Fox News Channel is still cable news’ leader of the pack, but the competition is gaining fast. Some commentators see Fox’s ratings decline as a repudiation of partisan, fear-mongering media. But Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi says hate media is alive and well.
Artist: Seamus Blake
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Buyer beware is probably the best advice we can offer news consumers these days. But for those who would rather buy in bulk, for those who prefer to be told what is right and who is wrong, there's always Fox News. Here's anchor Gretchen Carlson on Wednesday with White House counselor Dan Bartlett. GRETCHEN CARLSON: Dan, you talk about a hostile enemy obviously being Iraq, but hostile enemy's right here on the home front—yesterday, Senator Ted Kennedy proposing that any kind of a troop surge should mean that there should be Congressional approval of that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bartlett answered that he didn't view Senator Kennedy as a hostile enemy. Maybe so, but there's little doubt that for the Bush administration, Fox is friendly territory. We got more evidence of that on Thursday, when somebody forget to turn off a mike on Condoleezza Rice, and Reuters caught the Secretary saying, quote, "My Fox guys—I love every single one of them." BOB GARFIELD: It makes sense that as President Bush stumbles in the polls, the network that hitched itself to his fortunes will stumble, too. And, sure enough, in the last quarter of 2006, Fox News saw a 14-percent drop in its viewership and a 20-percent falloff in prime time compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, MSNBC's liberal Countdown, with Keith Olbermann, gained audience share.
Fox News is still by far cable's leader of the pack. But still, Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi has noticed a sigh of relief on the part of a lot of media commentators. He wrote about it in his online column last month. MATT TAIBBI: Some of the commentators took the tack, saying that what happened to Fox was a repudiation of their formula for securing an audience, that people were somehow tired of hate media, tired of that kind of invective.
Whereas, you know, I think actually the opposite is true. I mean, some of the people that they lost market share to were of the same kind of shouting and hating style, people like Glenn Beck from CNN Headline News – either that, or they were simply the opposite political orientation.
You know, Fox sort of became famous and became a major media power by having a lot of shows like The O'Reilly Factor that focused heavily on demonizing a liberal enemy. And I think you started to have some shows from the opposite end of the spectrum, like Keith Olbermann's show on MSNBC, which, to some degree, did the same thing in reverse for liberal audiences. BOB GARFIELD: Now, the formula you referred to in your piece, you called "Blame, Hate, Coalesce." Explain for me the dynamic of Blame, Hate, Coalesce. MATT TAIBBI: You aim for a very broad segment of the populace – say, you know, middle-class conservatives or middle-American conservatives, and you do two things. You show them that their way of life is being threatened and then you give them somebody who they can blame for their way of life being threatened.
You know, so you fill their news with terrible and threatening news, and then you, in the same broadcast, do something like show a lot of pictures of gay people getting married on the steps of the Massachusetts State House. And then in the end, it becomes sort of a team-building exercise where people tune into that radio station not so much to hear that news but to hear other people like themselves tuned in so that they can feel like they're part of something, like part of a group. BOB GARFIELD: So if Fox News Channel's formula is to find out what its audience is willing to hate and then feed them enough material to make their blood boil— MATT TAIBBI: Right. BOB GARFIELD: —are you saying that others on the political left are doing essentially the same thing? MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, but there's a step in between there, too. I think what happened before there were shows for people on the left that did the same thing was that people who were not necessarily on the political left but just not of that group tuned into shows like O'Reilly and Michael Savage and found themselves sort of inadvertently lumped into the enemy category, and were offended.
They may not have necessarily had a whole lot in common before that, but after a while, you get a group of people who do have something in common – they're all enemies of Bill O'Reilly or they're all enemies of Michael Savage. And then, for some canny media organization, all they have to do is craft an audience around that, and you get, you know, books like Sweet Jesus, I Hate Bill O'Reilly, you get all those books like Brainless, about Ann Coulter. And then before you know it, you just have these two insoluble groups who just keep butting heads against each other and are terminally paranoid about each other's existences.
The problem for me personally is that I have absolutely no credibility in this area, because that's exactly what I do for a living. I mean, I'm sort of an ad hominem expert for Rolling Stone, and I didn't include [LAUGHS] myself in this piece because I thought it would be pretentious to sort of write about myself as having participating in the destruction of [LAUGHS] the American political landscape.
But, you know, like a lot of reporters and like a lot of Op-Ed columnists, we're under a lot of pressure to sort of rile people up and create controversies, and that's what we do. BOB GARFIELD: Who's the victim in this ecosystem of hate versus hate? MATT TAIBBI: Well, I think we all are, especially the people who are the audiences of these shows. You know, and I've seen this in families. You know, you have one uncle who listens to Rush and another uncle who listens to Air America, and they don't talk to each other any more. People who are neighbors – you know, they're far more likely to go turn on the O'Reilly show or listen to, you know, whatever, you know, radio show that appeals to him than they are to go next door and talk to the neighbor who they think might be of an opposite political orientation.
We've gotten to the point where we've instructed our audiences to really believe that they are the sum of their political beliefs; that if you are a follower of a certain political ideology, you can never, under any circumstances, mix with a person who doesn't believe in those things.
And it's just not true. I mean, there's a lot more to all of us than the way we vote or what we believe in politically. It's an obvious truism, and it sounds pious to point that out, but the thing is, you never hear that on the news or in any of these shows. You never hear it said that, yeah, we disagree, but it's just not that big a deal [LAUGHS] in the end. And there's a reason why we, they don't say that—because that would spoil the entire formula. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Matt. Well, thank you so much. MATT TAIBBI: Thanks very much, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine.