Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune and provided an outstanding example of the sort of clueless, illogical, journalistic myopia that is rotting away the American press. When asked about his rival Roger Ailes at Fox News, he gave an almost fawning response that makes one wonder if they are really rivals at all.
“He’s changed media. Everybody does news differently because Roger’s changed the world. Roger early on figured it out and was brilliant.”
Indeed. Roger Ailes changed media – for the worse! His “brilliant” idea was to transform the news into a rancorous, talk-radio style, shoutfest that manufactured conflict and spun every story as far to the right as their ideological wheel could turn. The inspiration behind Fox’s brand loyalty is talk-radio, soap operas, and tabloid news vendors like the National Enquirer, a pseudo-news enterprise that is deliberately dishonest, but enjoys the rabid devotion of an undiscerning audience that is drawn to gossip, drama, and salaciousness. Fox is an entertainment company, not a news provider, as they have said themselves:
Roger Ailes: I’m not in politics, I’m in ratings
Rupert Murdoch: I’m not averse to high ratings.
Glenn Beck: I could give a flying crap about the political process. [...] We’re an entertainment company.
If Griffin really believes that his mission is to emulate Fox from the opposite end of the political spectrum, he will only succeed in further debasing the media. In addition, he will miss the opportunity to effectively compete in the cable news marketplace. He needs to realize that, not being a news network, Fox is no more his competition than is Nickelodeon (which I’ve said before is a better source than Fox for news and plays to a smarter audience).
Griffin is not the only news professional to misread the market. Almost every executive and analyst has concluded that Fox’s ratings dominance is a function of ideology. But that is a shallow analysis that fails to address the real problem. People need to stop thinking of Fox as a network of conservatives that you counter with a network of liberals. The reality is that Fox is a network of liars that you counter with a network of truth tellers.
This approach doesn’t imply partisanship to anything other than facts. It also does not swear a blind allegiance to the thoroughly misconstrued concept of balance. A responsible journalist is under no obligation to balance a set of facts with a litany of lies just so that some other perspective is represented. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean you need to resign yourself to a bland presentation of the events of the day. Important things are going on. No one can dismiss the inherent drama that is played out in the public debates over health care or immigration or Wall Street corruption. It doesn’t need to be contrived. It just needs to be told compellingly and honestly. I am convinced that there are more people in the TV audience who want useful, factual information, than there are people who want sobbing rodeo clowns drawing their divinely inspired delusions on blackboards.
If Griffin were to apply basic fundamentals of entertainment to a more journalistically ethical approach he could attract a much larger and more loyal audience. He needs to give news consumers a little more credit for being discriminating, skeptical, curious, and capable of understanding the issues that bear directly on their lives. The last thing we need is more of the cheapening of journalism that Ailes has proffered. And we certainly should not be honoring him for the damage he has already done.