Resentment News (and More Blondes Per Square Foot): Explaining What Fox News Channel Is

Nov.
22
Not sure whether I will continue to do these things, but I recorded my second Late Night with PressThink video. It tries to explain “what Fox News actually is, which really means explaining it to myself…”

The original is here if you wish to embed. Some of the key concepts:

Resentment

On Fox, the news exists in order to generate controversy. And controversy exists in order to generate resentment. And the resentment is what generates ratings. So this is my most concise idea about Fox: we should consider it “resentment news.” I think that’s the genre in which it trades… Resentment of whom? Well, a cultural elite that is corrupt and maneuvering behind the scenes to exercise power.

Myth

Resentment of the cultural elite as a recurring theme in news puts me in mind of something that the critic Roland Barthes—a Frenchman—said about myth. Myth in the sense of a kind of ideological narrative that motivates people to particpate in politics and engages their emotions. And what Barthes said is: “many signifiers, one signified…” Or to put it another way: many stories—every night there’s new stories on Fox—one narrative that endures. Many provocations, one lesson. The liberals, the cultural elite, are at it again. And this is the essence of myth: that no matter what happens, the story remains the same, [which] is one reason the whole notion of Fox as a news channel is a little dubious: because nothing ever changes in Foxland.

The Paranoid Style

As I say in the clip, one of the best texts for understanding Fox is the famous essay by historian Richard Hofstadter: The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It shows that this way of generating resentment has deep roots in our political culture, a theme I explored in my 2003 post: Bill O’Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News. (“The Fox News host is a new type in the press, but an old type in politics. And O’Reilly’s style—resentment news—is gaining.”)

Blondes

A whole other way of understanding Fox begins with the logo… The logo of course goes back to 20th Century Fox, the movie studio, and reminds us that the roots of Fox are not in the Murdoch empire at all, or in news, but in entertainment. And the logo, which is searchlights angling in different directions, speaks of movie premiers, and the entertainment world and the glamour associated with it. And this is why—these roots in the DNA of entertainment–Fox is distinguished by its blondes. Blondes are really important for understanding the formula of Fox: more blondes per square foot than any other news network.

Lack of confidence

What we have to understand about Fox as a political organization is that it really lacks confidence, it lacks the courage of its convictions…. That’s why its slogan isn’t “news from the right,” or “a conservative take on the world,” or “it’s time to put the liberals in their place,” but Fair and Balanced… This is responsible for a lot of the strange behavior that you see from people in Fox, most recently from Roger Ailes, who is the head of Fox News network, calling NPR a bunch of Nazis… What these outbursts and these irrational explosions tell us is how little confidence the people of Fox have in their identity as a political organization, even though they don’t make any secret of it, I mean with all the presidential contenders for the Republican nomination on their payroll, and the organizing of rallies, and raising money and so forth. But because they lack confidence, when other people talk about that political identity they get mad.

Here’s the video: it’s 15 minutes.

Finally, for an extended and highly intelligent reflection on the ideas in this video and my first one, see Andrew Tyndall: When Jon Stewart Met Rachel Maddow. A snippet:

There is no denying that MSNBC’s primetime line-up is liberal and that FNC’s is conservative. What I do deny is that MSNBC’s ideological and cultural role in the body politic is symmetrical with FNC’s. Generally speaking, the conservative wing of American politics is organized differently from the liberal-progressive wing and it is inconceivable that their news media would not be different too.

I agree with that. Tyndall is author of the Tydnall Report, which tracks what the network newscasts cover. He is also a loyal PressThink reader and commenter.

14 Comments

  1. [I tried posting this comment on YouTube last night, but apparently YouTube doesn't allow its users to link to other videos for spamming reasons. Reposting below with the actual links this time.]

    Jay, appreciate your willingness to try out ideas you’re still exploring. Both of your videos so far have been very helpful. Thank you.

    One thing: I think Bill O’Reilly is, as you describe, someone with a lot of “resentment” – but he is so generally speaking. I don’t think he needs to “tap into” resentment from earlier in his career.

    Case in point: his flip out on Inside Edition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2tJjNVVwRCY Dance remix is also good – and funny! –> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5j2YDq6FkVE

  2. Really great visual appeal on this website , I’d rate it 10 10.

  3. Andrew says:

    I don’t know that I’d call Fox News’ slogan or their strong defense of it a “lack of confidence,” and I think your recognition that the slogan was a political calculation undermines the thought as well. Even if they are extremely confident about their brand, we are still in a world where journalistic objectivity is the accepted norm. Thus calling themselves “right wing news” would cost them persuasiveness, and more importantly, viewership. It’s their perception of their viewers’ confidence that the slogan reflects, not their own confidence.

    In fact, once we get to a world in which they can legitimately call themselves “right wing news,” they’re actually in a world of pain, because their victimizing charge of “liberal media” will have lost its power. So again, I just don’t think it says anything about their confidence in their message – confident or not, it’s just a solid business and advocacy decision.

  4. @Andrew

    It’s their perception of their viewers’ confidence that the slogan reflects…

    Following this thought, the horns of the dilemma for Murdoch & Ailes & Co would not be a conflict in their self-image but in their attitude towards their audience. Is it one of condescension or solidarity?

    Those of us outside conservative-populist circles often succumb to the lazy reflex of assuming a relationship of manipulation between conservative plutocrats and gullible masses. You suggest that FNC (self-confidently) uses its slogan because it has an understanding that its audience (lacking confidence) cannot handle the truth. Do you have a way of interpreting FNC’s slogan that sees respect for its audience instead?

    • Andrew says:

      To be honest, I don’t know that they care one way or another about why their viewers are watching; instead the calculation is merely whether.

      There are two possible philosophies under which Fox, as currently constituted, might operate – profit or advocacy – right? So if it’s profit that’s driving the whole thing, the question of respect for their viewers doesn’t necessarily enter the equation. The question “Will they watch more if we have hot blondes and scream a lot?” is just like the empirical question “Will they watch more if they can convince themselves that they are being informed in a fair and balanced way?” If it’s advocacy driving the decisions, that’s even more correct – more people will believe you if you convince them that your voice is “fair and balanced.”

      So to get directly to your question, I don’t know that it’s a question of whether or not they believe their audience can handle the truth, but rather that they have absolutely no incentive to own the label in the way Jay is suggesting.

      As far as whether Fox actually does have respect for their audience versus whether they’re merely trying to manipulate them (regardless of whether that enters the decision-making process at all), I’d have a hard time formulating a theory that can be reconciled with the sheer amount of lies they tell their audience. The only way I can reconcile respect for the audience and being so utterly and completely, factually incorrect on a consistent and eminently verifiable basis is to conclude that they’re all insane and actually believe that stuff. So I think this boils down to the age-old question: “stupid or evil.” In this case I think the latter, but you would have to convince yourself of the former before you can formulate a theory that comes from respect for their audience.

  5. DiTurno says:

    Macallan 12 *on the rocks*? Geez, Jay — that’s just wrong.

  6. Warren says:

    Jay –

    I totally agree on the “resentment” theme, but I don’t think it’s limited to just resentment of the cultural elite. Fox (and conservatives in general I think) are tapping into a resentful mindset that extends into so many other areas — resentment of immigrant/ minorities who are supposedly taking jobs and getting benefits, resentment of people who don’t pay their mortgage/bills and get “bailed out” or let off the hook somehow, and on and on. Resentment is a great angle because it has universal appeal — I know rich people who love Fox, as well as working class people. These groups tend to resent different things, but Fox casts a wide a wide enough “resentment net” that it manages to haul in everybody who’s resentful of somebody.

  7. @Andrew –

    Rosen noted in his video that FNC is not just one thing — sometimes political propaganda, sometimes entertainment, sometimes ideological journalism. For the sake of argument, let’s concentrate just on the journalistic function.

    You suggest that “if it is profit that is driving the whole thing, the question of respect for their viewers does not necessarily enter the equation.” I am not convinced. Regardless of whether journalism is perceived by its audience as being ideologically slanted or fair-&-balanced, the audience still needs to receive signals from a news organization that it is acting in good faith, that it is not trying to dupe them. In the long run a journalistic organization that fails to gain its audience’s trust will never be profitable. Trust is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. The slogan Fair & Balanced does not function as a reassurance that the content of the news FNC delivers is, in reality, fair and balanced. Instead, it is a message of solidarity and embattlement: The entirety of the remainder of the news media is unfair (to you) and imbalanced (against you), so FNC is your only refuge to find a worldview that understands your resentment, to use Rosen’s term. This pitch is not one of respect; but it is not one of exploitation either. And it can earn the audience’s trust.

    By the way, your options of profit or advocacy as motives for running FNC omit a longstanding third tactic that accounts for many of News Corp’s money losing journalistic ventures. Murdoch’s newspapers have often been used as loss leaders to gain political leverage for his money-making media ventures. He uses a newspaper’s influence to play favorites among politicians and political parties, especially at election times, in order to obtain regulatory relief and legislative favors. FOX News Channel turns out to be an odd aberration in News Corp, a journalistic venture that happened to make money on its own account, rather than merely wielding clout so that its entertainment and sports programing gets antitrust relief and protection from competition.

  8. All valid points, but I’m not surprised by this. I think most news organizations have always had a slant since the dawn of time; it is just the consumers perhaps have become more savvy thanks to access to education and new technologies and are now questioning the source and presentation of the news. We need to digest news instead of gulping it down not allowing for awareness of what is being said and the impact.