MSNBC Does Not–and Never Can–Play the Same Game as Fox

Gabriel Sherman’s New York magazine piece on cable news (10/3/10) has an important insight into the Fox News‘ success:

Fox‘s rightward flanking maneuver, capturing a disenfranchised part of the audience, was only part of its strategy. The news, especially political news, wasn’t something that happened. It was something that you shaped out of the raw data, brought out of the clay of zhlubby, boring politics, reborn with heroes and villains, triumphs and reverses, never-ending story lines–what TV executives call “flow.” And the beauty of it was that the viewers–the voters–were the protagonists, victims of evil Kenyan socialist overlords, or rebels, coming to take the government back. There was none of the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand relativity crossfire that mirrors the journalism-school ideal of objectivity. All the fire went one way. The viewers, on their couches, were flattered as the most important participants, the foot soldiers in Fox‘s army; some of them even voted.

I sense in New York‘s account the traditional corporate media assumption that politics is an activity best left to the professionals–that there’s something untoward about journalists encouraging citizens to take an active role in their nation’s decision-making. That, of course, is exactly what they should be doing. The problem with Fox News is the story that it’s telling is naturally a conspiratorial one: The way to present the corporate powers-that-be that Fox speaks for as being on the same side as the middle class is to invent a conspiratorial elite in league with a sinister underclass that is the enemy of both top and middle. Tides Foundation, meet the New Black Panther Party.

The New York article presents MSNBC as having grasped the essence of Fox‘s model of journalism, while CNN hasn’t gotten it yet. “Fox figured it out that you have to stand for something in cable,” the piece quotes MSNBC president Phil Griffin. But, really, MSNBC doesn’t get it either. If it’s all about “targeting an audience” and “brand is everything,” as various NBC brass say, then why does MSNBC start its day with Morning Joe, hosted by moderate conservative (and former Republican congressmember) Joe Scarborough? Fox puts Fox & Friends in that timeslot to launch the stories that will dominate the channel’s “straight news” and “opinion” shows all day long.

MSNBC doesn’t do that, ultimately, because its owner General Electric doesn’t want it to do that–because the natural storyline for a progressive media outlet is corporate power vs. the rest of us, and in that narrative GE is a major villain. GE would much rather be telling the story that Fox is telling–“We have to be more conservative then they are,” NBC CEO Robert Wright told NBC News chief Neal Shapiro after September 11, New York reports. In fact, MSNBC tried to outflank Fox on the right long before 9/11–and didn’t give up on the idea until it had repeatedly failed. Eventually the cable channel realized that Fox had dibs on the right-wing sector of the audience–but GE‘s corporate interests prevent it from really going after the progressive slice of the pie.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.