Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Feud That Wasn't

Recent Obama Administration attacks against the Chamber of Commerce, and, more notably, Fox News have been greeted with perfunctory attention and notice by the major media outlets. Though a few pundits and experts chimed in to state their case in the immediate aftermath of Team Obama's war on bias, few were willing to really say what they believed. Reaction from the chattering classes and the peanut gallery was largely negative and unfavorable of the decision but one got the feeling that many expressed heavily disingenuous views. Invoking Nixonian tactics in a critique reveals more about current station than All the President's Men and Women. In an era where every network and news agency is under increased pressure to maintain advertising revenue and, let we forget, often running significant deficits due to competition with electronic sources of information, caution prevents a major ratings war or uppercut. In another time, a direct challenge by the White House might have fueled a bare-knuckle brawl among the heavyweights, following its bold example, but at the moment the best one can expect is a holding pattern and resulting uneasy truce. Peace might be explained away as journalistic ethics, but ethics often are disregarded if monetary advantage is an option.

Low-octane, under the radar sniping that frequently resorts to passive-aggression is the most obvious sign of the friction between politicians and purveyors of content. As a result, the major cable networks have largely resisted the temptation to go after each other. Striking from a defensive posture, MSNBC recently ran effective ads that directly contradicted Fox News' claim that the 9/12 Tea Party demonstrations in Washington, DC, were not sufficiently covered by other outlets. MSNBC was, however, careful not to go for the jugular. To cite another example, despite recent attempts to modernize its programming and its look, CNN still takes a frequently unsatisfying middle ground between centrism and more progressive reporting that frequently comes across as artificial and plebeian in all the worst ways possible. Still, CNN runs self-serving promo ads on a regular basis that tout its status as number one cable news network, making particularly mention of those under its employ who have won numerous awards and accolades. This may be so, but CNN in many ways is the proverbial sleeping giant and it will take more than a direct challenge or surprise attack to fully rouse it from its self-satisfied stupor. CNN was the first on the scene and as a result its demographic is often older and beholden to brand loyalty, but if it continues to lose younger viewers, it will find itself hemorrhaging revenue.

Returning to the President's attack on Fox News, one would expect the network, despite its obvious disdain for labor unions, to be solid in its hatred for President Obama. However, a chink in the armor appears to have developed. One of its reporters has declined the opportunity to directly engage the President in hand-to-hand combat. The question remains whether or not he is violating policy or merely exercising a liberty he has the right to embrace. It is also possible that this decision is a coordinated attempt designed purely to make President Obama look like a child and make Fox News seem like the rational adult in the matter.

Returning to the relative surface placidity of Fox News versus Barack H. Obama, et al,

Fox News Channel correspondent Major Garrett called himself a "conscientious objector" in his network's fight with the White House after a brief interview with President Barack Obama Wednesday during which the topic never came up.

One wonders also if this is merely a shrewd tactical move or indicative of larger trends within Fox News. Much exists behind the scenes that we simply aren't privy to and whether the Obama Administration has struck a deal with Fox News is purely speculative because no one's talking. Naturally, at least one conservative pundit has taken the opportunity to take a condescending swipe at the President's strategy and perceived lack of satisfying and successful victories in foreign policy. It is the intention of many on the right to paint our President as little more than an empty suit.

Tongue in cheek, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer said the interview "constitutes the most important truce in our history since the Korean armistice of 1953."

"We are South Korea in this particular analogy," he said.

To be completely honest, however, Fox News has never truly embraced an all out battle royal with the Obama Administration. While it continues to be snidely dismissive of its policies and eager to run stories with a healthy dollop of right-wing distortion, it has never counter-attacked with any kind of ferocity. When the immediate charges were levied against Fox News, namely that it was merely a propaganda wing of the Republican party, it became at most a two-day story, and notably reached no fevered pitch of nastiness. Clearly, no one really wanted to run with the story for very long. The truth is that the media had nothing to gain and quite a bit to lose if it pushed back too hard.

Any means of information dispersal has to justify its own existence from time to time and anything that might cause some degree of doubt on behalf of viewers or readers is poisonous. Opening up a major dialogue about the role of the media in daily life is the last thing any of the mainstream outlets wanted in this situation, which is unfortunate because I think it's a long-overdue topic that the American people need to debate and then decide for themselves. Fox News' stated objective is noble enough, until one realizes that it is cynically manipulative at best. We report, you decide? I suppose it depends on what one means by "reporting." The easiest populist tactic in the toolbox of any politician is the act of criticizing the media for unfair and unbalanced treatment. The irony, of course, is that the media, and by this I notably remove Fox News for the most part, is frequently criticized for fueling baseless fears as a means of pushing back against accurate, damning revelations. It is notably not held accountable for its real limitations and real shortcomings.

Snide commentary aside, one isn't sure whether this revelation constitutes victory, stalemate, or submission. The powers that be in this circumstance are shadow figures who always talk off the record and never wish to be identified. Nothing could be less transparent than the motives at play or the ultimate decision. Still, if conditions continue to deteriorate regarding the quality of content and a resulting shift towards partisan bias rather than impartiality, expect some major wars to break out that will not be assuaged by back-stage politics. If, at some critical juncture in the near future it seems like there's not enough money or enough oxygen to go round, one can be sure the gloves will be coming off and staying off.

No comments: