Fair & Balanced

Mike Farmer objects to my criticism of Fox News as a network which appeals to the doing brain rather than the thinking brain:

E.D. Kain tries to write a fair and balanced post on Juan Williams and the NPR fiasco, but, as usual when the subject has anything to do with Fox or the right, it contains the very silliness he criticizes. He makes the above statement and can’t see how this comes across to people who watch Fox objectively and find nothing of the sort that he claims is the entire point of Fox. The entire point! I can hear Fox management at an employee meeting going over the mission statement — "We haven’t been getting enough people upset, angry and frightened lately, and some of you have presented facts. I need to remind you it is our mission, the entire frigging point of this network, to cut people off from analysis, facts and reason. Come on, people!"

This claim is so absolutely ridiculous it makes me wonder how someone who is so obviousy smart could write such as this, and, then, if it was written in a moment emotional stupidity, not edit it out! I just don’t get it. Turning around the Juan Williams situation to criticize Fox and conservatives is also a silly act of partisanship that amazes me. It’s as if on the subject of Tea Party, conservatives or Fox, some of these guys lose about 30 points on their IQ. They begin to sound the birthers and the people who claim all Muslims are out to get Christians.

Mike does not elaborate on what the actual point of Fox News is – I imagine the network is supposed to be providing conservative viewers an alternate analysis of facts, a balancing slant to the traditionally mainstream liberal networks – in a nutshell: fair coverage of national politics.

If this were the case, I would whole-heartedly support it. However, Fox has long since drifted away from any attempt to broadcast an intellectually honest conservative alternative to the traditional MSM. If Bill O’Reilly were the worst of the talking heads employed there I might judge things differently, as I am of the mind that O’Reilly really does believe what he says, however blusteringly he says it. But Fox employs charlatans like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, and panders incessantly to an anti-intellectual base, far more driven by rumor and emotionalism than by any sort of fact-based reporting. And if you can’t make your case compelling without resorting to raw, unfettered emotionalism, and must so entirely skew your spin to almost entirely blot out any dissenting opinion or, for that matter, dissenting fact, then you’ve entered what some have termed epistemic closure, or managed ignorance, or just plain propaganda masquerading as news and analysis. As James Fallows* puts it, what Fox does (and does best) is provide “a unified political-cultural world view to the unfolding events of the day.”

I would love a more reasoned, measured conservative journalism to take root – a Fox 2.0 that abandoned all the antics and dishonesty and stated its case for conservatism forcefully and cogently, but I’m not at all sure there’s a market for that – or at least a large enough market for that. And therein lies the rub: the point of Fox may not be to create an emotionally driven television station, but the market has spoken, and Beckian hyperbole is what the people want. And so it’s what the people will get.

Derbyshire said it well a while back:

Much as their blind loyalty discredited the Right, perhaps the worst effect of Limbaugh et al. has been their draining away of political energy from what might have been a much more worthwhile project: the fostering of a middlebrow conservatism. There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism. It’s energizing and fun. What’s wrong is the impression fixed in the minds of too many Americans that conservatism is always lowbrow, an impression our enemies gleefully reinforce when the opportunity arises. Thus a liberal like E.J. Dionne can write, “The cause of Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss, Robert Nisbet and William F. Buckley Jr. is now in the hands of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. … Reason has been overwhelmed by propaganda, ideas by slogans.” Talk radio has contributed mightily to this development.

It does so by routinely descending into the ad hominem—Feminazis instead of feminism—and catering to reflex rather than thought. Where once conservatism had been about individualism, talk radio now rallies the mob. “Revolt against the masses?” asked Jeffrey Hart. “Limbaugh is the masses.”

In place of the permanent things, we get Happy Meal conservatism: cheap, childish, familiar. Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right. But however much this dumbing down has damaged the conservative brand, it appeals to millions of Americans. McDonald’s profits rose 80 percent last year. […]

There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism. Ideas must be marketed, and right-wing talk radio captures a big and useful market segment. However, if there is no thoughtful, rigorous presentation of conservative ideas, then conservatism by default becomes the raucous parochialism of Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity, and company. That loses us a market segment at least as useful, if perhaps not as big.

Happy Meal Conservatism is doing very well in the polls, of course, and may indeed lead to victories in Congress this November. But middlebrow conservatism is as dead as it was when Obama swept to victory in 2008. There is no room for it on Fox. And I suspect a large swath of the middle and center-right in this country – the apolitical majority – will not be a sustainable voting bloc into 2012 let alone the more distant future. Fox is as much to blame for this as talk radio, and even more so as the two become indistinguishable from one another.

I am not at all opposed to the idea of Fox News as a counterweight to the traditional MSM. I’m in favor of opinionated journalism. A Fox News grounded in middlebrow conservatism would be an undeniably good thing, would expand and add to the larger political conversation. But it would probably have worse ratings, too.

* The whole Fallows piece is well worth the read, and echoes much of what I believe are the differences between Fox and NPR, and why journalism would suffer more from the loss of the NPR model. Only Fallows has a great deal more experience actually working with NPR and other journalists, and his insights are quite valuable as a result.

Also, I think that Fallows is correct – NPR should have given Williams a choice: NPR or Fox, not both, and made the decision final and in the hands of Williams himself. However much I disagree with the interpretation of Williams’ remarks, I nonetheless think his role at Fox was at odds with his role at NPR. On the other hand, NPR could revise its longstanding ethics guidelines and allow more opinionated journalism from its employees. I would worry, however, that something important might get lost in the transformation.

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23 thoughts on “Fair & Balanced

  1. I don’t know if it would have worse ratings though. Full disclosure: I have no opinion whatsoever about FOX News for what I think is a good reason- we don’t have cable and Ontario doesn’t seem to get FOX News anyway. I have, however, watched Glenn Beck quite a bit via the intertubes and find him totally fascinating. Maybe I’m totally off-base here, but it seems to me that part of his appeal comes from the idea that he is a sort of wonkish professorial type offering hard information about the dangers of progressivism, the importance of liberty, and American history more generally, while being a bit on-the-edge of his emotions. It’s a bit like Dr. House. I’ve seen interviews with his fans in which they say as much- they think of him as a college instructor. The criticism is often made that Beck is a phony, but does that suggest the real thing wouldn’t sell? I suspect his viewers would absolutely love a program with a highly educated Bill Buckley type explaining conservative ideas in depth and at a high level. [If any FOX execs are reading this, I expect royalties if this idea is ever carried out.]

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    • @Rufus F.,

      But how can one be intellectually honest while still trying to tell people that evolution and global warming aren’t real, that David Barton is right about our history, etc.

      If you ignore those topics you don’t get the audience, if you cover them honestly you piss off the viewers and make them think you are a liberal elitist.

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    • @Rufus F., “The criticism is often made that Beck is a phony, but does that suggest the real thing wouldn’t sell? I suspect his viewers would absolutely love a program with a highly educated Bill Buckley type explaining conservative ideas in depth and at a high level.”

      I think part of the reason Beck does so well is that he offers up the best of both worlds to his audience: (1) the feeling of having done one’s homework and worked out the truth, with (2) the ease of not having to open up a book (unless written by Beck) and the fortune of this hard-earned truth validating what his audience already thought.

      Because a Buckley-esc discussion would require work on the part of the audience (at least for all parts of the argument that couldn’t be drawn on a blackboard), as well possibly going against some of their already held views sometimes, I’m not sure their is an audience for it. At least not a large enough audience.

      I haven’t watched MSNBC much, but in keeping with my above theory, I’d say they don’t do as well as Fox in part because, rather than offer pseudo-intellectual arguments for their point of view, they don’t really offer any arguments for their point of view, beyond the daily shake of the head and roll of the eyes.

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    • @Rufus F., Seconded. I also happen to think that Beck is sincere, and since he’s sincere his position will move slowly and inexorably towards a more rational, less conspiratorial conservatism. Unlike, say, Limbaugh, who really genuinely is a charlatan (but quite entertaining).

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  2. Well that’s Mike for you, rarely an enemy to the right and only ever on policy; never on tone or bias. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s a conservative first and a libertarian second. I do remember a while back when Jason wrote his article on Libertarians and how much they’ve internalized the biases and language of the statist right. Mike’s always struck me as a fine example. Highly libertarian, but so very filtered through the conservative lens. No wonder he took such umbrage at that item.

    But then I’m a shamelessly biased neoliberal so I could just be projecting.

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    • @North, The thing about tone and bias is that its basically cultural. I mean, I’m significantly more libertarian than most of my friends and family here, who are dyed-blue-in-the-wool California Democrats to a man (the man being a Glenn Beck fan). I don’t agree with them about very much in terms of actual policy, but I reflexively defend the tone and priors (see they’re priors when you like them and biases when you don’t) of centrist Democrat politics against conservatives. If you’re going to attack the specifics of the healthcare reform bill then you and I will probably find a lot to agree about. If you’re going to argue that it was passed merely to increase the scope of government power rather than for its stated purpose then you’re calling most of my friends and family either stupid dupes or Machiavellian conspirators and I’m likely to argue with you, since I’m pretty sure they’re neither of those things. I’m pretty sure that’s also where Mike is coming from, except from the other side.

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  5. “Happy Meal Conservatism” – I like it.

    An unhealthy diet with lots of filler and very little actual nutrition, plus a shiny object that will give you brain damage if ingested.

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