Keep on Hatin'
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"Crazy, isn't it? It just goes to show you how low our standards are." -- End-of-the-world-preaching CNN anchor Glenn Beck, on seeing his ratings jump 84 percent this year.
There has been a lot of talk lately about the supposed "demise" of Fox News, and the return of legitimate competition to an information landscape that for many years now has been dominated by the network of Bill O'Reilly and Brit Hume.
If you look closely you will find a wealth of news analysis pieces about this very phenomenon rocketing around the Internet and in the media/entertainment sections of the various major daily newspapers. This is because media critics are using the end of the year to gloat anew about the fallout from this year's election season -- now almost universally interpreted as a catastrophe not only for the Republican Party, but for Fox's much-loathed bullies of the media world, who for years looked like a threat to eventually put every milquetoast broadcast hack east of Bob Costas out of a job.
The tone of these news analyses makes me a little nervous. I get the sense that there are a great many people in our business who would like to believe that America's media consumers are somehow "tired of hate" and are moving en masse from an invective-based news paradigm back to the supposed old standards of "objectivity" and "nonpartisan reporting." At the very least, the critics of our business are rushing to interpret the rise of now-formidable Fox competitors like Murrow-esque former ESPN wiseguy Keith Olbermann and yukster apocalypse merchant Glenn Beck as something other than a case of adaptive imitation. Some say that networks like CNN have struck back by presenting the news with "personal flair" or "attitude"; others believe that the Fox ratings dip (a 21 percent decline in total viewers compared with the last quarter of 2005) is just a reflection of viewer sentiment toward a flailing White House that is closely tied in the public imagination to Rupert Murdoch's information empire. In the latter view, the recent blow to Fox is a cautionary tale about what happens when a news network ties its economic fortunes to a political ideology; that network then becomes a prisoner to the whims and policies of individual politicians, in this case the increasingly unpopular George W. Bush.
There is obviously a tremendous moral argument to be made here -- that Fox News stepped into an ethical minefield when it scored huge ratings supporting the Iraq invasion, a decision that soon after left it under enormous pressure to vindicate White House policy by sugarcoating the spiraling Iraq disaster. This is supposedly why commercial news networks are supposed to stay out of the politics business; you back the wrong horse, you end up sharing the same bottle of glue.
That is why the recent ratings reshuffle is being celebrated so loudly in the media world. In a business where ethics stopped being an important consideration for news directors 50 years ago, the blow to Fox is being seen as an overdue expression of capitalist justice, a punishment to the network that abandoned the true mission of the news business (providing objective news to consumers) and a reward to the Lou Dobbses and Anderson Coopers of the world who at least remained in the ballpark of non-partisan truth, whatever that is.
Sadly, this is bullshit, and we all know it. What happened this year was not an abatement of the Fox phenomenon. It was a super-acceleration of the Fox era. This idea that what Fox is selling is a specific policy or ideology is a myth that is going to be furthered in every corner of the media landscape. What Fox has been selling in the last 10 years is a formula for building and retaining a mass media demographic. The formula is Blame, Hate, Coalesce: You address the widest possible political demographic, blame their problems on a numerically smaller group, and then you solidify the collective identity of the first group by feeding them a regular and addictive diet of warnings and dire threats to their existence. Every FAIR-reading media-savvy lefty knows how this works; you take aim at the religious middle class, for instance, and you plaster their evening news shows with pictures of queers in bridal gowns tongue-kissing in some reviled Leninist paradise like Massachusetts or San Francisco. Surround that news story with jazzy ads for products Joe Q. Layoff can no longer afford to buy (displayed by huge-chested models he will later see on the cover of a celebrity mag arm-in-arm with someone slimmer and richer than himself) and you have a perfectly addictive media formula, a neatly profitable little cycle of fear, titillation and self-loathing that never needs to be broken.
What everyone seems to now forget is that Fox's blame game works in reverse as well. When you demonize a certain group, you not only build the collective identity of your own target market, you build a sense of collective identity among your chief demographic's enemies as well. The genius of the Murdoch method was always that his attack dogs somehow managed to paint an extremely diverse group of "outsiders" with the same demonic brush; you take even a gazillionaire arch-capitalist creature like Teresa Heinz Kerry and sell her to the public as a closet socialist pining for a Sovietization of the economy while huddling in the same tent with the ghosts of the SDS and Lev Trotsky. Or you take a Holocaust denier like Iranian president Ahmadinejad and you claim that his very existence is a symptom of the same America-hatred taught in New England high schools, where closet socialist "red diaper baby" teachers skip over America's liberation of Hitler's death camps out of sheer irrational hatred for the military (I actually heard this argument made on Michael Savage's show).
If you lived in America in the last 15 years and happened not to be a fan of Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly, you almost certainly turned on Fox News at some point and found yourself unfairly bound at the hip with some invidious America-hating villain, and denounced as an accomplice in his "treason" simply because you happened to share some particular policy opinion, like opposition to the Iraq war. And if you had any backbone at all, had even a shred of decency, your instinct was to reject this crude and vicious attempt at political labeling and come to the defense of this supposed villain, stand with him, show solidarity. After about ten years of this -- before you know it -- there is a whole diverse class of people standing now united with very similar passions, those passions mainly having to do with resenting being labeled by the likes of Hannity and O'Reilly and feeling bound to others in opposition to their tactics. Thus, after a time, a media strategy aimed at coalescing a broad middle under a paranoid umbrella against a smaller common enemy has the effect of backing said enemies into their own paranoid corner, where they in turn are ripe to be seized and eaten by some other canny media predator using exactly the same tactics.
That's what's happening now. When I go to a bookstore now, I don't see any relief from the same basic Blame, Hate, Coalesce strategy Murdoch started rolling half a generation ago. I just see it working in reverse. We had Bernie Goldberg's "100 People Who Are Screwing Up America" and now we have Keith Olbermann's "The Worst Person in the World: And 202 Strong Contenders." We had Bill O'Reilly's "Culture Warrior" and we now have "Sweet Jesus I Hate Bill O'Reilly." We had Ann Coulter's "Godless," which in turn spawned "Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter" and "Soulless: Ann Coulter and the Right-Wing Church of Hate" and even the inspired "I Hate Ann Coulter!" by Anonymous. You had Rush's "The Way Things Ought to Be" and the way things are according to Al Franken, which is that Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. For those who don't want to buy all the new liberal books, you can get it all in one volume in "The I Hate Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity. . . Reader: The Hideous Truth About America's Ugliest Conservatives," edited by Clint Willis.
Now this phenomenon is spilling into the airwaves in a successful way for the first time, where shows like Olbermann's and Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert are cutting into the Fox lead. I think all of those guys are funny, and in a far smaller way I'm sure I'm caught up in the same phenomenon. But I think it's time for all of us to admit that something extremely sinister is happening in the American media landscape. We are being split up into rigid camps and kept doped up on fear, hate and invective. At the end of 2006 we are a country without life-threatening economic or political problems whose population is utterly consumed with paranoia, divided into two insoluble groups, with each genuinely afraid of being exterminated by the other.
It is amazing to me that people can walk into a bookstore, see a pair of books whose titles begin with "I Hate...," and still believe that the two books are different, simply because the politics of one are conservative and the politics of the other are liberal. Even though it is astoundingly obvious, I'm beginning to think that the vast majority of Americans will not realize until it is too late that this is the same shit. Hating the other guy, it's the new racism. It's imposed from above, like racism, and it serves the same purpose. It keeps the population mesmerized by irrelevant passions and distracted from their natural business of tending to their own real political problems.
And it just so happens that at the beginning of 2007, this paralyzing hatred is our biggest real political problem. It has become bigger than the individual policy issues at play in the ongoing argument between liberalism and conservatism. It has corrupted our thinking and infected us with a profound spiritual sickness. And, it has inclined us all to extremist political positions that we would never take without media figures telling us that our neighbors were secretly scheming to stamp out our very existences. But we'll never figure that out, not as long as we remain focused on who's winning in the left-right battle. It doesn't matter that Fox is down and that the other team is getting a bump in the ratings. It's the split that's remained consistent, and the split is the problem.