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November 1, 2003

The Other Bias at Fox News: Volume

Another former Fox News grunt has spoken up, but it's a different tale. The "bias" is to get people screaming at their television sets-- liberals included.

Matt Gross, now an assistant editor at New York magazine, used to work at Fox, but on the website, not in the field. Continuing the recent action at Romensko’s Letters about The Memo, he recalls a certain day when an executive from Fox News Channel came to talk to the online troops, with a mission to better align the site with the televised Fox News. This was a “let’s get on the same page” speech. Thus the page had to be described.

“Seek out stories that cater to angry, middle-aged white men who listen to talk radio and yell at their televisions.” That’s what Gross recalls hearing. This directive had consequences, but not the kind we would call a conservative tilt or pro-Bush agenda. “What followed was a dumbing-down of what had been an ambitious and talented news operation,” Gross writes. Dumbling down is not a right wing tilt. Nor does it fit into Fair and Balanced. It’s something else.

Stories got shorter. What ran on the website had to be more like the “script” read on the air. (Which is using the Web to the opposite of its advantages.) The young—and often liberal—journalists who staffed the website found they had to fact check the news already broadcast by Fox correspondents. The on-air people were rushing to the next story and “couldn’t be bothered,” according to Gross.

Keep this in mind when Fox does things that are different from the standard model. They do round the clock cable news with a much smaller staff of reporters, producers and researchers. I’m not sure the exact figures are known. (Jeff Jarvis says a third or less. If you have reliable numbers, or a good link, please send.) But let’s say Fox—the ratings leader in cable news for seven straight quarters—has 50 percent of the bodies available at CNN, but the same 24 hours of news to fill. We would expect that difference to show up somehow in the news formula. How? Well, you can repeat yourself more often. This brings marginal costs for a minute of recycled news closer to zero. But dilution is a bad solution because we then have less reason to watch you. So how do you do news that costs less per hour, and gives viewers more reason to watch? Gross says:

It wasn’t that they were toeing some political line… it was that the facts of a story just didn’t matter at all. The idea was to get those viewers out of their seats, screaming at the TV, the politicians, the liberals — whoever — simply by running a provocative story.

It’s obvious Gross is no fan of Fox, (“clearly a disgruntled ex-employee” he says of himself). So apply any discount rate you want to his view. But if I understand the job he had—preparing and checking Fox material for the Web—it would give him reasonably intimate knowledge of such things as news formula, Fox style, and, yes, the Fox brand of “bias” compared to the characteristic angle of other news sources, which the Web staff has to be reading.

Now remember Fox News Channel’s lineage, which is entertainment. Why do the searchlights remain in the news logo at Fox? Top left corner: go look. What is that? It’s imagery handed down from Twentieth Century Fox, the fabled Hollywood studio.

CBS, NBC, ABC (entertainment companies too) gave birth to news divisions at a time when “public service, at a loss if necessary” was a serious starting point— and for hard-headed, practical reasons. Imagine: the threat of government regulation and even—so wild, this part—losing your licence if you gave really terrible service in news. Don’t laugh. That was a big deal then (early 1960s).

By the time Fox came into the game (1990s) these were not serious threats. So the birth certificate lists Hollywood and Politics (via Ailes), parents. The baby is Fox journalism. High minded public service was not, as it is said, present at the creation. If you don’t understand why that is a point of pride at Fox, then you don’t get what the operation is about. This gives Fox a different feel, an edge, and the edge is the subject of Gross’s letter.

Simply by running a provocative story. Almost all Murdoch properties identify themselves to us by means of the oldest marketing strategy there is: shock and awe, hype and miracle, outrage and scam, the language of screaming headlines. It’s not just information with more excitement pumped into it (although that is true too) but also excitement as information. Get those viewers out of their seats. It’s the wow effect. It’s the tabloid mind. It’s the blare. (Fox is louder than other networks, volume wise. Ever notice that?) It’s the hype level per unit of information. There’s swelling music on all news networks; when it swells to extremes it’s Fox. All networks employ eye candy. If everyone who can be eye candy is eye candy, then it’s probably Fox.

The best way I have thought of to capture this quality, which is both over-familiar and under-described, is to say at Fox they’re way more liberal with the exclamation points— but in everything, words, colors, graphics, sound, blondes… News! This is a kind of bias but it’s not a simple kind. By running—always running—with the more provocative story, you generate a variant on news, a tabloid genre, which some will call bias. But watch it when you assign standard political terms to the tilt toward excitement and high volume. Which network is most likely to have Al Sharpton on the air? Fox. He’s pro-excitement too.

PressThink (Oct. 30): The Fox News Daily Memo: Is the Fix in?

Cal Thomas, who has a contract with Fox, says the Left thinks it found the smoking gun wuth The Memo.

Roger Ailes, head of Fox News channel, takes on the editor of the LA Times, whom he calls “Elite, Arrogant, Condescending … ” (June 2, 2004)

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 1, 2003 11:57 PM