Cover

WHO’S WINNING THE NEWS WARS? FOX SQUARES OFF AGAINST CNN

JONATHAN DURBIN October 4 2004
Cover

WHO’S WINNING THE NEWS WARS? FOX SQUARES OFF AGAINST CNN

JONATHAN DURBIN October 4 2004

WHO’S WINNING THE NEWS WARS? FOX SQUARES OFF AGAINST CNN

Cover

JONATHAN DURBIN

CALL IT WAR. With five weeks remaining before the next U.S. presidential election—and the country so deeply divided that discussing politics in public is something you might want to think twice about if you value your dental work—Republicans and Democrats have entered the Blood-sport phase of their respective campaigns. Last week, Democratic party nominee John Kerry told an audience in New York City that the administration has traded Saddam Hussein “for

a chaos that has left America less secure.” Republicans took that to mean that given the choice, Kerry wouldn’t have sent troops to Iraq, despite his earlier support for disarming Hussein—another sign of the Massachusetts senator’s contradictory and therefore suspect character.

Speaking in Iowa at the beginning of September, Vice-President Dick Cheney said, “It’s absolutely essential that on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we’ll get hit again.” Democrats interpreted that as Cheney saying a vote for Kerry is a vote for al-Qaeda. The smears are ugly. They’re also entertaining. And while partisanship might not exactly grease the wheels of government, it makes for great TV. As a result, the ongoing news wars in the U.S. are as vicious as the campaigns they’re covering.

On cable, the fight features the polemics of Fox News (“Fair & Balanced”) versus the drier, more even-keeled delivery of CNN (“Most trusted name in news”). During the Republican National Convention in New York, Fox more than doubled CNN’s Nielsen numbers. Conversely, CNN bested Fox on the first night of the Democratic National Convention during the three hours or so

that climaxed with the speech by former presidential scandal-magnet Bill Clinton.

As a general rule, though, Fox beats CNN in the numbers game. And though Fox does broadcast news stories, the model for the channel is more of a talk-radio format, or talk TV, which their CNN rivals have now

adopted. Prime-time Fox shows like The O’Reilly Factor are unashamed about practising advocacy journalism. Bill O’Reilly, the show’s host and Fox’s breakout star, once worked at Inside Edition. He’s skilled at needling the competition. A collection of titles from recent “Talking Points,” an editorial segment on his show, includes: “Desperation on the Far Left,” “Fat Cat Rockers for Kerry,” “GOP Comes Out Guns Blazing.”

Liberals have been quick to disparage the network’s tabloid-style branding of the news landscape, and its right-wing, rabidly proGeorge W. Bush bias. Outside Fox’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan, the news ticker is Republican red; CNN’s ticker is blue, the colour of Democrats. It’s not as simple as that—both channels claim objectivity in reporting—but prominent left-wing critics portray Fox as less a news-gathering agency and more an outgrowth of the Bush administration. That feeling was distilled in the political action committee MoveOn.org’s full-page ad in the New York Times in July. The ad’s text stated, “Communists had Pravda. Republicans have Fox.” Point taken.

Fox News CEO Roger Ailes has strong ties to the current administration—he worked for former presidents Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush—a fact publicized in a documentary released last summer called Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism (Murdoch is the chairman of News Corporation Ltd., the multinational conglomerate that owns Fox and many other media properties). In the film, by Robert Greenwald, former Fox staffers allege that their employers ordered them to slant their coverage to favour conservatives. And then there was Fox’s supercilious lawsuit against former Saturday Night Live comedian and current left-wing radio host Al Franken. The liberal activist titled his 2003 book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Fox called Franken’s use of “fair and balanced” a trademark infringement, but withdrew their complaint after a federal judge refused to block Franken from using the phrase.

As a result of the news wars, watching the presidential campaigns can be a little bipolar. If you watch Fox or read the New York Post (another News Corporation holding), you might be led to understand that the insurgency in Iraq is comparable to postSecond World War reconstruction troubles in Europe. You also might learn that Kerry’s

testimony before the U.S. Senate after his return from Vietnam—in which he discussed “atrocities”—was tantamount to treason. Most importantly, you might conclude that the Bush administration’s pre-emptive doctrine (shoot first, democracy later) is a sign of strength, while other models of foreign policy are irrelevant and weak-minded.

But if you watch or read the more liberal New York Times, for instance, you might be led to believe that the insurgency in Iraq is escalating into a full-blown civil war, one over which the U.S. is rapidly losing control. You might decide that Kerry’s testimony before the Senate was nothing short of heroic—a painful confession meant to

ON CABLE, as in

the presidential election, it’s the most entertaining competitor that draws the most popular support

alter the course of the government’s Vietnam policy. You also might believe that Bush’s pre-emptive doctrine runs counter to all the lessons learned since the end of the Second World War, and that far from making the world more secure, the administration is tipping the balance in favour of terrorism.

The trend toward talkier, more personable segments isn’t likely to fade. For the most part, conservatives have a lock on talk radio, and Fox’s ratings are a sure sign that the equation applies to television as well. (Popular CNN draws like Anderson Cooper 360s wad American Morning are as accessible as Fox’s opinionated segments, only not nearly as incendiary.) But it’s the liberals who own comedy, and news parody programs like Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Rathergate headline: “Documents on Bush’s service are undergoing the scrutiny usually reserved for blue dress stains”) remain terra incognita for Republicans. In a way The Daily Show is a Fox News mirror image. Both capitalize on the U.S. obsession with infotainment. On cable, as in the election, the most entertaining competitor draws the most support. I?]