Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Considering its enemies, can Fox News be all bad?

In the early years of the United States, "newspapers were really the only source of news for American voters and they were typically operated by one of the two major party organizations" says an academic study of the period. Democratic-Republican newspapers warned that George Washington would make "a bold push for the American throne” and mocked John Adams as “blind, bald, crippled, toothless, [and] querulous.” Federalist papers countered that their opponents were "frog-eating, man-eating, blood drinking cannibals." So when Newsweek's Jacob Weisberg whines that "[t]he Australian-British-continental model of politicized media that Murdoch has applied at Fox is un-American," we know that he's not just a little off-base -- he's completely full of crap. In fact, we may want to celebrate the very things that have the White House's David Axelrod complaining that Fox is "not really a news station" and has his collegue Anita Dunn frothing that the overtly conservative outlet presents "opinion journalism masquerading as news."

From the 18th, through the 19th and well into the 20th centuries, American newspapers weren't just partisan -- they were dominant political players. Jeffrey L. Pasley, professor of political science at University of Missouri-Columbia and author of The Tyranny of Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic, notes:

Since American political parties lacked any permanent institutional structures before the 1850s, party newspapers and their editors came to embody and run the parties as no other institutions or actors could. Even after national party committees were created and national party newspapers were done away with during the Civil War era, newspaper-based politics remained the rule in many locales (especially the South and Midwest) into the early twentieth century, as shown by the fact that both major party presidential candidates in 1920 were party newspaper editors from Ohio.

The modern period of what we're assured is "objective" news coverage is an aberration that has lasted just a few decades. Really, the heyday of news-reporting without any (overt) point of view seems to occupy that period between the contraction of the newspaper industry and the rise of alternative media, including talk radio, cable and the Internet. In the 1890s, New York City had 19 daily newspapers. One way for these newspapers to differentiate themselves was by point of view. Of the top-notch papers, for many years, the New York Times was more liberal, the New York Herald-Tribune more conservative. Once that crowd of newspapers was whittled down to three by economic shifts and strikes, it was easy for the Times, like the last remaining newspaper in so many cities, to peddle its high-minded elitism as neutral coverage, and too bad if you didn't like it.

It's worth noting, though, that the two remaining New York City tabloids continued to distinguish themselves by politics, with the Daily News tilting left through most of those years, and the Post leaning right.

Heavily regulated broadcast media, subject to the fairness doctrine and limited to two (later, three) real networks, presented whatever didn't offend the FCC as journalistic true faith, with Walter Cronkite as its prophet.

And that gray, dull state of affairs lasted until people once again had alternatives to turn to, in the form of un-muzzled radio hosts, cable stations and Websites. And turn they did, fleeing from the old journalistic warhorses to outlets once again offering partisan takes on the news. Basically, "objective journalism" seems to be a saleable product only when the customers have no alternatives.

Not only has that product proven not particularly palatable to the public, there's a legitimate question to be raised over the value -- or even possibility -- of "objective" journalism. Was the like-it-or-lump-it coverage of the late 20th century really so devoid of bias? Or was it so steeped in a single attitude that its practitioners couldn't tell the difference anymore? After all, the choice of which stories to cover and which policy experts to quote are themselves expressions of judgements that are rarely devoid of bias. Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel was likely doing no more than telling a hard truth last year when he said:

"[T]his notion that journalism is objective, or must be objective is something that has always bothered me – because the notion about objectivity is in some ways a fantasy. I don’t know that there is as such a thing as objectivity."

And we have to keep coming back to the fact that, no matter what people tell pollsters, they seem to prefer news with a point of view. Not only is Fox News successful, but so are its counterparts. Few people watched MSNBC until it positioned itself as a liberal alternative to Fox and found a reason to exist.

Meanwhile, newspapers espousing objectivity, many of them the last print dailies in their communities, continue to hemorrhage readership.

Which may be good news across the board. Partisanship has its flaws -- Fox News was largely unwatchable unless you were a committed neoconservative during the long, dark Bush years. But MSNBC quickly found its footing as an antagonist of the powers-that-be. Now the positions are reversed and Olbermann and company often act as official mouthpieces while Fox discovers renewed relevance in afflicting the powerful.

Partisan journalists of the past and present don't just excite their audiences, they also bring hammers and tongs to their scrutiny of government officials of opposing viewpoints. Given the vast powers exercised by governments to destroy lives, wage war and crush liberty, the least we can do is hope that the watchdogs dogging their steps have every incentive to uncover misconduct and scandal -- something a bit more invigorating than a priest-like devotion to the profession. We knew that Keith Olbermann would tell us about any misstep by the Bush administration because he despised President Bush; we can be equally assured that Glenn Beck will eagerly reveal President Obama's screw-ups for the same reason.

So give us more of that partisan journalism -- from every perspective. It's effective, it's exciting, and it's a hell of a lot more American than the dull pabulum that Jacob Weisberg wants to spoon down our throats.



Blogger liberranter said...

Not only is there no such thing as "objective" journalism, it's unlikely that it would sell even if it did exist. Fox New's old motto "we report, you decide" is, you'll notice, no longer cited regularly, if at all, and for good reason: the sheeple who are any news media's customers don't want to "decide" for themselves. This, after all, requires at least a modicum of intellectual exercise, something that John and Jane Q. Public avoid like the plague. No, the "public" wants to be entertained above all else, which includes being told how and what to think. This explains not only Fox News's popularity, but that of MSNBC and CNN, each catering to the entrenched ideology of its customer base.

October 21, 2009 9:25 AM  
Blogger JR said...

Excellent piece, J.D. You are right about every single point you raise. However, in response to your headline question, I must reply:

Yes, Fox News can be and is all bad. Not because it's opinionated, but because the opinions it promulgates are ignorance and stupidity personified. Libertarians should avoid it like the plague. It is a tragedy that John Stossel has decided to sign up with those Neanderthals, a move that can only have the unfortunate effect of bolstering the general public's ignorant impression that libertarians have something in common with conservatives.


October 21, 2009 11:29 AM  

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