. I am frustrated with the inability of the Democrats to develop an equivalent message machine. The GOP and the right have developed a formidable one over the past 30 years and the Dems should seriously study their methods and come up with a competent Wurlitzer of their own. The GOP has seamlessly insinuated themselves into the mainstream media at all levels, and the Democrats ought to do the same thing. As it is, they are caught flat-footed at every turn, every single day. That's just needless incompetence on their part. Railing and moralizing about Fox doesn't get the job done.

  11. Mercer,

    1. American parties are neither hierarchical (certainly not fully hierarchical) nor monolithic. Fox hosts defied the Bush WH on some issues? So did GOP Members of Congress. On immigration in particular, there are clearly two relevant factions w/in the GOP, so I wouldn't be surprised if either was represented in the partisan press.

    2. As I said: it's not *just* a part of the party; there are at least two other motives going on. I don't think that everything that Beck says is the official party line, and I know that the two examples you cite are not the only ones. Organizing our parties the way we do has consequences, and one is that if you're going to use a Fox News or a bunch of talk show hosts to get your talking points out, those people may not always fall in line.


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