September 19, 2004
FRANK RICH

This Time Bill O'Reilly Got It Right


Associated Press
The multitasking James Carville at the Democratic convention.

IF a stopped clock is right twice a day, why shouldn't Bill O'Reilly be right at least once in a blue moon? When Fox News's most self-infatuated star attacked CNN for keeping James Carville and Paul Begala as hosts on "Crossfire" after they had joined the Kerry campaign, he fingered yet another symptom of the decline and fall of the American news culture. "In the wake of the vicious attacks on Fox News for allegedly being `G.O.P. TV,' I expected the media to brutally dismember CNN and the new boys on John Kerry's bus," Mr. O'Reilly wrote in his syndicated column. "But instead it's been the silence of the lambs from the press. Can you say media bias?"

Yes, you can, though it must be said in the same breath that Mr. O'Reilly is only half-right. Fox News isn't "allegedly" G.O.P. TV it is G.O.P. TV. The campiest recent example of its own bias came during the Republican convention when Mr. O'Reilly played host to two second-tier G.O.P. publicity hounds, Georgette Mosbacher and Monica Crowley, as they whined that a straight-ahead, unexceptional convention photo spread that they had voluntarily posed for in New York magazine wasn't flattering enough. Presenting no evidence whatsoever, the two women (one of whom, Ms. Crowley, doubles as a Fox "analyst") bantered darkly with Mr. O'Reilly about how this "dirty trick" to present unglamorous portraits of them and such luminaries as Henry Kissinger and Al D'Amato was a conspiracy of "radical" and "Upper West Side" Democrats. (We all know what Upper West Side means, ladies.) This was G.O.P. TV raised to not-ready-for-prime time self-parody, lacking only the studio audience to yuk it up.

But is the response to an ideological news network like Fox an ideological news network with a liberal slant of its own? CNN, the inventor of 24/7 news, once prided itself on being a straight shooter. Now it and Mr. Carville have argued that the line wasn't blurred here because the liberal "Crossfire" hosts are unpaid, loosey-goosey Kerry advisers and their show is an opinion-mongering screamfest, not a news program. One might also add that with its 4:30 time slot, "Crossfire" has of late been seen only by shut-ins and barflies. Yet as CNN continues its ratings free-fall, humbled by Fox and occasionally by MSNBC as well, "Crossfire" remains one of its few signature brands. No matter how long the overlap between Mr. Carville and Mr. Begala's TV and campaign roles, that brand and CNN itself are now as inextricably bound to the Democrats as Fox is to the Republicans. The network has succeeded in an impossible feat ceding Mr. O'Reilly the moral high ground. The Bush campaign doesn't have to enlist Fox hosts for its staff since they're willing to whore for it without even being asked.

CNN is hemorrhaging in quality and viewers so fast for reasons that have more to do with its lugubriousness and identity crisis than politics that this dust-up may prove but a footnote to its travails. But its casual abandonment of even a fig leaf of impartiality ratifies a larger shift in the news landscape that reached its historical watershed at the Republican convention. That was when Fox News for the first time scored a ratings victory over every other network, the Big Three broadcast networks included.

Fox's feat has since been trivialized by most of its rivals as the inevitable triumph of a partisan channel speaking to its faithful. But there's something else at work here. It's not just that Fox is so good at pandering to its core constituency but that its competition is so weak at providing the hard-hitting, trustworthy news that might draw an alternative crowd. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes aren't stupid. They have seized upon that news vacuum in the marketplace and filled it with fast-paced, news-like bloviation that can be more entertaining (and often no less informative) to watch than its rivals even if its bias gives you heartburn.

What much of the other news media have offered as an alternative has not been an alternative at all. At some point after 9/11, the news business jumped the shark and started relaying unchallenged administration propaganda though with less zeal and showbiz pizazz than Fox. The notorious March 2003 presidential news conference at which not a single probing question was asked by the entire White House press corps heralded the broader Foxification to come. As Michael Massing, a frequent critic of this newspaper and others, put it on PBS's NewsHour, the failure of the American news media to apply proper skepticism to the administration's stated rationale for war in Iraq is "one of the most serious institutional failures of the press" since our slide into Vietnam. Mr. Massing attributes some of this to the fear of challenging a president then at the height of his popularity. Whatever the explanation and there are many, depending on the news organization the net effect was that the entire press came off as Fox Lite. The motive to parrot the administration line may not have been ideological, as it was at Fox, but since the misinformation was the same, news consumers can't be blamed for finding that a distinction without a difference.

The W.M.D. flimflam was hardly the last time that government propaganda supplanted journalism. Though the chagrined major newspapers have since worked hard to compensate for their prewar lapses, the electronic media that give most Americans their news have often lagged behind, especially cable. From Jessica Lynch to "Mission Accomplished" to, most recently, the bogus charges of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, there is a tendency to give administration-favored fiction credibility first, often cementing the spin into fact well before the tough questions are asked (if they're ever asked). It's a damning measure of the news media's failure to provide a persuasive dose of reality as an antidote to Washington fairy tales that so many Americans came to believe that the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqis, not Saudis. A Newsweek poll just two weeks ago shows that 42 percent of Americans (among them, 32 percent of Democrats) still believe that Saddam was "directly involved" in the 9/11 attacks.

Writing in The Los Angeles Times, Ben Wasserstein dissected the Swift boat controversy as a case in point of how the process works in the right-wing press. After The Washington Post reported on Aug. 19 that the military records of one of John Kerry's principal Swift boat accusers, Larry Thurlow, "contradicted Thurlow's version of events and confirmed Kerry's," the scoop was either ignored entirely or distorted beyond recognition by The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal editorial page and every Fox News talking head except one (John Kasich). From there, it was off to the races. Once Fox sets the agenda, and its allies in the administration, talk radio and the Internet ride herd, its rivals want to get in on the act, if only out of ratings envy and sheer inertia. Though the best-selling "Unfit for Command" was the work of a longtime Kerry antagonist and a writer best known for his anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic comments on a right-wing Web forum, its facts were challenged on TV at a far slower pace than the books of Seymour Hersh and Kitty Kelley, whose reporting was targeted in advance by administration talking points handed out before the books could even be read.

In this environment, even a beloved right-wing anecdote of flyweight content, like Teresa Heinz Kerry's "shove it!," can overwhelm all other headlines in the 24/7 news ethosphere. Afghanistan, tumbling into chaos, has all but fallen off the TV map. So to some extent has Iraq. How many Americans know just how much of the country has been ceded to the insurgents? Perhaps only Armageddon there or in North Korea can change the subject from George W. Bush's National Guard career, a story that has been known since The Boston Globe first reported it in May 2000, and whose embarrassing outline would remain the same even if "60 Minutes" had never done its piece.

Any sideshow that can turn the press itself into the subject, whether it's about typewriter fonts or "Crossfire" hosts doing double duty on the Kerry campaign, serves an administration that would like to distract attention from its defeats in the current war, from Abu Ghraib to Fallujah to Tora Bora. When the press isn't creating its own embarrassments, the administration will step in to intimidate and undermine journalists who don't regurgitate its approved narrative. That impulse was most nakedly revealed when a principal architect of the administration's Iraq policy, Paul Wolfowitz, blamed bad news from the occupation on the cowardice of reporters too "afraid to travel" beyond Baghdad to gather all the festive developments. (Mr. Wolfowitz later apologized, but only after he had been repeatedly chastised for slurring the some 30 reporters who had been killed covering his war.)

Between the White House and Fox's smears of the mainstream press and the mainstream press's own scandals and failings of will, the toll on the entire news media's position in our culture has been enormous. A Pew Research Center survey published in June found that the credibility of all news sources is low, in some cases falling precipitously since the start of the Bush administration: major newspapers, the broadcast networks, the cable news networks and PBS alike.

The news about the news could well get worse. One media critic, Tom Rosenstiel, believes we're seeing the end of network news altogether as its audience slips more and more into the Depends demographic and its corporate masters cut back its air time and budgets. His theory will be tested soon enough when the first of the Big Three anchors, Tom Brokaw, retires at NBC after the election. Mr. Brokaw's successor is Brian Williams, now most famous for the ridicule rightly heaped on him by Jon Stewart for his inability to articulate a single question for Al Sharpton during a live interview at the Democratic convention. The future of ABC News could also soon be in play, depending on who succeeds Michael Eisner at Disney and under what fiscal imperatives from its board.

Should network news ride into the sunset, bargain-budgeted 24/7 cable will inherit the news franchise in our TV culture. That would be the final victory for Fox News. The only hope for a successful alternative is not to fight Fox's fire with imitation Fox fire in the form of another partisan network but to reinvent the wheel with a network that prizes news over endless left/right crossfire. Against the backdrop of what looks to be an indefinite war, there might even be a market for it. In the meantime, Carville and Begala, in keeping with the self-immolating tradition of the Kerry campaign, have handed the Bush campaign and its Fox auxiliary one hell of a gift.


Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | RSS | Help | Back to Top