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Hullabaloo


Friday, April 13, 2007

 
Score One For The Other Team

by digby

EJ Dionne has written a good column today about the significance of the Fox Debates debate that I think gets it right:


What Ailes knows is that the campaign to block Fox from sponsoring Democratic debates is the most effective liberal push-back against the network that stars Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity since its debut on Oct. 7, 1996.

Ailes has been brilliant at having it both ways, insisting that his network is "fair and balanced" even as its right-tilting programming built a devoted conservative following that helped it bury CNN and MSNBC in the ratings.

While Ailes knew precisely what he was doing, his competitors flailed. They dumped one format after another, sometimes trying to lure conservative viewers from Fox by offering their own right-leaning programs. Loyal conservatives preferred the real thing and stuck with Fox.

My hunch is that Ailes, one of the toughest and smartest in a generation of Republican political consultants, sees his adversaries as playing the kind of political hardball he respects. It's why he's angry. The anti-Fox squad won a second round on Monday when Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton joined John Edwards in announcing that they would not appear at a debate to be sponsored by Fox and the Congressional Black Caucus in September.

The Fox debate saga is amusing, but it's more than that. It marks a transformation on the left driven by the rise of Internet voices and the frustration of liberals at the success of conservatives in using a combination of talk radio, Fox and the Web to propagate anti-liberal, anti-Democratic messages.

From the late 1960s until the past few years, media criticism was dominated by conservatives railing against a supposedly "liberal media." Hearing mostly from this one side, editors, publishers and producers looked constantly over their right shoulders, rarely imagining they could be biased against the left or too accommodating to Republican presidents. This was a great conservative victory.

The Bush years have changed that. Aggressive media criticism is now the rule across the liberal blogs, and new monitoring organizations such as Media Matters for America police news reports for signs of Republican bias, often debunking charges against Democrats. When you combine liberal and conservative media criticism you get a result that is more or less fair and balanced. Score a net gain for liberals.


Dionne is right that the conservatives were very successful at cowing the press into leaning right. It's one of the ways it kept its momentum. By the time of the dreadful coverage of the Clinton impeachement and the 2000 election, some of us on the left had become actively hostile toward it, and rightfully so, I believe.

As Dionne writes, Fox has been allowed to pretend that it is "non-partisan" with a wink and a nod for more than a decade now. It has never actually fooled anyone, least of all its owners and certainly not liberals, who rarely watch unless they are masochists or media observers like me. They very cleverly used a few greedy Democratic operatives and a lot of timorous pols to build their phony "fair and balanced" network and it worked for them. But live by the sword and die by the sword. As their patron, the Republican party, goes down, they can't expect that they can call all the shots anymore.

I don't know that liberal blogs or other internet entities can take credit for forcing the media to look over its left shoulder as well as its right, but we certainly have been screaming in a rather unpleasant manner for the last few years because it has been extremely difficult to get their attention. They were immersed in rightwing cant to such a degree that they simply couldn't hear anything that wasn't processed through that filter. (I remember watching Chris Matthews sometime in 2004 insisting that "the liberals" ran everything in Washington.) And as the Imus affair illustrated, the insularity of the elite DC press still hasn't been fully penetrated.

I don't particularly want to be a media critic. I like media and I respect the talent of most of those who do it professionally. I never wanted to be some crank carping at the television set --- I'm interested in politics. But there was simply no choice. Since the 80's the right systematically set out to convert the political press into their friendly collaborators even if they didn't know it. They had lots of cash and knew how to show everyone a good time. And they mau-mau'd them to death. It worked beautifully.

And while they did that, they set about creating an alternate media that could feed the wingnut base directly while feeding the mainstream more discretely. It came into full bloom during the late 90's and ushered in this presidency. And predictably, a nation softened up by years of rightwing propaganda was ready to put him on a pedestal when the country was attacked on 9/11 --- even though his actual performance at that time was laughably inept. Iraq was the result.

That was when the whole operation jumped the shark. Liberals of all stripes, bloggers and others, were by that time unanimously appalled by the GOP, Fox, talk radio and the mainstream press and began to fight back. We shall see if we have the staying power to keep it up.

I have long had a rather simplistic belief that American political power was properly seen as a tug-of-war rather than a pendulum. For decades, the left was sort of holding on to the rope with one hand, checking out the scenery, enjoying the fruits of the New Deal and tolerant social change and forgetting that they had to put all their weight into the game or the other side would pull them completely over the center line. The 1994 Republican Revolution jerked me awake and I watched in horror for the next decade. Over that period many more liberals woke up to the fact that we were no longer standing firmly on our side of the line anymore. I realized that the "third way" stance the Democrats had taken during the late 80's had been a brief tactical success, but a long term strategic mistake. In the tug of war, you simply can't rely on the other side, particularly when its infused with revolutionary fervor, to stop pulling once you reach the "middle."

Marginalizing Fox is an important step in the process but it's going to take a sustained effort. I've been watching the right for too long to believe they are doing anything but taking a breather right now. It is a very, very big mistake to ever let up on the rope. The Bush administration has been a massive laboratory experiment in what goes wrong when the Democrats make a huge strategic error and the media completely fails in its duty. We really can't let this happen again.


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