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Fox News and MSNBC: Not the Competitors They Should Be

13 Apr 2010
Posted by Bruce Bartlett

Newsweek is out with a story about conservatives and Fox News that quotes me extensively. I just want to be clear about one thing. I don't think there is anything wrong with Fox being an overtly conservative/Republican news outlet. I think the cult of "objectivity" that has governed journalism in the modern era is impossible to achieve and makes for boring newspapers, magazines and broadcast news programming. It's a key reason why these traditional news sources are dying.

I give Rupert Murdoch enormous credit for recognizing a market opportunity to appeal to conservatives who have long felt that the traditional media had a strong liberal bias. And in the era from the 1950s to the 1980s I think the conservatives were right. The mainstream media did have a liberal bias, although it was never as strong as they thought.

The brilliance of Fox News was positioning itself in the objective center, which meant, relatively, that it was to the right of its competitors, all of which were to the left of center. This way Fox could legitimately claim to be "fair and balanced" while simultaneously appealing to conservatives, who were happy just to have a network where their issues were addressed and their values weren't implicitly ridiculed.

The problem is that since the 1990s the mainstream media has shifted to the right. I think the old liberal bias is completely gone and every major media outlet is pretty well positioned in the center of the political spectrum today. Liberals recognize this even if conservatives don't.

In order to maintain its position a couple of clicks to the right of its competitors this has meant that Fox had to move to the right of center. In the 2000s I think Fox has become explicitly right wing, often parroting the Republican Party line of the day. And of course, it is now the home of Glenn Beck, who is so right wing that he makes Rush Limbaugh look like a moderate.

Personally, I have no problem at all with this. I just wish Fox would stop pretending that it isn't a mouthpiece for the Republican Party and come out of the closet so to speak. The real problem is that the left and the Democratic Party have no comparable outlet and I think they should have one. While MSNBC tends to be slightly to the left it is not nearly as far to the left of center as Fox is to the right, nor does partisanship and ideology permeate its entire schedule as it does at Fox.

Unfortunately, I don't think MSNBC is capable of positioning itself as the left/Democratic alternative to Fox as long as it remains part of the NBC News operation. It's forced to operate too much like a mainstream media outlet. Comcast, which now owns NBC, should spin it off and give it the freedom to become the anti-Fox. I think it would be much more successful than it is now.


Actually I disagree on two

Actually I disagree on two heads: first, I'm not sure anyone is muzzling Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow or Ed Schultz, or that slipping the leash off their news gathering would appreciably increase their viewership. I've never thought that the left has same appetite for red meat as the right: the audience for NPR is dominated by self-described liberals, and red meat is decidedly not on the menu even if one finds NPR to lean left somewhat.

Second, as David Frum has pointed out, Fox actually gets better ratings when the Republican Party is on the outs, and so their relationship is more complex than that of patron and advocate. Fox makes money by dispensing ideological adrenaline by the Mason jar full. Sometimes that's in the partisan interest of the GOP, but quite frequently it isn't (e.g., the loss of NY-23 due mainly to the hubris of the Fox-devotee TEA set).

Do ya think?!?!

I come here (well, get your RSS feed) for new information, added news, and even a different slant on things. You usually deliver.

So what do I see today? "In the 2000s I think Fox has become explicitly right wing, often parroting the Republican Party line of the day."

Geeze... do you think that might be the case?!?

Next bit of wisdom - the sky is blue! Followed by grass is green! (except in Boise, where it is blue for some reason)

Rove and Luntz cracked the code of "neutrality" ...

... when they realized they could make stuff up and no one would call them on it.

"Democrats, pointing to the bill's CBO scoring, claim that the health care bill would decrease the deficit and increase the number of people insured. Republicans said that it could lead to euthanizing the elderly, and fascism. It will certainly be a hotly debated topic in the weeks and months to come."

Facts don't matter; getting quotes from "both sides" does, even if one side is demonstrably wrong and perhaps insane. This dominant style of journalism actively serves to mislead readers, who tend to assume that there's some sort of controversy, and both sides might be exaggerating a bit.

Now, I am under 40, so I don't really remember the pre-"liberal media" attack media. And maybe I didn't pay close enough attention ten years ago. But I don't recall seeing liberal-leaning in the media. It seems to me that all the caterwauling about the "liberal media" was just an effort to "work the refs." And it's worked: the determinedly postmodernist GOP makes up its own reality (where we are always winning in Iraq, where tax cuts increase revenues, and where rural whites are somehow the truest Americans), and the media rarely tries to compare that reality to the one on the planet Earth.

NO ONE Proves "Media Liberal bias" EVER!

Agree with mlloyd, in fact Im 54 and STILL cant find that liberal media the Cons always refer to. Ive spent the last 15 years researching and found mostly what I call "Center Positioning" or an Artificially "Moving the Center to the Right" Campaign. It succeeded! Plain and simple, the campaign succeeded!

Fox News

I think you miss two elements. There are a lot of Americans who are basically uneducated and uninformed and, frankly, many who are not very bright. Fox serves these people very well and they are probably its core constituency. Most of these people get their info from TV since all they need to do is plop themselves down in front of the screen. Americans who are better educated, better informed, and frankly more intelligent tend to get less of their info from TV, and more from the internet because they know how to surf and are curious enough to seek out information for themselves. Thus MSNBC will never have as many viewers as Fox. And being more leftish than it is will probably not win it that many more viewers.

My problem with FOX is that

My problem with FOX is that it is neither Republican (which I think is useless anyway) nor conservative. Look at the schedule of FOX with very profane shows (I am libertarian so I don't mind - but don't believe that Murdock is any kind of conservative other than financial). My problem with FOX is just the plain stupidity - maybe the stupid market is underserved, but can't we have some intelligent people on FOX (other than Krauthammer??? that man is suffering!!!)


So the solution to our political problems is using giant media corporations as propaganda tools for one side or the other? How exactly are the American people helped by having spin and lies propagated by either side of the political spectrum?

Additionally, you are assuming that the left would even want the equal-but-opposite version of FOX. As a self-identified progressive, I can say that I certainly would find such a thing as distasteful as I find FOX. If a "liberal" media outlet was consistently and deliberately lying to the public; if it were propping up a jingoistic, rascist, and anti-patriotic political movement with a tendency toward violence, I would be utterly dismayed and disgusted. I honestly don't see how such a thing would be of benefit to anyone.

I suggest we need a stronger support for civic education and a space for news to be news instead of entertainment rather than further falsehoods, spin, and greed for a market at all costs, no matter its effects on the body politic.

I mostly agree

I do remember the pre-'liberal media' attack media, and I do think they had a point at the time. It was not so much a matter of explicit bias, and more a matter of the way issues and questions were framed. There was a real but unspoken assumption that the liberal viewpoint was that of the mainstream, common-sense majority, and conservatism was presented as an alternate view that was out of the mainstream and possibly a little kooky.

This is exactly the sort of bias that many liberals complain of today, not of Fox (which is a totally separate issue), but of mainstream, theoretically neutral media like CNN. That issues and questions are framed in such a way as to implicitly present the conservative position as that of the mainstream, common-sense majority, and liberalism as an alternative view that's out of the mainstream and possibly a little kooky. And I think they're right too! I think the media landscape has changed that much, enough that conservatives could be right about a liberal framing bias in the 1980's, and liberals can be right about a conservative framing bias in the 2000's.

It's partly that the media has attended to those conservative complaints. Which is good in itself, they should have. But at this point they're bending over backwards to protect themselves from that charge--and it's not going to do them any good, because a lot of conservatives are going to keep up the complaints no matter what they do.

And it's partly that conservative ideas really did become the mainstream majority. It may have taken the media some time to catch up with that fact, but now that they have, they're not going to let go of it, even if (or when--I think this has already happened) conservative views have become extreme enough to be out of the mainstream again.

If I have one little niggle with the article, it's with the claim that Fox started out at the "objective center." I think it was consciously right of center from the beginning, at least in its editorial commentary. I don't know, though--it's so hard to pin down what the "objective center" is, so I could be wrong and that was it.

This is just another thing that convinces me that the conservatives/Republicans today have switched places, intellectually and stylistically, with the liberals/Democrats of 30 years ago. I think it's a cycle, and the thing is that most of us only ever see a part of it. We come in into the middle of the cycle and take that to be the natural order of things, when really it's just a temporary condition.

Oops. Sorry for going on like that. Still, now it's typed, I may as well post it. It's probably not the *worst* bit of blather anyone will see on the internet today. ;)

Fox News and MSNBC: Not the Competitors They Should Be

I believe that great conservative hero Forrest Gump best described Fox News:

"Stupid is as stupid does."


One point I should have mentioned is that Fox is very good at what it does. Just technically it delivers the news in a way that maximizes its entertainment value. By contrast, MSNBC is seriously boring in my opinion. So it's not just a matter of having a liberal news channel that is equal and opposite to Fox politically and ideologically, it would also need to have the talent to deliver the news as entertainingly as Fox does. I think this is probably an insurmountable hurdle. As the dismal performance of liberal talk radio has shown, liberals don't seem to have a knack for delivering their message in a way that attracts a significant audience. I don't know why this is the case. I don't think it's inherent in the nature of liberalism to be less interesting than conservatism. I suspect that it is just a matter of changing fashions. One of these days a liberal Rush Limbaugh or Roger Ailes will come along and show how to do it.

Fox News also makes better

Fox News also makes better use of their airtime. On weekends, MSNBC is larded with prison life shows, true crime shows, and biographical programs that seem to exist only to make use of dusty 80s video tapes in NBC's vaults rather than to serve any particular demand. The channel's a no-go zone. The programs are unlike the weekday programming, so there's no reason for a weekday viewer to tune in.

Like Rachel Maddow? Well too bad, it's Saturday night so you can watch a rerun bio of Princess Di, who's been dead for over a decade, or maybe yet another look inside San Quentin.

At the same time these shows are on MSNBC, Fox is running (or re-running) their partisan programming. People who like the weekday programming get more of the same on the weekend. Or specials featuring Sarah Palin or Ollie North.

I think this basically shows that MSNBC is still the redheaded stepchild of NBC, whereas Fox News is something News Corp is actually interested in.

The media return to their roots.

In the early part of the 19th century newspapers were opinion sheets with a little news on the side (every party had a newspaper). After 1898 and Hearsts pushing the US into a War, and in particular the 3 headed oligopoly of TV news the fiction of objectivity appeared. Now that the barriers to entry are reduced, or in the blog world almost non-existant, the media are returning to their roots.

I agree

Historically speaking the postwar period in which the media suppressed overt partisanship and ideology and strived for some notion of objectivity was an aberration. I think this resulted mainly from consolidation of the newspaper industry as major cities increasingly became one-newspaper towns and the dominance of the three major networks in the pre-cable era. Now the media is getting back to the prewar style in which there was no division between reporting and opinion, with intense competition keeping everyone honest. But for the time being we are in a transition period in which many journalists feel bound by the old rules even as readers and viewers increasingly reject them.


Do you have some kind of evidence that "intense competition" in the news media will keep everyone honest instead of creating a cycle whereby invective, spin, and bias are used to preach to the choir? Also, as more and more media outlets are owned by fewer and fewer corporations (who are bound by law to make profit their primary consideration, over and above factual news-gathering or responsible journalism), how does this help promote intense competition?

Though I'm certainly

Though I'm certainly displaying my bias here, but I truly believe that there can never be liberal competitors to Fox News and talk radio because liberals simply don't need to distort reality so much to fit their world view. In short, reality has a liberal bias.

So if we had a Republican

So if we had a Republican network, and a Democrat network, where would we go to get the truth?


I tend to not believe in conspiracy theories, therefore have a hard time believing there is collusion between the major news outlets to be biased. It is more believable that the major outlets are middle of the road and one news station is biased. Typically journalists try to remain objective and do a decent job. But this all goes to something bigger with the conservatives/tea partiers/republicans. As 91% of the talk radio stations are conservative and fox wipes up the other cable news outlets, there is more to it than they are more entertaining. There is a certain portion of our population that wants there preconceived notions reinforced on a daily basis and that anything that is not what they think/spoon-fed is obviously liberal/left wing or even radical. I haven’t put my finger on why it is this way but I have a feeling it has something to do with that same portion of the population living in fear of any change (among other things). Maybe liberals are happier with life and aren’t living in fear. They also don’t buy into the liberal propaganda emails that are circulated, or the very successful radio shows and cable news shows. Oh that’s right, that has yet to materialize and I wouldn’t hold my breath. But who the hell knows.
Bruce is right though, MSNBC is not the opposite of FOX. They have a center right conservative host on in the morning and Dylan Radigan later in the day who is anything but liberal. Could you even imagine if they had a liberal host a show on FOX….the world would end as we know it. Anytime Shep Smith gives a reasonable opinion he gets ripped by the viewers like you can’t imagine.
All the networks suck if you ask me. I don’t want to see politicians spewing talking points anymore…they all lie!

Re: "By contrast, MSNBC is

Re: "By contrast, MSNBC is seriously boring in my opinion."

Because Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and Neil Cavuto are just such P.T. Barnum-style showmen.
Granted, Beck is a discursive, facial-contorting speedball, but much of Fox's programming is just as dry as MSNBC's.

Re: "As the dismal performance of liberal talk radio has shown, liberals don't seem to have a knack for delivering their message in a way that attracts a significant audience."

Once music made the jump to FM, Rush came along giving away his syndication rights to AM stations free-of-charge. Since then, the Conservative talk format has never really been challenged - somuchso, it is now practically institutionalized. On any given day, around noon, you can find El Rushbo heard on as many as 5-10 stations on your radio dial. It has nothing to do with talent. Libtalkers like Mike Malloy, Thom Hartmann, and Alan Colmes easily give Rush, Beck, or Savage a run for their demogoguery money. Put them on stations of similar strength (say 10,000 watts) and watch the Nielsen ratings soar.

Media bias

I think the saying goes, "When there is one clock in the room, everyone knows what time it is. When there are two clocks, no one knows." We don't need biased media, we need unbiased media. Until recently, American media outlets were mostly unbiased. However, just as Justice Stevens is a life-long Republican and now considered a liberal justice, public opinion has changed and people see unbiased sources as liberal.

"I'm not sure anyone is

"I'm not sure anyone is muzzling Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow or Ed Schultz"

Keith Olbermann is a centrist and Ed Schultz is a Goldwater republican. Rachel Maddow is step in the right direction but she is really more of a left-leaning policy wonk/journalist than a true partisan. Moderate leftists like Amy Goodman or Naomi Klein would be a step in the right direction but I would really like to see a national media outlit give a voice to someone like Chomsky (or the late Howard Zinn). Unfortunately, the left has been largely banished from public discourse by decades of corporatist media control.

FOX is Good for America How?

When FOX goes into a tizzy about the Nuclear Security Summit logo (a representation of a hydrogen electron) claiming that the image is mean to be the crescent moon signifying Muslim identity, I am baffled by the prospect that an equal but opposite network would be at all good for the country.

Bruce, you suggest that a

Bruce, you suggest that a putative "liberal Fox" probably can't be as entertaining as the real one that we have. I agree. It is just fundamentally more interesting to watch someone kick another person when they are down, to lap up a story on welfare queens and freeloaders (a journo talking about that is particularly amusing, but that's another story), to be titillated by fear of immigrants, etc. than, for example, to explore why our teen pregnancy rates are so high or why a person making $100k a year can be bankrupted in our country by a bad-luck draw in one's personal health. What's more interesting, Friday the 13th or the History of the Avocado? Civilization is about constraining our basest urges and working for the longer term, but Fox knows that what sells is fear, ridicule, and showing no weakness or gray area or acknowledgment that there are two sides to any issue. Liberals implicitly have a less compelling story to tell, if you are looking to be entertained in your news rather than to become informed.

Corporate boycotting of FOX

You could be over the top when typically conservative interests (200 major companies) boycott your network:

Objectivity V. Neutrality

The problem with "journalistic objectivity" is that it's not really objectivity at all. Many confuse neutrality with objectivity. They have replaced Harry Truman's economists - "on the one hand Democrats say X, but on the other hand Republicans say Y." I'm not sure if it is the pressure of a 24 hour news cycle, or what, but 999 climate scientists can say (and substantiate) that global warming exists and is impacted by human behavior and 1 can say otherwise and we'll get 2 quotes, one from each "side," without any context showing the overwhelming support for one side or the other.

FOX on the other hand, does not engage in this practice despite its cynical motto "we report, you decide." It is definitely not neutral. However, FOX does not engage in objectivity either. Objectivity requires, at a minimum, a good faith effort at examining the merits of one side or the other and presenting the results of that review.

Journalistic objectivity, as practiced above, gives lies and ignorance a great advantage - equivalency with that which is likely to be true or at least the best interpretation of the facts as we know them.

Give me a one handed journalist!

MSNBC invites self described

MSNBC invites self described socialist Lawrence O'Donnell or DNC chairman Howard Dean as guest hosts.

How is that not liberal?

If I want center-left news, I'll go to sites like this that actually call out their own when they screw up

What's wrong with the media today is not that they hide their lack of objectivity but that they lack objectivity.

Fox News has long made me gag with its "fair and balanced" hogwash. I don't see Fox as being "conservative" as much as "anti-liberal". So many of their stories are on topics that you can't talk about with small children around. Yet FNC shows them because they make liberals look bad.

What's shocked me, and yes, I've been out of the country for a while, is how "anti-conservative" CNN and CBS have become. They don't prop up liberal views as much as try to beat down conservatives just as FNC tries to beat down liberals.

If other networks were anywhere near the center, FNC wouldn't be wiping the floors with them in the ratings. FNC will always get the far right viewership but FNC wouldn't monopolize the center-right viewership if other networks were closer to the center.

MSNBC has some conservatives

MSNBC has some conservatives as hosts as well. Not so much with Fox. It doesn't really matter if they catered to the left anyway, as Liberals don't need constant reinforcement of there views. That is why they don't tune into the radio or the tv for there info. That is obvious by the ratings.

television news

Television news as a useful information source ended in the early 1980s. Anyone who is still watching television and expecting to be even slightly informed is living in a fantasy world. There is a reason television news rates have been collapsing.

The news media has always had a right wing, pro-business slant, except for a brief period running in the late 50s and early 60s when left wing and business interests happened to align. Those days are long gone.

Bartlett on Fox

The problem with the media in this hypercompetitive 24-hour news cycle is all outlets sense a lot of pressure to say something that will get the public's attention. Whether it's Glenn Beck working up some crocodile tears on Fox or Keith Olberman getting worked up over some evil right-wing conspiracy, the media feel an ever-growing need to gin it up a little. You know, sensationalize it a bit. God forbid it be boring.

And so when President Obama says he thinks the Arizona illegal immigrant bill is "misguided" or the result of federal goverment being "irresponsible," the headline on CNN shouts, "Obama slams Arizona bill."

Critiques, yes; slams, no.

Had Obama called the bill the word of "slack-jawed, knuckle-dragging dolts," you could call that a slam. But Obama doesn't roll that way, does he?

Maybe the coffee party has it right. Tone down the rhetoric. Save the shouting for the playground.

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