Paul Rittenberg is the Executive Vice-President of Advertising Sales for Fox News. He recently spoke with Ad Age Magazine and revealed some interesting details about the ad sales strategy of the network.
Rittenberg told Ad Age that election year advertising for national spots is not significantly better than other years because the campaigns focus on local markets and have gotten better at targeting ads to regions where they can influence swing voters. That’s nothing new, and it’s why states like California and Texas, where one party dominates state politics, are often neglected in national campaigns. But he did note that the Romney campaign had spent generously on Fox and that his SuperPAC, Restore our Future, had placed over a million dollars in ads.
Also notable is his revelation that “the real money out of Washington in an election year is issue advertising, places like the American Petroleum Institute.” Rittenberg’s example illustrates a serious problem with news enterprises that get revenue from lobbying organizations while at the same time they are expected to report on their activities. Fox News, in particular, has been a staunch defender of oil interests, which makes their profiteering from the same people ethically suspect.
For all of Rittenberg’s candor, on the economics of election year media, his remarks about the more ideological aspects of ad buying were even more revealing. When asked about who his customers are, he said…
[W]e’ve talked to Obama’s ad agency. As you would probably guess, we’re not their go-to channel … [but] they’ve got a lot of money to spend. My argument to their media guys is, look, this could be the best money you spend. If you spend a couple million dollars and you convince people who wouldn’t have given you a second look, isn’t that a smarter media buy than running it someplace where they already are going to vote for you anyway?
OK, first of all, Rittenberg is being deliberately disingenuous in suggesting that it isn’t smart to promote yourself in places where you already have support. Elections are won (and lost) on how efficiently a campaign insures that their supporters actually make it to the polls. Arguably, solidifying your base and getting out the vote is even more important than flipping uncommitted voters.
Secondly, Rittenberg is implying that networks other than Fox are watched only by Obama supporters who are going to vote him anyway. That’s a notion that is demonstrably false to the point of absurdity.
Third, Rittenberg seems to think that spending a couple of million dollars on Fox has the potential to sway a significant number of viewers to support the President. Even if that were partially true, there is no way that he could argue that there were enough persuadable viewers to justify the expense. A study by the Mellman Group in 2007 that evaluated voting patterns during the Bush reelection showed that “No demographic segment, other than Republicans, was as united in supporting Bush,” as Fox News viewers.
The survey reported that “Conservatives, white evangelical Christians, gun owners, and supporters of the Iraq war all gave Bush fewer votes than did regular Fox News viewers.” That partisan disparity was reinforced in 2008 by a Rasmussen poll that showed Fox Viewers voting for McCain by a lopsided factor of nine to one. Since then Fox has only become more rabidly partisan and as Rittenberg says in a feat of understatement, it is not the “go-to channel” for Democrats.
Finally, the most interesting part of Rittenberg’s remarks is the one part he got right. Fox News is viewed predominantly by “people who wouldn’t [give Obama] a second look.” That’s about as honest and candid an assessment of the partisan composition of the Fox News audience as you’re likely to hear. And the fact that it comes from an executive whose job is selling ad time to media buyers, it is an extraordinary admission, and one that is rooted in the pure, unvarnished judgment of business priorities. And to top it off, Rittenberg closed the interview with this exchange:
Ad Age: Just like there is a perception that MSNBC caters to liberals, there’s a perception that Fox is for conservatives. When you are selling ads, does that come up? How do you deal with it?
Mr. Rittenberg: It does. … I used to have more hair before Glenn Beck was on the air [he is no longer on Fox News]. … I have no problem with people not wanting to run in any show on the channel. People wanted to pull out of Beck, not a problem — we took well over 200 advertisers out of that show.
Not only does Rittenberg agree to the question’s premise that “Fox is for conservatives” (something Fox employees usually take great pains to deny), he also confirms that the ad embargo of Glenn Beck’s program was every bit as successful as organizers claimed (another fact that Fox stubbornly refuses to acknowledge). Those are two articles of Fox Faith for which Rittenberg has committed a sort of blasphemy. Kinda makes you wonder if Rittenberg will have job by Monday morning.
Every neutral observer of the media knows that Fox has an unmistakable preference for Republican and conservative positions. Nevertheless, Fox officially rejects what the whole media world knows is true. But every now and then a Fox insider spills the beans, such as when Fox CEO Roger Ailes said that “Anybody who says bias does not exist is either lying or stupid,” or when Fox anchor Chris Wallace said that Fox News “is a healthy development if only because it creates another view point.”
These cracks in the Fox wall of deceit are now joined by Rittenberg’s comments. At what point will Fox abandon the charade of neutrality and embrace their obvious political leanings? Don’t hold your breath. The Fox facade of fairness and balance was built for a reason. As long as they believe they can effectively mislead the American people, they will continue to pretend they are unbiased even as they endeavor to turn their audience into mindless receptacles of disinformation.