Thursday, September 23, 2004

How much of a problem for democracy is Fox News?

A segment on last night’s SBS “Dateline” program, showing a crown of mainly-young Leftoids protesting outside New York City’s Fox News HQ – aiming to close it down – got me thinking.

At the outset, let me say that I’m not at all opposed to the protesters’ ultimate goal – closing down Fox News, or at least having it operate honestly for what it is*: a propaganda channel for the US Republican Party. “Honestly” here means two things: it must openly acknowledge its political allegiances (never underestimate the susceptibility of the American public to fall for a straight-from-Orwell perversity like “Fair and Balanced”), and it must make its finances and favour-banks transparent (that the Republican Party doesn’t AFAIK fund Fox News with hard-cash makes the situation infinitely murkier: no media proprietor, and least of all Rupert Murdoch, runs a permanent unpaid ad without expecting something in return).

But surely, there’s gotta be a better way to achieve this than by having Yet Another Demo out the front of Yet Another Evil Corporate HQ.

Let’s isolate the actual beast. Fox News is an American pay/cable TV channel, and so operates in a highly-competitive, hundreds-of-channels environment, where broadcast bandwidth is available to just about anyone (regrettably, thanks to Telstra and the vested interests behind it, Australia is very different in this respect). Also, Fox News rates quite well – and this time in contradistinction to Orwell, it is just like any other television channel; i.e. supremely turn off-able.

In the classic Defence of Free Speech argument, then, the Left should be instead focusing its energies on neutering Fox News by providing more speech, and in particular, More Better-Than-Fox-News Speech. And preferably, rather than doing this via one cinematic big-bang (the movie Outfoxed), it would do so on and through Fox’s home turf – regular TV.

The realism of doing this depends on, of course, there being a roughly level playing field in the cable TV broadcast media. Which brings me to my crux: there is no such thing, but this has nothing to do with barriers-to-entry, which are minimal (as has already been noted), and have been that way since the early 70s.

Rather, the competitive advantage that the Right has been able to assert so well through the Fox News vehicle is one of labour. According to former Fox News producer, Clara Frenk:

I saw three distinct types of people who were on the air at Fox. The first group was the true believers - these were people who not only believed the message, but who honestly and truly believed that they were serving a vital public interest because the rest of the media were hopelessly corrupted by liberalism. The second group were the opportunists - these were people who just wanted to be on the air, who just wanted a pay check. And then the third group were people who actually wanted to produce real news, and who were actually deceived into believing that they were working for a real news organisation. And these were the people who were the most frustrated. They were definitely in the minority and these were also the people who almost all ended up quitting. (same URL; transcript)

What the Opportunists and the Deceived both had/have in common, at a guess, is their being born after 1963, and therefore, the distinct lack of job openings for them in the rest of the media. Here, whether the media generally is hopelessly corrupted by liberalism/Left-ism is an amusing-if-it wasn’t-so-rancorous side-issue – what the media at large is hopelessly corrupted by is baby boomers, specifically a stick-together mass of older, less-capable journalists, who aren’t going anywhere (in all senses of the phrase other than the financial).

Fox News, being the new kid on the block, thus offers GenX something no other media organisation ever has – jobs, and lots of ‘em. Note here that while shock-jocks-on-news-TV is hardly a conceptually revolutionary concept, it is a very differently-resourced operation from radio, in terms of its labour intensiveness. Fox News doesn’t, and couldn’t work by just broadcasting back-to-back Opinionated Old Men Behind Desks: to rate, it needs its on-the-street reporters as much as any other news channel.

In summary, Fox News beagn by seeing a pool of surplus skilled labour, and went about exploiting it. Its ratings success has presumably been magnified by the higher proportion of young faces on its programming than on just about any other. The great tragedy is that the Left could so easily have prevented this happening – if the rest of the media, who have barely put on anyone since the 80s, had simply decided to run their workplaces by merit, there would have been a jobs bonanza for GenX, and Fox News would have been treated as a pariah channel by talented, job-hunting journalists, so nipping it in the bud. Conversely, the inflow of better, hungrier journalists into the rest of the media would have finished the job down the track, by making brash newcomer Fox News look like shoddy propaganda in comparison (aka the Defence of Free Speech argument above, but this time with legs) .

All in all then, the protesting GenXers have got the right tactic, but the wrong target. There urgently needs to be a level playing field for media jobs, and Rupert Murdoch is hardly the obstacle to this.

* in the long term, these are the same thing, anyway

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