We are now a month into the administration of Barack Obama. It’s a month that seems to have been packed with a year’s worth of activity. From the first day in office when Obama issued executive orders permitting more openness with presidential records and Freedom of Information Act requests, to announcements of major policy agendas for an economy on life support and the still soul-sapping wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House has been busy, to say the least.
At the same time, they have had to deal with the opposition of an increasingly obstructionist Republican minority and a media that is overtly hostile. Last year, prior to the election, Fox News was already fortifying its right flank. New multimillion dollar contracts were handed out to Roger Ailes, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Hannity’s show shed the dead weight of alleged liberal Alan Colmes. Glenn Beck was brought in to shore up the daytime crowd. Neil Cavuto, a bully who is every bit as obnoxious as O’Reilly poisons the economic news, and he is also managing editor of Murdoch’s Fox Business News. And just this week Bill Sammon, author of a shelf full of bitterly partisan books, was promoted to VP and Washington Editor for the network.
The result is a full court press of some of the dirtiest political assaults ever waged by what is advertised as a “news” network. Fox News is shamelessly pushing a campaign to characterize Obama as a Socialist – a committed opponent of America and its values – from 6:00 am with the crew of Fox & Friends, to after midnight with broadcasts and repeats of their primetime neanderthal shoutcasters. They get their marching orders directly from Rupert Murdoch who last September said that…
“[Obama's] policy is really very, very naive, old fashioned, 1960’s socialist.”
Even worse, these rightist dissidents come very close to openly advocating acts of violence and armed rebellion. Glenn Beck’s ominously titled “War Room” was an hour long descent into fear mongering that posited nothing short of the decline of western civilization. The upshot of this Terror Hour is that America’s days are numbered, so you had better start stockpiling guns, hoarding food and water, converting your dollars to gold, and barricading your secluded compound in the Wyoming wilderness (move over Ted Kaczynski). And, of course, it’s all Obama’s fault.
Another result of this Apocalyptic programming surge is higher ratings for Fox News. The core primetime schedule on Fox has enjoyed a rare uptick in audience growth. For the past three years, Fox, while number one in total audience, has been the slowest growing network in cable news. CNN and MSNBC produced consistently stronger growth. Particularly MSNBC, which was once a struggling also-ran, but which now challenges Fox’s powerhouses and routinely beats CNN. But the numbers for this February are another story.
Total Day: FNC +29%, MSNBC +17%, CNN +2%.
Primetime: FNC +28%, MSNBC +23%, CNN -30%.
What accounts for the turnaround in Fox’s fortunes? Well, first of all, they are benefiting from their previous slack performance. In other words, they were able to record higher comparative rates of growth because their prior year numbers were held down due to some rather unique circumstances. To understand the current numbers, you need to remember what was going on a year ago.
In February of 2008 the Democratic Party was in the middle of a hotly contested presidential primary. Early in the month it was already apparent that McCain would win his Party’s nomination. Consequently, audiences viewing campaign news were disproportionately composed of Democrats. Amongst the biggest draws were the televised debates. Democratic candidates, you may recall, had forsworn Fox News as a host for their debates. So the two Democratic debates held in February 2008 were carried by CNN and MSNBC, and both drew audiences many times greater than their regularly scheduled programming. Democrats also shunned Fox for other TV appearances and interviews. It had gotten so bad that Chris Wallace, host of Fox News Sunday, made a veiled threat in December of 2007:
“I think the Democrats are damn fools [for] not coming on Fox News.”
We know the problem still existed in March of 2008 because that’s when Wallace debuted his Obama Watch: a clock that would record how long before Obama appeared on Wallace’s show. It was a childish prank on Wallace’s part, but it clearly showed that the Democratic embargo of Fox News was having a real impact. For CNN and MSNBC, who had the guests and the event programming that appealed to the most motivated news consumers, it meant higher ratings. Fox, on the other hand, had depressed numbers because their most loyal audience – Republicans – already had a candidate, so there was no campaign drama to keep them tuned in. Comparing those numbers to February 2009 would, therefore, be favorable to Fox by producing a greater percent difference.
So some of the good news for Fox was really just a matter of perception. But that’s not the whole story. They are actually having a pretty good year, particularly post-inauguration. All the networks have suffered some falloff from January, but Fox has retained more of their recent gains than have their competitors. I can only offer some informed speculation as to why that would be.
First, Fox has more new programming that may be piquing the interests of their viewers. The new programs include a retooled Hannity, minus Colmes, and Glenn Beck’s Acute Paranoia Revue. Beck has found his home at Fox. His ratings have significantly increased over what he had at HLN, and he has also improved the time period he fills on Fox. As for Hannity, dumping Colmes was obviously popular amongst the Foxian pod people. It’s just that much less non-approved, pseudo-liberal noise they have to sit through.
Secondly, by heating up the aggressive tone, Fox has fashioned a hearth around which despondent conservatives can huddle. In 2006 they suffered the loss of both houses of congress. Now they have lost the presidency as well – and to what they view as an unpatriotic, Muslim, elitist, intent on driving the nation to Socialism in a Toyota hybrid. So now they congregate in the warm red glow of the Fox News logo that provides them the comfort that comes from numbing propaganda and the righteous smiting of perceived enemies.
This doubling down on rancor has had mixed results for Fox. While it endeared them to their base, and those they could frighten into submission, it also cost them dearly on a broader financial scale. The stock of Fox News parent, News Corp, is down 70% for the last 52 weeks. To be sure, the economy, particularly for media companies, was difficult, to put it mildly. But News Corp competitors Time Warner, Disney, and even the Washington Post were only down in the 45-55% range. News Corp suffered its worst loss ever of over $6.4 billion. And going forward, they advised Wall Street that income will decline another 30% for fiscal 2009.
In examining the reasons that Fox would perform so much worse than similar enterprises, one would have to consider the possibility that people have become disgusted with the obvious one-sided manipulation and the non-stop, phony news alerts that are Fox’s shock in trade. But I believe that it would also be fair to conclude that the direct actions taken against Fox News by Democrats last year are at least partially responsible for Fox’s inordinately more severe decline. The ratings disparities year over year document the effect that a sustained campaign of snubbery can produce.
With the stepped up efforts of Fox to sling ever more buckets of mud, it is more imperative now than ever that Democrats act affirmatively in their best interests. They must resist the siren call of televised glory and begin to discriminate between those who are fair practitioners of journalism and those who seek only to engage in slander and slime. In two previous installments of my Starve The Beast series (part 1 / part 2), I described how complicity with Fox News is not merely a waste of time, but is demonstrably harmful. This is even more true today, as the evidence above illustrates. The message that Democrats and other progressives must take to heart with all deliberateness and determination is: STAY THE HELL OFF OF FOX NEWS! Since it hurts us when we appear and it hurts them when we don’t, the way forward is crystal clear. It makes absolutely no sense to lay down before lions who are determined to devour you.
Now, I don’t want to approach this from a purely negative standpoint. While constructing a united front in opposition to Fox News is an absolute necessity, there are some positive steps that can be taken as well. Other news organizations must be pressured to present a more balanced picture of current events. And, where possible, true liberal voices must gain access to the televised public square. Media Matters long ago documented the imbalance of conservatives and Republicans on the Sunday news programs. That ideological discrepancy has continued apace since Obama’s inauguration. Now it’s time to do something about it. It’s time to make a case for TV to offer a more equitable representation of liberal views – the views of the majority, the winners.
Political activism has always been shaped in part by access to polling. It is an irreplaceable asset for anyone managing a campaign for a candidate or an issue. Similarly, TV survey data is critical in analyzing media performance and prospects. This data is distinct from conventional polling. Remember, networks don’t care about the public. They care about a subset of the public that is attractive to their customers. And their customers are not viewers – they are advertisers. While there are many sources for political data, there are few for media data – and most of those are press releases from vested corporate interests. There is little that we can do with ratings data that has already been massaged to advantage one particular party.
If progressives want to have some influence on programming, they must be able to anchor their arguments with original research and facts. For this reason, it is no longer enough for sites like Media Matters or Talking Points Memo or Daily Kos or News Corpse to merely document right-wing media abuses. If we want to help shape the editorial direction of the Conventional Media, we have to offer authoritative presentations to map a path to bigger audiences and ratings victories. We need to speak to the needs of the news providers and give them a business case for adopting a truly balanced programming model. To do this we need access to the raw data that is at the heart of television marketing.
So who amongst the lefty netroots will step forward and subscribe to Nielsen Media Research broadcast and cable data? I’m going to rule out News Corpse because I can’t afford it. But I do have 14 years of experience in media research and would be willing to help produce analyses and presentations. Just as progressive authors and bloggers offer informed advice to advance political goals, we need to be able to make a persuasive, market-based case for the sort of programming reform that we want to see. We need to be able to show the networks that it is in their interest, financially and ethically, to develop programming that is honest and in keeping with the principles of an engaged and probing press. We need to be able to counter the false impressions relentlessly pushed by faux news enterprises that tout themselves as the popular voice of the nation. It seems that a day does not go by that Bill O’Reilly doesn’t boast about his ratings. The funny thing is that he also condemns the source of those ratings with the delusional paranoia that only he can muster:
“The bottom line on this is there may be some big-time cheating going on in the ratings system, and we hope the feds will investigate. Any fraud in the television rating system affects all Americans.”
So O’Reilly thinks that the system he so proudly cites for affirmation of his massive popularity, is also engaging in big-time cheating for the benefit of his foes. If he’s right, and Nielsen data is not to be trusted when they report that his competition is catching up, than why should we trust it when it reports his success. In truth, the only cheating going on is on the part of the self-promoting networks and the egomaniacal personalities they employ. It is their selective and misleading interpretations that are distorting the reality of viewer behavior.
Suffice it to say that we would be in a much better position to dispute the spin that’s being peddled if we had access to unfiltered Nielsen data. We could mine that data to develop solutions and strategies to present to news programmers. Then we may begin to have some influence over news programming, personalities, and content.
This is as important an endeavor for progressives as the strategies we promote for politicians. I would argue that it’s more important. Especially in a media environment where prominent news enterprises are openly fomenting a near-militaristic antagonism to our representatives and our values.