Sunday I appeared on CNN, trying, along with ‘Reliable Sources’ host Brian Stelter, to describe what’s different about Fox News— and to explain why Bill O’Reilly isn’t in trouble with his bosses for making stuff up. These are my notes.
First, the clip:
And here are my notes, attempting to explicate what I said on CNN.
1. Fox News Channel is a niche product. A very successful niche product: news for people who don’t trust the rest of the news media. (Total audience for the three network evening newscasts: about 25-27 million. O’Reilly on his best night: 3.3 million.) If the rest of the news media is raising questions about Bill O’Reilly’s veracity, this is not only not a problem for Fox. It’s the sort of event that turns the gears of the machine. “Trust us: they’re not to be trusted.”
2. I hear this a lot from people on social media: ‘O’Reilly is an entertainer, not a journalist!’ I know what they mean. They’re not wrong. But I think it is more correct to say that O’Reilly is a performance artist. The medium is television. The genre is “resentment news.” I first wrote about it in 2003:
There’s never been a face-of-the-brand in network news who is deliberately styled hot (in McLuhan’s terms.) O’Reilly blows up a lot. He is wired for argument and controversy because he is willing to fight the spin of others with righteous spin of his own. And he has another advantage, for which he does not get enough notice. He’s willing to make fans by having active enemies. Indeed, making enemies is basic to his appeal, and that’s where Terry Gross and the rest of the establishment press factor themselves in. They supply what O’Reilly’s genre — resentment news — demands.
In 1989, Bill O’Reilly quit ABC and became host of Inside Edition, a syndicated news-derived program sold to local stations. In the Establishment’s view, this is like moving to the trailer park. Thus, it took an outsider — in fact, an outcast — to make the imaginative leap from cool to hot in evening news. Not that there weren’t models. One obvious reference point for O’Reilly’s success is Sidney Lumet’s Network, the movie classic, (1976) that projected so brilliantly what angry populism would look like if it one day seized hold of TV news.
3. Nick Lemann wrote this about O’Reilly in The New Yorker in 2006: “Like every artist, he has created a territory that is distinctively his, and under anyone else’s supervision would not cohere.” That is true. Lemann goes on:
Part of the pleasure of “The O’Reilly Factor” is knowing that O’Reilly is a guy with a temper, and he might lose it. He reddens, sits up, and presses the guest, who may begin to stammer helplessly (in which case O’Reilly usually pulls back), or to backpedal and make excuses… (in which case O’Reilly keeps boring in), or to insult O’Reilly (in which case O’Reilly may begin yelling—the big payoff). He’s the beat cop for the American neighborhood, who may have been a little excessive at times, may occasionally have run afoul of Internal Affairs, but law-abiding folks trust him because they know he’s on their side. His liberal guests are like suspects he’s pulled over: in the end, he’s probably just going to frisk them and let them go with a genial warning, but if they try anything, well, he carries a nightstick for a reason.
4. In resentment news there are different stories every day, but the narrative never changes. A corrupt elite is trying to put one over on the decent, hard-working people of this country, and to destroy the simple virtues that made America great. There are many symbols of that — the news cycle provides them — but only one thing is ever symbolized.
I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes… It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant. Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content… The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.
6. Roger Ailes made a fateful decision when he created Fox News in 1996. He could have marketed it as the conservative alternative in news, or news that respects traditional values. That would still call out the market segment Fox is made for, and draw a contrast with the establishment media. It would have the additional advantage of being true— more or less. But as everyone knows Ailes did not do that. Instead: Fair and balanced. We report, you decide. As O’Reilly puts it: a no-spin zone. This guaranteed that a state of war with the so-called liberal media would always prevail at Fox because the obvious differences between the news agenda at Fox and the news agenda at NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS and NPR could not be explained as our spin vs. their spin. It had to be the heroic truthtellers at Fox vs. the forces of darkness at the other networks.
7. Here, Roger Ailes exploited a weakness in establishment journalism that in 1996 was dimly understood by its practitioners— or not understood at all. There was a submerged ideology in American newsrooms, populated as they were by people who were more cosmopolitan than “country,” more secular than religious. Journalists in the U.S. were vaguely progressive in the sense of welcoming social change (up to a point) and identifying (up to a point) with those who had grievances against traditional authority. Certainly there weren’t many denizens of the American newsroom eager to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” or who had supported the Vietnam War, or who saw Ronald Reagan as a cultural hero. And there weren’t many alert to the ideological undertow in a mission statement still popular among journalists: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Critics on the left are correct to say that if this is liberalism it is very weak tea. But critics on the right are correct to say that it sure isn’t neutral professionalism. Roger Ailes understood that the “mainstream” journalists his network was built to attack had an ideology that they were unwilling to defend, because they had never recognized it as an ideology. Instead they used terms like “news values.” They talked about standards and credibility and objectivity and being a good professional. They still do this.
It’s not that these terms didn’t mean anything, but they couldn’t capture enough to account for the world view that did in fact prevail in American newsrooms and did in fact conflict with the way a portion of the country — the conservative portion — saw things. That is the conflict that gave rise to Fox News. It was partly due to a misrecognition by journalists of their own belief system. They aren’t as liberal as the cartoon characterizations that are now commonplace on the American right, but they aren’t successful at taking the view from nowhere, either.
8. Finally, as I said on Twitter:
In summary: O'Reilly shoots at liberals. His show is "about" that. Not his story but his aim has to be true. Making stuff up is no big deal.
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) February 26, 2015