Truth to Power

When David Frum was a speechwriter for George W. Bush, I didn’t think much of him.  His most memorable phrase–the “axis of evil”–fed into the bipolar worldview of W’s administration, and was distinctly unhelpful.

Since he left politics for journalism, however, he has been nothing short of admirable.

Frum has joined the small but growing group of frustrated Republicans like Bruce Bartlett,  Norman Ornstein and Andrew Sullivan who have been willing to say aloud the things that so many of my own companions from a long-gone GOP share privately. He has been willing, as the saying goes, to speak Truth to Power.

A recent column about Fox News is an example, and well worth clicking through to read in its entirety.

Frum notes the research showing that Fox viewers know less than people who don’t watch any news at all, but he says that criticizing Fox for its manifest inaccuracies is to miss the point. Fox isn’t in the news business.

Before Fox, news programmers had struggled with the question of what their product was. Did it include health information, and if so, how much? Weather? Financial information? Human interest? Political opinion? Ailes built his new channel upon a very different question: who is my product for?

The largest generation in American history, the baby boomers, were reaching deep middle age by the mid-1990s. They were beginning to share an experience familiar to all who pass age 50: living in a country very different from the one they had been born into.

Fox offered them a new virtual environment in which they could feel more at home than they did in the outside world. Fox was carefully designed to look like a TV show from the 1970s: no holograms, no urban hipster studios, lots of primary colors.

In other respects too, Fox offered a path back to a vanishing past. Here was a place in which men were firmly in charge, and in which women were valued most for their physical attractiveness. Here was a place in which ethnic minorities appeared only in secondary roles — and then, with brave exceptions, only to affirm the rightness of the opinions of the white males in the primary roles.

Fox, Frum tells us, is intentionally geared to the anxiety-filled old white men who are having great difficulty dealing with the uncertainties of a rapidly changing world–a world where they no longer enjoy unquestioned privileged status.

Like talk radio before it, but even more intensely, Fox offered information programmed not as a stream of randomly connected facts, but as a means of self-definition and a refuge from a hostile external reality. Fox is a news medium that functions as a social medium.

Ailes began by identifying his target audience, and shaping his “news” to their tastes. As a business strategy, it was brilliant. Unfortunately, the collateral damage has been extensive–both to the American political system, and more recently (and ironically) to the Republican party.

What’s that old story about riding the tiger?


8 thoughts on “Truth to Power

  1. In her recent New Yorker article about Roger Ailes (“Bad News,”Jan. 20, 2014), Jill Lepore notes: “Between 1952 and 1988, an era marked by the Fairness Doctrine (and, according to conservatives, a liberal media), Republicans won seven out of ten Presidential elections. Between 1988 and 2012, during the ascendancy of conservative media, Republicans won only three out of seven Presidential elections. When Mitt Romney lost, Ailes blamed the Party. ‘The G.O.P. couldn’t organize a one-car funeral,’ he said. Another explanation is that the conservative media drove the Party into a graveyard.”

  2. What is important News- If there is a bombing in Iraq that kills 40 people is that outweighed by one person in the US killed in a school shooting? The West Fertilizer Company explosion on 4/17/2013 killed in Texas killed 15 people and injured over 160. The Boston Marathon bombing on 4/15/2013 killed two people and injured 260 more. The Boston Marathon bombing coverage far out weighed the Texas Explosion.
    A chemical spill on 1/9/2014 in West Virginia into a river led to 300,000 people being without water. The Bridge Gate of Chris Christie has received far more Media Coverage than the Chemical Spill.

    CNN, MSNBC and FOX have morphed into entertainment. It is an audience they appeal to. The effort is to attract viewers with the calculation probably being no different then if the public would rather watch Westerns, Quiz Shows, Law and Order, CSI, reruns of Seinfeld or the Big Bang Theory.

    We have shows on TV that present the Para Normal and out right fiction as facts. Pieces of the True Cross are tracked down, Noah’s Ark, and Aliens. Staged reality shows are presented.

    The problem IMHO is that people no longer trust the News will be reported as facts, as the News is presented to an Audience that is receptive to it’s content. The result is CNN has been referred to as the Communist News Network by it’s detractors, and FOX as Faux News Network. Thus, if you inform some one you heard something on CNN, MSNBC or FOX you carry that brand label.

  3. Enough candidates and policymakers have been publicly embarrassed by repeating inaccurate ‘news’ they heard on Fox that I’m surprised anyone listens to Fox anymore.

  4. Louie: I get what you are saying to a certain degree, but comparing MSNBC to Fox really isn’t fair. I will admit that I do align on the liberal side of most issues, but that isn’t clouding my judgement in that I watch at least as much Fox as I do MSNBC This is something I started doing long ago to avoid the “perception bubble” which basically holds that if you consume media that largely agrees with you, it will continually reinforce those beliefs and hinder objectivity.

    David Frum is correct, Fox is an entertainment machine. MSNBC is as well, but to a much much smaller degree. By listening to MSNBC, one can actually learn and understand what a debate is. Chris Hayes’ “All In” is the best TV news program running in my opinion. Obviously, this is just my opinion, but it is a disservice to MSNBC to compare its content to Fox’s. I’m not sure CNN does anything but breaking news anymore.

  5. @Louie

    I apologize in advance for going off on a tangent. The Boston Marathon disturbed me more than the Texas fertilizer plant, although both were disturbing, the reason being that the Boston Marathon bombing was deliberate and was easily preventable, in that it was no accident. Plus, the bombs were placed nearby kids. The bombs were set-up to be low to the ground, meant to create chaos and terror. It was more about creating fear than it was achieving a body count. By the grace of god, having a number of people nearby that knew what they were doing, and doctors on site, that the body count was not actually a higher number. The terrorists took advantage of a feel good event where tight security is impossible to achieve. Most of the coverage was about the terrorists, whereas there were not terrorists involved in the fertilizer accident, so I don’t think the coverage was unreasonable, with Boston there was more variety to cover, and more angles to cover in terms of news. What more really could have been said about the fertilizer plant accident.

    There is a risk in working at a fertilizer plant, while not likely, it is a possibility. There is risk in going to work at a fertilizer plant that one knows about if one works there. Standing in the crowd at a major sporting event or walking on a sidewalk should be a nice day. Negligence and accidents while horrible, are easier to accept than deliberate acts meant to harm and terrorize.

    Plus, I was watching coverage of the Boston Marathon in a sport bar when the news broke of the bombings. I saw the aftermath on these huge life size TV sets. I have thought about attending the Boston Marathon as a spectator, whereas I have never thought about working in a fertilizer plant. I could more readily see me as a victim in Boston. That does not make the fertilizer plant any less horrible, just that the Boston Marathon was more of a reality to me.

  6. I cast my vote with Rusty. I just fail to see how people, and I know many who agree with Rush, cannot see past his BS. Then I remember that this is still America. People only race and not rationality.. Pity.

  7. Still there is the Fox Leg Legacy. If you’re a female, you’ve got to shot it on Fox. And they do. Palin wouldn’t show enough and they rid of her post haste. Go figure.

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