Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Foxification of CNN 


CNN is hemorrhaging in quality and viewers so fast — for reasons that have more to do with its lugubriousness and identity crisis than politics — that this dust-up may prove but a footnote to its travails. But its casual abandonment of even a fig leaf of impartiality ratifies a larger shift in the news landscape that reached its historical watershed at the Republican convention. That was when Fox News for the first time scored a ratings victory over every other network, the Big Three broadcast networks included.

Fox's feat has since been trivialized by most of its rivals as the inevitable triumph of a partisan channel speaking to its faithful. But there's something else at work here. It's not just that Fox is so good at pandering to its core constituency but that its competition is so weak at providing the hard-hitting, trustworthy news that might draw an alternative crowd. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes aren't stupid. They have seized upon that news vacuum in the marketplace and filled it with fast-paced, news-like bloviation that can be more entertaining (and often no less informative) to watch than its rivals even if its bias gives you heartburn.

What much of the other news media have offered as an alternative has not been an alternative at all. At some point after 9/11, the news business jumped the shark and started relaying unchallenged administration propaganda — though with less zeal and showbiz pizazz than Fox. The notorious March 2003 presidential news conference at which not a single probing question was asked by the entire White House press corps heralded the broader Foxification to come. As Michael Massing, a frequent critic of this newspaper and others, put it on PBS's NewsHour, the failure of the American news media to apply proper skepticism to the administration's stated rationale for war in Iraq is "one of the most serious institutional failures of the press" since our slide into Vietnam. Mr. Massing attributes some of this to the fear of challenging a president then at the height of his popularity. Whatever the explanation — and there are many, depending on the news organization — the net effect was that the entire press came off as Fox Lite. The motive to parrot the administration line may not have been ideological, as it was at Fox, but since the misinformation was the same, news consumers can't be blamed for finding that a distinction without a difference.

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