This is nothing new to a lot of us, but reading New York magazine’s “The Elephant In The Green Room” does reaffirm what we’ve all long suspected: that the cable news media is less worried about actual political reporting, about actual facts, about actual news, even about actual partisan ideology, than it is worried about its profits. And it is these profits which shape their partisanship, their reporting, their conflation of fact with fiction.
I know, I know: big deal. “Beale: We know this, already!” Yes, yes, and yes. But I think even I underestimated to what degree this cynicism has overpowered cable news. I mean yes, I knew Fox News’ politics is more about profits than any hardcore ideology but I guess I figured that there was a scintilla of conservative ideology in there. But really, Rupert Murdoch considered endorsing Obama before the presidential election? Really? And then there’s this:
By October 2008, Ailes recognized that Obama was likely to beat McCain. He needed to give his audience a reason to stay in the stands and watch his team.
And so he went on a hiring spree. By the time Obama defeated McCain, Ailes had hired former Bush aide Karl Rove and Mike Huckabee and went on to assemble a whole lineup of prospective 2012 contenders: Palin, Gingrich, Santorum, and John Bolton.
It was, more than anything, a business decision. “It would be easy to look at Fox and think it’s conservative because Rupert and Roger are conservative and they program it the way they like. And to a degree, that’s true. But it’s also a business,” a person close to Ailes explained. “And the way the business works is, they control conservative commentary the way ESPN controls the market for sports rights. If you have a league, you have a meeting with ESPN, you find out how much they’re willing to pay, and then everyone else agrees to pay the same amount if they want it … It’s sort of the same at Fox. I was surprised at some of what was being paid until I processed it that way. If you’re ABC and you don’t have Newt Gingrich on a particular morning, you can put someone else on. But if you’re Fox, and Newt is moving and talking today, you got to have him. Otherwise, your people are like, ‘Where’s Newt? Why isn’t he on my channel?’ ”
Fox also had to compete with CNN for pundits. In early 2008, then–CNN-U.S. president Jon Klein invited Mike Huckabee to breakfast at the Time Warner Center. Klein sold Huckabee on the benefits of CNN. “If you believe what you’re saying, you should try and convince the middle,” Klein told him. It was the same pitch he made later to Karl Rove and to Weekly Standard writer Stephen Hayes. All three turned down Klein and signed with Fox.
I mean, that’s just so cynical. Fox didn’t hire Rove and Huckabee and Palin because they believe in what they have to say, they hired them to corner the market on conservative punditry, the way ESPN has cornered the market on sports coverage.
The problem is, politics is not the same as pro sports. Peoples’ lives aren’t affected depending on who wins the Super Bowl or the World Series. You can turn NBA basketball and even college basketball into a commodity and it really doesn’t matter much. But when you’ve turned news, information and politics into a commodity, packaged and sold like so much laundry detergent, well, there are repercussions. This stuff actually affects peoples’ lives. When you take down ACORN because you’re trying to boost your network’s profits, it affects real people who depended on those services. When you start a war to boost your network’s profits, real people die. Real people are affected by the failure to create jobs, close GITMO, tackle climate change, or to fund women’s health clinics. These are stories which were manipulated on Fox News not because they believed them but because Roger Ailes wanted to make his network more profitable in the Age of Obama so he tacked hard-right and scooped up all the hardcore talent who were and are conservatism’s political stars.
And CNN and MSNBC all did the same thing. Hell, they all do it, to some degree or another. If you wonder why a liberal can’t get booked on a Sunday morning rountable show, it’s because it’s not profitable. And the really tragic thing about it is, information matters! It really, really does! But it’s not being treated responsibly by the people in charge. It’s just academic to them. It’s just a point of profit.
Once upon a time, the network’s news divisions were loss-leaders. They didn’t make money but they gave a network credibility, and the money was made on “The Brady Bunch” and “Adam 12” and “Charlie’s Angels.” But those days are long gone. The networks no longer have credibility, certainly not the ones on cable, which are wholly for-profit ventures.
Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote this post about Glenn Beck being a GOP liability? Even I wasn’t entirely sure I was right. But damn, I hit it on the money, didn’t I? Remember when we wondered why Glenn Beck would debunk James O’Keefe’s NPR “sting” which was endlesslessly flogged on Fox? Turns out that was just another little squabble in the Beck-Fox News family fight. I mean, never mind that actual policy decisions were being made based on this stuff. For crying out loud, the U.S. Congress very nearly defunded NPR based on the public manipulation resulting from Fox’s internal fights.
And this is the danger which viewers and people in Washington need to get, and get fast: it’s all Kabuki Theater. It’s all manipulation. None of it is real. Don’t make any policy decisions based on what you see or hear in the media. Don’t even base your vote on what you hear or see in the media. Because it’s completely unreliable. Every bit of it could be a lie or manipulation designed wholly to boost the profits of the corporation which owns the broadcaster.
Information is crucial to making informed decisions, but we can no longer trust the messenger. Where this leaves us, I don’t know. We certainly have to work three times as hard to get a clear picture about what’s going on in our world.