News does not create a point of view. It endorses an existing one. Conservative perspectives are endorsed by the Fox News Channel, but with a twist – the channel feeds a nativist revolt by playing to conservatives resentful of establishment “elites.” But the mainstream media is guilty of bias, too. It is tacit bias rather than overt, hidden behind sanctimonious claims of objectivity, but it is no less dangerous. One cause of that bias is the cozy, compromised relationship that develops among high-profile editors and newscasters and the politicians they cover. In the end they come to represent the very establishment Trump and his personal Pravda condemn.
Some of you aging BoW readers in the United States might remember a newscaster by the name of David Brinkley. He co-anchored NBC Nightly News through the 1970s, and in the 80s and 90s, he hosted Sunday This Week with David Brinkley. Over the course of his career, Brinkley received ten Emmy Awards, three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was right up there with Cronkite and Rather and Jennings and Brokaw and others in the pantheon. Respected. Revered. Trusted.
I was lucky, I got to know him a little, down at the Sea View Inn at Bal Harbor, in Miami. Two or three times in the 80s I spent New Year’s Eve there. Don’t ask, it’s a long story. The Sea View was owned by Dwayne Andreas, chief executive of Archer Daniels Midland, one of the largest agricultural combines in the world. Andreas, a prodigious political campaign contributor, once famously said “the only place you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians.” The first time I showed up at the Sea View there they were, the two of them, sitting by the pool. ADM were big sponsors of This Week with David Brinkley, so there’s no harm in it I thought, they were pals, but then I remembered that section in the BBC Television Handbook called “The Peril of the Favor” or something like that, where you learn essentially that you’re the one who buys the drinks and not the other way around, and I thought well, it might not be unseemly, but it sure as hell looks unseemly. I shrugged it off. I was a guest too, after all.
The next day, same thing. Except three more people had joined them. One was Bob Dole, the long time Republican Leader of the Senate. Another was Howard Baker, another Republican and Senate Majority leader – and later Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan. The third was Paul Volcker, then Chairman of the Federal Reserve. And it began to trouble me all over again that Brinkley and these guys were more than just colleagues, they were obviously close friends, and I could see their wives were close too, and they all knew each other well and socialized a lot, not just down here in Miami at New Years, so really, I wondered, what were the chances that Brinkley would do his job and bear down like an impartial hardass when they screwed up? What were the chances Brinkley would slam shut the door when they came to him for a favor – like shading a story about the economy perhaps, or even spiking one – over a Bullshot in the Cabana Bar by the pool?
Yes, I was that naïve.
I hadn’t been here long you see, I didn’t understand yet that the rules governing the journalist-subject relationship were more “flexible” on this side of the pond, or that television news ratings here relied so much on wrapping the news around a packaged personality for differentiation, or that journalists were often so obsessed with fleshing out narratives aligned with their political sensibility that they couldn’t see an alternative narrative that was closer to the truth if they were hit over the head with it – like this, for example. But I did understand that journalistic access meant privileged access and with that came control of the message, and when you surrendered to the control of those you are supposed to be keeping honest, you became one with them, an anointed member of the elite, an insider, privy to secrets forever unknown to the great unwashed. Trusted.
This insignificant personal tale came to mind as I read “The Making of the Fox News White House” by the marvelous Jane Meyer, in the March 19 issue of The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/03/11/the-making-of-the-fox-news-white-house
This is how she begins it:
In January, during the longest government shutdown in America’s history, President Donald Trump rode in a motorcade through Hidalgo County, Texas, eventually stopping on a grassy bluff overlooking the Rio Grande. The White House wanted to dramatize what Trump was portraying as a national emergency: the need to build a wall along the Mexican border. The presence of armored vehicles, bales of confiscated marijuana, and federal agents in flak jackets underscored the message.
But the photo op dramatized something else about the Administration. After members of the press pool got out of vans and headed over to where the President was about to speak, they noticed that Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, was already on location. Unlike them, he hadn’t been confined by the Secret Service, and was mingling with Administration officials, at one point hugging Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security. The pool report noted that Hannity was seen “huddling” with the White House communications director, Bill Shine. After the photo op, Hannity had an exclusive on-air interview with Trump. Politico later reported that it was Hannity’s seventh interview with the President, and Fox’s forty-second. Since then, Trump has given Fox two more. He has granted only ten to the three other main television networks combined, and none to CNN, which he denounces as “fake news.”
Hannity was treated in Texas like a member of the Administration because he virtually is one.
It’s not hard to see this writing for what it is – it’s selective bias. The point is not just that Hannity’s relationship with Trump is an especially cosy one, even given the prostitutional relationship between media heavyweights and the political class that I first became aware of down at the Sea View. The point is that Hannity couldn’t care less about how that looks. He doesn’t care that in his relationship with Trump he is violating an ancient precept of journalism, the one that aspires to neutrality. He knows that the closer to Trump he looks, the better his demo likes him – and trusts him. And that’s what rankles people like Meyer the most. They like to think that they’re the truth seekers. They’re not. They’re the truth keepers. The keepers of their version of the truth.
We turn to news not to have our opinions formed but to have them reinforced. News does not create a point of view, news endorses a point of view. The news we like is the news we trust – the news we trust is the news we like. It’s the circular logic of the media audience and in today’s fractionated media universe, it’s what makes media work. Social media would be nothing without it.
How do you know if a news story is true? If you agree with it.
Most mass media news outlets look and feel and sound the same. Networks and newspapers rule out distinctive voice and overt political position because they want to appeal to the largest possible audience, and also because they do not want to offend the delicate sensibilities of their advertisers. But they can’t help themselves. In the end, by their selection and placement and treatment of story, they deliver a particular and recognizable perspective anyway. Mostly it’s the perspective of the editorial herd, who take their cue in the first instance from the running order of their primary supplier, the Associated Press.
Liberal and conservative media outlets, however, focus more deliberately on confirming their audience’s biases. They’re not off on a fool’s errand trying to please everybody, they make their money the narrowcast way, by getting deep into a vertical market. Nobody does that more intently than FNC, the Fox News Channel.
But there is something else going on too, something very important; FNC does not simply promulgate a low-brow, natively conservative agenda. It’s more insidious than that. FNC programs populist revolt. It should not come as a surprise; Resentment against the perceived liberal elites is a classic play of Rupert Murdoch, FNC’s owner. Murdoch is the original media anti-vaxxer.
Stoking populism seems like a strange preoccupation for a billionaire. What motivates it? I did a little work for him years ago with a business partner of mine, and I tried to figure him out. In the end I saw that it was no mystery. It’s just that he is quintessentially Australian. You cannot understand Murdoch unless you understand that if there’s one human failing that Australians loathe, it’s pretention. I don’t know where that comes from, my best guess as a New Zealander is that it was ingrained in the Aussie psyche during the days of English dominion. It leads to an instinctive dislike of people who think themselves superior and possessing of every advantage. They become natural targets for a fearless Aussie gambler like Murdoch, with that great big anti-colonial chip on his shoulder and a huge desire to prove himself better, always better.
How does an outsider from the colonies muscle his way into the British establishment and become the ultimate insider? He buys the prestigious London Times. He follows that up by launching Sky Television, saying publicly that he is motivated to found Sky by his dislike and distrust of the BBC and its protected monopoly. In both transactions he is aided and abetted by Margaret Thatcher. In the United States he purchases the Wall Street Journal, the voice of record for the business establishment, and, with the help of Ronald Reagan, overthrows the three-network oligopoly that dominates broadcast television. Moves like these were an expensive way to flip the bird, but it sure made him feel good. It’s a story full of irony, this story of how an anti-establishment Australian fought his way up to become a powerful establishment figure in three countries.
The New York Times has a profile of Murdoch in this Sunday’s magazine, by the way. Here’s a link to it. It focuses on the succession fight within the family.
Under his stewardship the positioning of the London Times, Sky News, and the Wall Street Journal is center-right, but to call Murdoch ‘conservative’ is to miss the point. He has the conservative instincts of any successful self-made businessman, but he is actually devoid of any ideology beyond self-interest. For him it’s all about the business, all about positioning his outlets in the marketplace so that they fit precisely with an audience and make a lot of money. The positioning can vary along a continuum of conservative perspective, depending on where he sees the best opportunity to fill an unserved market need. If that means tapping into the worst of human instincts, so be it.
Unlike his more temperate broadsheets, his tabloid newspapers around the world do just that. They thrive on a strident, populist cast. It was an easy move to pull off with his tabloids in Britain, where awareness of relative status and class is pervasive and those on the lower rungs can be stoked quite easily by a dig at the toffs. The European Union has always been a useful target too, a target easy to portray as remote, self-important and out-of-touch with ordinary people. This position has been an especially successful strategy for Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper in these days of Brexit: Did the EU really ban bendy bananas? And that’s how you get to the positioning of the Fox News Channel. With the help of the late Roger Ailes, and Hannity, and of course Trump, FNC also thrives on a tabloid-like mix of resentment and envy.
That’s the same animating emotion of the Trump presidency. No wonder Hannity and Trump see eye to eye. They’re each chasing the same demo with the same formula.
And that’s where Brinkley comes in, again. The relationship between the establishment and those at the top of the media hierarchy is incestuous on both sides of the political spectrum. Everybody suspects it is and you know, they’re right. Hannity may be guilty of flaunting his access to Trump and members of his administration, but others enjoyed privileged access to Obama, too. Like Brinkley they were more discreet, but that does not mitigate the lack of judgment. It’s human nature, that’s all it is, but it leads to personal compromise and biased reporting. How could it not? Absent detachment there can be no objective judgment. And there’s always, always, a quid pro quo.
It’s not just a television thing, either. The high priests of the press are just as guilty. From a business and marketing point of view they are their own worst enemy. They have allowed themselves to be positioned as the mouthpiece of the liberal establishment. In doing so they have played right into Murdoch’s competitive hands, and into the hands of Trump. Can you blame those who call them out? They fawned over Obama. They ignored the polls and told everybody Trump wasn’t going to win, because he couldn’t win. Commentator after commentator preached the doctrine of Trump collusion with Russia, salivating in print – and on-air of course – at the prospect of a damning Mueller report.
The same personal hubris that makes it easy for media figures to be co-opted by those they cover can percolate through a business and cause great damage. Perhaps this is why the response by the press to the presidential accusation that they are the enemy of the people has been so lame. Hubris weakens competitive impulse. So we face a strange irony; Media products built upon selling advertising refuse to deploy that same advertising to foster their own brand position and editorial intent when under attack from the most powerful man in the country, and his allies. They are willing mutes.
By acting as a force multiplier for Trump and his angry core message, Fox News has consolidated its position as the most watched cable news network. Last year the channel generated about $2.7 billion in revenue. But FNC is playing a dangerous game, running a narrowcast news business at such an extreme. By “dangerous” I don’t mean in this instance anti-democratic, I mean that when you attach yourself to the fortunes of a particular politician and party, your ratings become directly susceptible to the mood of your audience. Even avid fans turn off the television and go to bed when their team is losing. After the midterms, in which the Republicans lost the House, the Nielsen ratings for Fox’s evening lineup – Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham – fell by twenty per cent.
Hannity’s ratings have declined recently but he usually delivers between 2.5 million and 3 million viewers a night. Sounds like a lot – until you understand that while narrowcasting may generate billions of dollars for a channel, as a governing media strategy it inevitably alienates the majority. Compare Hannity’s nightly ratings with the evening newscasts of network television:
November 2018 sweeps:
Network: ABC NBC CBS
• Total Viewers: 8,722,000 8,537,000 6,255,000
• A25-54: 1,824,000 1,907,000 1,287,000
The media business is a business of competing over perception. As you can see, the biggest nightly television news audience in the country is not that delivered by FNC, but that delivered by the three major networks. It’s not even close, and even the networks don’t match the reach of a newspaper business now on its knees. The perception of the news audience, you see, is that the Fox News Channel doesn’t deliver news that is fair and balanced after all. They believe the three main networks do.
But then, they weren’t with me watching the seduction at the Sea View all those years ago.