Call this the season of the documentary. The summer’s most powerful (not to mention polemical) challenges to conventional thinking have come from the left, via the silver screen: “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Control Room,” “Hunting of the President” and now, “Outfoxed.” The interesting thing is not whether these flicks are fair or balanced or thorough or comprehensive. Surely they are, by and large, NOT — and not intended to be. The interesting thing is their surprising and quite remarkable popularity — these are documentaries, for crying out loud! — which says a great deal about what has recently been left unsaid, or substantially understated.
Consider the case of Fox News. It has been besting the rest of cable news by delivering journalism with an attitude and an ideology — while declaiming that it alone of all the media is free of these very traits. The pose, while widely winked at within the trade, went largely unchallenged in public — as did the larger, very effective and focused conservative campaign against liberal media bias. Not surprisingly, many believed what they kept hearing.
Consider the Pew study released last month, on increasing polarization of news audiences. Check out the chart labeled “Growing Credibility Gap.” In a list of most of the main national news media, the percentage of Republicans who “believe all or most” of what they got from each declined dramatically from 2000 to 2004. Fox News was the only exception.
Would even the most conservative news consumers claim that the change was in each of these media themselves — that they were all more believable in 2000, much less so in 2004? It was the perception of the news consumers that changed — a change very skillfully cultivated by conservatives, and countered but little by others.
Why this reluctance to respond to the charges — and to the changes in the media landscape? The very effectiveness of the “liberal media” charge has caused journalists to shy away from anything that might invite the label (and calling Fox News ideological is as sure an invitation as there is).
Then there’s the clubbiness of media folk in New York and Washington — not to mention corporate-pressured aversion to controversy. Also, conflicting interests nudge some toward genial acceptance: Surely the important voice of Howie Kurtz of the Washington Post is distorted, consciously or not, by his working for CNN.
“Outfoxed,” whatever else one thinks of it (I haven’t seen it) has at last blown this subject wide open. Having acknowledged the change, we are happily freed to think about what it means. For example:
- Whether the polarization and politicization in the media is such an awful thing. See Andrew Kohut’s interesting New York Times piece from last Sunday.
- Whether the real problem, as Tina Brown puts it in The Washington Post, is not Fox News and its flair, but “the others”: “The concentration of media power among a handful of behemoths makes the mainstream scared and driven by the bottom line. There is a retreat in newspapers as much as in TV from investigative reporting and foreign coverage into craven cost-cutting, Foxian imitation, ‘lifestyle’ journalism or pallid, self-correcting ‘balanced’ coverage that treats a genuine scandal like the Senate intelligence revelations as just another story of the day.”
- How different is this polarized/politicized media world from other chapters in history? The always interesting Alan Wolfe looked at this question in “The New Pamphleteers” in Sunday’s NYT.