Fox news is trapped–ensnared not only in the basic contradictions that plague the news industry in general– by a business plan that increasingly reveals the impossibility of it serving as a legitimate news service while also pursuing it profit imperatives and its political goals. The first Republican debate and how Fox treated Trump then and afterwards point to the coming crisis this national news service faces.
Back in 2000 I edited a book It’s Show Time: Media, Politics, and Popular Culture, in which I a penned a chapter entitled “The Cultural Contractions of the American Media.” In it I described the four roles or functions that the news media performs in our country. There is first the democratic function; that is the task of informing citizens about public affairs and serving as a watchdog. It is this function which is at the heart of the First Amendment constitutionalizing a free press.
As the theory goes, a free press that critically reports the news is essential to a functioning democracy. For many, this image of a free press was formed during the middle to second half of the twentieth century. It was the era of Walter Cronkite who told us “that’s the way it is,” of Woodward and Bernstein relentlessly pursuing a story even if it meant that it would bring a president down, or the New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers. We expected the media to be politically neutral, but critical, and to evaluate all the facts and decide on what is the truth. Truth was not telling one side and then the other; it was often times recognizing that truth might be something different. This is what reporters once learned in journalism school.
But this image of the media is quaint and old-fashioned. For one, it is an image that seldom existed, especially when we remember that the press the constitutional framers had in mind looked nothing like what it does today. It was first handbills and pamphleteers such as Ben Franklin, and then small partisan-controlled papers which literally were the party organs. But the creation of a national media, the search for audience share, and the large bell shaped distribution of public opinion made it reasonable for the news to search for the center. But that era ended, with the media pulled by three other functions that compromise its democratic function.
Unlike even a generation ago, the news media is controlled by a small handful of corporate behemoths. Journalism professor Ben Bagdikan once talked of the big 50 media companies in America, it is now the big six, with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox one of them. Fox is also one of the principle drivers making news corporate, and with that structure it is a for-profit business. At one time news was a lost leader for a company, now it is a revenue generator. To make money, maximize market share. But in a era where now (as opposed to the 1960s in a pre-cable, pre new media and pre social media 24/7 news cycle) there are many apparent choices for news, profitability is possible with market segmentation. Fox news figured this out. Develop a product niche, capture that audience, and make a ton of money. Instead of profitability through news neutrality, profitability comes from appealing to a certain audience–be it liberal, conservative, or whatever. Political neutrality and objectivity take a back seat to profitability.
But to maximize profitability and market share the media has had to become more entertaining. Ben Barber, one of my former professors, talks of a world where we are increasingly distracted by many diversions. We do not just have to watch the news–we can do a hundred other things to entertain us. Thus corporate news in presented increasingly in a format to entertain us. Thus the fine line between Comedy Central and legitimate news. Watch morning “news” shows, they are more about entertainment or hyping other television shows or personalities. This is the world too of politainment that I have written about.
Finally, as corporations they too have their own political interests. They lobby the federal government, they support candidates, they have their ideological and political biases. Taken together, the corporate, for-profit, entertainment driven aspect of contemporary news often all but makes the democratic function impossible. “All the news that’s fit to make money” is what it is about.
So how does this apply to Fox national news? They are trapped by these four conflicts as are the other major news services. But Fox has a special problem–its business plan was more extreme than others, and it also had a fifth imperative constraining its behavior, specifically serving as a mouthpiece for the Republican Party. Fox has been profitable for years and has been able to hide behind the veneer or being real legitimate journalism, but the Republican debate last week laid bare all the problems it and much of the American media faces.
In going after Trump Fox stood to make the debate a ratings hit and it succeeded. It might have also been a way to show it was a legitimate news service while also being a guardian of Republican orthodoxy. Megyn Kelly too may have viewed the debate to show she was a real journalist, not simply the shrill conservative commentator that her nightly show reveals. But now all of this has exploded on Fox and Kelly. Post debate Trump’s poll numbers are up, Rogers Ailes effectively apologies to Donald Trump, and 20,000+ sign a petition demanding that Fox prevent Kelly from hosting another Republican debate because she is biased and instead she should question the Democrats instead.
What is at stake for Fox is its veneer of journalistic legitimacy which was always critical to its business plan. The debate it hosted was a debacle and the backlash from it is not over. Nothing here says that Fox will cease to exist or that it will lose money, but what we may conclude is that its product and business plan are forever damaged. Fox is trapped and there may be no way out of the contradictions it faces.