Saturday, November 6, 2010

Should There Be A Left Version of Fox News?

In the wake of Keith Olbermann's suspension from MSNBC, his friend and colleague Rachel Maddow made this commentary:

All true, but it raises the question of just what is it that MSNBC wants to be. Does it really want to be a news network, or a movement builder? Apparently, they cannot make up their minds.

I tend to agree with that most insightful of media critics these days, Jon Stewart. Fox News is a work of genius. It's a cable network devoted to building a political movement, and as such, it is brilliant (no one, not even its devoted fans, believes that "We report, You decide" line; the "News" part of Fox News is a convenient fiction). It builds a clear coherent narrative out of disparate and complex events, and then stays on message. I doubt this year's Republican successes would have been possible without the help of Fox News. The Tea Party would still be a randomly scattered group of angry cranks but for the broadcasting muscle of Fox News. Fox News perhaps alone is responsible for making possible a quick return to power for a party whose previous 8 years in power are so widely discredited, even by many of its own acolytes. Not only is it a matter of the bottomless pockets of Rupert Murdoch and shareholders, but the genius of Roger Ailes, and the dedication of Fox's staff. Jon Stewart once called the comparison between MSNBC and Fox as being like comparing the Toledo Mud Hens to the New York Yankees. As a movement builder and a political influence, MSNBC is a small time wannabe amateur outfit.

Do the dirty hippies really need something like Fox News? Do we really want something like that? Liberals, Progressives, and assorted Leftists are all children of the 18th century Enlightenment, and as such, share a deep fundamental belief that human beings are ultimately reasonable, that rational argument and evidence can win the day, and indeed in a perfect world they should. Right wingers cherish no such illusions and are not bound by such constraints. Fox News famously has a very casual attitude toward facts and research, and does not worry over rational consistency in their message. They know their audience. They too don't worry much over such things. For them what matters above all are identity and loyalty. Liberal children of the Enlightenment consistently underestimate the power of tribal passions, while the Right counts on them. Fox News couldn't care less about laying out evidence and making a case. They are all about raising flags for people to rally around, and pointing out dragons to slay, and in that they are a tremendous success.

Do people on the left really want or need something like Fox News? I wonder. All of their attempts to imitate Fox's movement building through broadcasting have been flops. Air America ultimately flopped after a promising start. Now, it looks like MSNBC will follow. The liberal left is very good at grass-roots initiatives, something learned through necessity having been dissed and dumped by the Democratic party establishment repeatedly. They applied those professional class virtues of independence and initiative to political organizing, and did for themselves what the Democratic establishment refused to do for them. They are especially good at organizing large events and rallies on shoestring budgets (instead of depending on copious corporate donations as does the Tea Party; as Bill Maher once observed, no one ever got rich by moving left, including Juan $2-Million-Richer-On-Fox Williams). They taught everyone else (including the right) how to successfully build a movement through internet and networking technology. That is so frequently vilified by the right is testimony to its success.

Fox News can perhaps teach some lessons to the left. A major weakness of the whole left side of the political spectrum is creating a unifying over-all message that ties together all the disparate (and quarrelsome) elements of progressive politics. It's not like we don't have resources to do just that. We have a long illustrious history of leaders from Lincoln to FDR who did exactly that. I would suggest The Four Freedoms, both Roosevelt's speech and Rockwell's paintings, as a flag to rally around (though there will doubtless be dissenters as there always are in progressive politics). I suggest reclaiming national symbols from the right. After all, 19th century progressives created a lot of them from the Pledge of Allegiance to America the Beautiful to The Statue of Liberty. It's time to take those things back. We can do all of this without having to make up our own facts as Fox News frequently does. We can make a positive virtue out of NOT treating people, including our followers, so cynically and contemptuously as Fox does theirs.
I would say that someone like Rachel Maddow is an excellent example of someone who advocates a particular point of view while scrupulously sticking to facts and evidence, and while doing some first rate investigative journalism (and featuring others who do the same).
Maybe we don't need a lefty twin to Fox News. We need something else altogether.

Fox News is also great at setting the terms and agenda of national political debate always putting progressives on the defensive. It's time to stop taking the bait and to turn the tables. That American broadcast journalists are so corrupt and lazy, and that Democratic politicians are so corrupt and cowardly, is hardly the fault of Fox News. Not only is it a matter of shining a spotlight on the abundant ethical shortcomings of Fox and right-wing leaders, it's a matter of putting their whole agenda and vision under scrutiny and going after it relentlessly, something that should be easy to do (and which a lot of progressive bloggers already do).

It's also time for Progressives to cut each other some slack. Activists and more conventional politicos need each other. The politicos do the very necessary work of moving a cumbersome and complex establishment largely dedicated to maintaining the status quo toward the direction of reform. Activists do the equally necessary task of kicking the ogre in the shins to get his attention, and making his life hell when he ignores them or disses them. They also do the necessary work of prophetic witness (pardon the religious term), holding elected representatives accountable and reminding them of their original mandate. Besides, many of today's angry young activists (and not-so-young) with their blogs and bullhorns will be tomorrow's politicos, and even office-holders.

Forward America.


Paul said...

It is worse than that. I had the misfortune of working for 3 years in Mississippi. Fox news is on at the small regional airports. It is on all over the place. There is no understanding that this is anything but mainstream news. Everyone watches it.

MSNBC and progressive talk radio have never gotten beyond a niche audience. To have any impact at all, those voices need to get heard by the mainstream audience. I don't know how to make that happen.

JCF said...

The FOX approach is "Of Course, We're NEVER Wrong."

The Left could have that approach (Russia tried it for a good while).

But it wouldn't be Christian (i.e., be appropriate for fallible human beings). Ergo, I couldn't go there.

We (pinko lefties) are condemned to being Second Best to our Wingnut "Obey!" Overlords (w/ nothing but the Impotent Truth on our side, alas).

But Keith should be reinstated. JCF's weeknights NEED him! :-(

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Brilliant analysis, as always ;-)