What Not to Watch

As the print media dies a slow, ink-stained death, it’s taking one of the most important visible social markers of American society to the grave with it: the morning paper. For many—and especially for many at Columbia—the publication a person chooses is strongly indicative of his personal character. A lady of distinction would never be seen descending into the metro with AM New York, for example (if she were forced to take the train at all). Similarly, a peach-colored Financial Times pairs most suitably with the industrious investment banker (suit by Brooks Brothers), while a crisp copy of The New Yorker looks posh aside a vintage floral-print skirt and tortoise shell Ray-Bans on the taste-conscious student. As these time-tested symbols of status fill the recycling bin, how are we to tell who’s who by the news? Luckily, much can be gleaned from the laptop screens of our fellow information consumers. If one’s browser is pointed to the online pages of The New York Times, we can be sure that she is well-aligned with the liberal agenda. Blogs, such as the Huffington Post, and a consistent stationing of the iTunes dial to NPR podcasts provide additional assurance. However, how are we to read a potential friend’s attention to the television media?

To be sure, we all are guilty of indulging in the occasional tryst with cable news. It’s alluring, it’s on 24-hours a day, and, in a sort of working-class way, it’s entertaining. Now, educated viewers like ourselves are, of course, generally able to resist the unabashed polemics spewing forth from the “talking heads,” but the sad truth of the matter is that some Americans trust and believe—or are even inspired by—the demagoguery that saturates the polarized world of cable news media.

Most distressing of the rabble-rousers is the Fox News Channel, a Rupert Murdoch invention created with the mission of providing “unbiased” commentary and news coverage but which, in reality, leans so far right that the slightest gust of wind would leave it belly-up. Yet, for unfathomable reasons, the FNC has enjoyed striking success with the masses. On average, the top ten most-watched cable news shows are all on Fox. From Glenn Beck, the constantly crying, self-proclaimed rodeo-clown, to the “king of cable news” Bill O’Reilly, all of the FNC’s hosts kill in the ratings. What could possibly be the appeal?

Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia’s Journalism School, describes the network as the “fiery, cantankerous, prevailing voice that matches the fury of those who view the world as uncongenial.” Uncongenial indeed. Fox’s audience primarily identifies itself as conservative. However, there is a significant portion of the viewership that is not conservative, indicating a far more insidious reason for watching: they like to be entertained.

Much like a NASCAR race or rooster fight, Fox is mostly entertaining for its incivility. The hosts of its shows shout guests down, cut off their microphones and treat female journalists as sex objects. This ratings-oriented, distasteful display could be ignored if it weren’t for the fact that the network also has an intended, and, at times, effective, political agenda.

Most recently, this could be observed through Fox News’ involvement with the “tea parties,” the supposedly grassroots upwellings of populist discontent with the Obama administration. Despite claiming to having had no involvement, FNC producers have been spotted agitating the masses on some footage, constructing the very outrage they then go on to report as “news.” But surely American viewers, on the whole, are savvier than to be influenced by such base manipulation.

Dick Wald, former vice president of NBC News, however, claims that Fox’s impact on our political system is not as big as Fox would like us to think. Additionally, Wald points out that politically committed media are nothing new. “Before World War II, the media threw just as much mud as they did now, and they were just as polarized. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were even slinging mud like this.”

While it’s doubtful that our unassailable founding fathers were ever so crass as to “sling mud,” Wald’s point that media bias doesn’t harm democracy, at least in a broad sense, stands. But as Gitlin notes, Fox’s shenanigans don’t take place in a vacuum either. “The role Fox has in our media is that of a carrier of accusation,” he said. “They’ll throw issues out there, try to stir up the pot a bit, and sometimes things they’re saying will catch on.” Let’s hope that pot settles soon.

In a world increasingly defined by ephemeral forms of news communication, it’s clear that if you must eschew the good ol’ paper, you should be very careful about exactly which digital news format you choose to replace it. Fox News is definitely not the most agreeable of characters for consideration. Yet on the other hand, guilty pleasures are the spice of life. Perhaps, in the dark of your sitting room, a little slumming with The O’Reilly Factor isn’t so bad after all.