If you happened to turn on FOX News anytime recently, you were likely to see an excerpt of a Sept. 28 interview of George W. Bush by Bill O’Reilly. There is something particularly jarring about the sight of O’Reilly, an upstart and relative newcomer to the national news scene, sitting down for a chat with Bush, especially at a time when Dan Rather, a veteran news hero from what now appears to be another era, is fighting tooth-and-nail to keep his job. This looks like the changing of the guard, and it makes me nervous.
In recent years, cable news has supplanted network news as the primary source of TV news for the vast majority of Americans, and FOX News is the leader of the cable pack. (Need I add that “The O’Reilly Factor” is the most watched show on cable news?) Most Americans do not, however, describe themselves as conservative. Why do so many Americans choose news with a right-wing slant when such a slant runs contrary to their beliefs? The only possible explanation is that FOX News — and O’Reilly in particular — gives viewers something else they really like, something that gets them hooked and keeps them coming back for more.
FOX’s defining characteristic is its disregard for the traditional guidelines of broadcast journalism. As a result, FOX’s news shows lack all the characteristics typically associated with TV news, the most noteworthy of these being politeness towards interview subjects and the pretense of neutrality. This is what sets FOX apart from its competitors and, more than anything else, what has led to its success.
Think about it for a second. How many times have you watched Tim Russert interview Condoleezza Rice and wished that he would force her to actually answer the question? And how many times have you wished that Dan Rather would tell us what he’s really thinking? On FOX, these sorts of desires never go unfulfilled.
It goes without saying that FOX’s programming contains large doses of conservative bias. Even though most Americans don’t share those sentiments, the fact that FOX satisfies their other demands so well means that they’ll keep watching anyway, possibly even telling themselves that they can filter out the conservative slant.
The unmistakable reality, though, is that if people watch FOX News for long enough, their political views will move a bit to the right. While notable, this in and of itself does not seem like a huge deal until you consider something else.
By constantly insisting that it is “fair and balanced,” FOX is able to convince many viewers that it really is. As a result, when they finally pull away from FOX and go to any other media outlet, there suddenly seems to be a huge “liberal bias.” And it’s true: Compared to FOX, these other outlets are liberal.
The problem, though, is that FOX is not centrist. By constantly insisting that it is, it shifts the entire political spectrum to the right — and with it, the realm of acceptable political discourse.
So what are liberals like myself to do? We certainly can’t rely on the other media outlets, which, by choosing to cling to the traditional rules that FOX refuses to obey, doom themselves to be combatants in an asymmetric war they simply cannot win. There is, of course, always the option of launching a liberal version of the FOX News Channel that would operate almost exactly like FOX but replace the conservative bias with a liberal one. The reality, though, is that for a variety of reasons there’s room for only one FOX-type channel, be it liberal or conservative.
When the FOX News Channel was first launched, it was the product of an entirely new way of thinking. In order to successfully fight FOX, then, it seems that liberals will also have to come up with something totally new. In the meantime, we’ll have to continue to fight our battles the old-fashioned way, while also making use of some newer tools like the Internet and, specifically, blogs. And who knows — perhaps out of the synthesis of old and new will come the antidote to FOX News.
Adam Varner is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College.