(August 10, 1942 – March 9, 2005)
A Navy veteran of the tumultuous Vietnam and Nixon years, he served his country from inside that chaotic White House. I cannot sing his praises enough! As a writer and a brother, a mentor and a friend, this man has had a life-long effect on me and so many others. Enjoy the spell he weaves with his mastery of prose and attention to detail that only his style surpasses.
THE FOX NEWS PHENOMENON –
03/28/05 – (published posthumously)
Every so often an organization comes along that is so good at what it does that it becomes a standard of excellence in its field. In my humble opinion the Fox News Channel is such an organization. What follows is meant to be a critique as well as a catalog of what I like about the product the organization puts on the air. My intent is to try and explain why I think Fox has generated the success it has in such a relatively short time.
They say integrity is doing what is right when nobody is watching. Well, there is a lot to be said for doing what is right in the broad open daylight with everyone watching too. For one thing it is a good way to make ardent enemies out of those who should be doing the same.
One of the most meaningful ways to gauge an organization’s success is to read what some of its rivals, detractors, and out right enemies have to say about it. I will leave that to you dear readers. Just do a simple search on the internet on “Fox News”. A quick look at some of the listed sites will reveal many more negative sites than supportive ones. I suppose you can say that it is human nature to criticize and be jealous of success and to a point that is true; but I think the amount and level of pure verbal venom directed at FNC has other more sinister motives as a root cause.
A larger, better informed, and more thoughtful public is a very real threat to political demagogues – left or right. This fact, I believe, is the primary reason FNC faces both the level and intensity of criticism that it does. The primary tenant at FNC - “We Report. You Decide.”- implies a verbal contract between FNC and its viewers. In recognizing and making this contract its main focus FNC puts itself squarely in the role of American society’s truthful messenger or at least the closest thing we have to a national conscience.
The past year has seen an over all double digit percentage growth in viewer base for the Fox News Channel over the previous year’s viewer base. All of Fox’s competitors realized varying degrees of decline in their viewer base for the same period. Another telling fact is that if you add the actual number of viewers lost by its competitors the total is less than the total number Fox gained. That means the Fox product is either generating new viewers and/or bringing back viewers that were not previously committed to its competitors’ product.
Organizational success in any endeavor rests on three primary things – the product that the organization produces, the marketing of that product, and the people who produce the product. The balance between these elements is a critical factor in establishing the organization’s credibility. If either is out if balance the public’s trust in the organization can be damaged. In the business FNC is in it is vital that they constantly build and maintain that credibility and are constantly concerned with its status.
FNC’s product of course is presenting and reporting the entire spectrum of newsworthy events – local, national, worldwide, and the analysis of the causes and impacts of those events not just at those different levels but also possible impacts on the individual viewer and society as a whole.
FNC I believe excels in two aspects of its base product – content and format. Content is basically dictated by the event stream and for that reason is not really subject to true editorial control. Format however can make the content informative, understandable, and oh; by the way, entertaining.
Apparently, FNC management understands this relationship very well. They also understand the fact that their audience consists of individuals with many and varied tastes, opinions, and - lets be honest here - prejudices. The trick is not to pander or play to specific audience groups or attempt to target a “message” to any one political, ideological, or special interest group but exercise the responsibility to report events in a truthful and honest way. This is the only way to build real trust and loyalty.
Technical presentation is the easy part. Most news organizations today are technically competent at reporting events as they occur. It is just a question of obtaining, positioning, and deploying the necessary resources as efficiently as possible. Where the difference comes in is how the content is edited. A certain amount of editing is necessary in just coping with gathering, verifying, and vetting basic facts before presentation but editing is more than the simple management of the news content.
In the “news business” if you try to manage or control; or are perceived as trying to manage and control certain elements of content, you get accused of bias, spin, or having a hidden agenda no matter what circumstances are caused by events. Whatever you say then is discounted to varying degrees by your competitors, detractors, and anyone else with their own axe to grind. Shaping public opinion cannot and should not be an objective or a goal in any way in the presentation of events, their circumstances, or impacts.
That having been said however; in reality, news agencies do impact public opinion just through the act of reporting events. The public can’t react to things they don’t know about. Sins of omission either in reporting the facts or analyzing their impacts are more subtle and therefore hard to detect but are just as effective ways to bend, spin, and otherwise influence what appears as fact to support or even bring about targeted opinions and responses in the public mind.
The strict reporting of events is one thing. The accurate and timely analysis of both the causes and the impacts of these events is quite another. In reality analysis is a no win effort the majority of the time because it is impossible to satisfy all segments of the public much less individual viewers.
Truth like Beauty is totally a matter of individual perception no matter how biased, flawed, or contrary that perception may appear in real terms. That is just an underlying fact of life. In recognition of this, FNC’s self espoused “Fair and Balanced” approach is about as close as mere mortal man can hope to come to being really honest with himself.
There is a greater range of control concerning format of content but the same questions and pitfalls in terms of integrity, purpose, and ideology apply. FNC’s approach here is to present its content in many varied formats. Integrating the “Pundit Panel” into programs that both report and analyze events has been used by all TV media outlets almost since the invention of television. FNC has elevated doing so to almost an art form.
Here is where the third element of the organization’s success – people - comes in. Quite simply FNC chooses the right people for it’s on-air personnel and its contributors who perform pundit duty. Former politicians, judges, military personnel, economists, academicians, and even journalists in other media are featured rarely as just “experts” but credible professionals with worthwhile input and no hidden agenda of their own.
It is said that variety is the spice of life. Nothing illustrates this more than the infinite variety in the personality of individuals. FNC in recognition of this matches its personnel with variations in basic formats which both enhance and support each other in such a way as to capture and create a distinctive and predictable character within the structure of the individual programs.
Their morning show “Fox & Friends” for example features a “good ‘ole gal” from Texas who rides herd on a zany weather guy from Kansas and a fast talking Jersey sports guy. The personality mix alone is as good as a cup of coffee in helping the average viewer wake up. The combination realy wears well over time too. We have seen E.D. go through a divorce, two pregnancies, and uncounted hairstyles (never mind reporting on 9/11, two elections, two wars, and countless other human tragedies) while maintaining a level of professionalism and grace that simply does her proud. The basic format of the show is classic morning talk genre but the host team personality mix is really what makes it worth watching. P.S. The weekend crew is of like quality and little if any of the show’s basic “moxie” is lost.
This fact also illustrates another strength of FNC. They have what in sports terminology is called a deep bench. Substitutes that are familiar with the different show’s formats and can carry over for the regular personality without any loss of credibility are always available and always perform in a more than adequate manner when needed.
The FNC on-air folks are not phony. They do not operate from behind a façade envisioned and mandated by some unseen executive or elitist management committee. You know pretty much where they stand because they tell you either directly or indirectly through how they approach their jobs. Besides, how can anyone with a name like Uma Pemmarju possibly be phony? Personally, I would like to see her compete for the title of Miss Eye Chart of 2005.
These people are not shallow either. A lot of them operate successfully in other areas. They write books. They have radio shows. One is even an accomplished concert pianist. Their backgrounds are varied but relevant. They are all animated and personable which to me anyway enhances how they report and that builds my trust in them.
When I watched Geraldo Rivera on his major network shows it reminded me a little bit of eating hot peppers. It was hard to identify and appreciate the underlying flavors without being distracted by the heat. Since his arrival on the scene at FNC, the heat has moderated and become identifiable as not only passion but genuine caring about the people in his stories and those who might be impacted by them. Maybe he just grew both as a person and a reporter on his own with the passage of time but I think the FNC atmosphere contributed more to what I perceive as the change in him than he may even realize. I believe there are some people in this world whose characters and personalities qualify them as a force of nature. Geraldo is such a person.
So are Bill O’Riley, Sean Hannity, Allen Colmes, and Greta Van Sustern (there’s one chick who can crow just as loud as any rooster in the barnyard). They all book controversial guests on different sides for the same program and at times I think they need stripped shirts and whistles just to keep on-air control. I think they are able to maintain decorum through sheer force of personality and character. Only someone who deeply respects what they do and why they do it can pull it off consistently. Kudos to all.
Running fixed format programs with regular panels daily or weekly can be risky. If the format and people don’t click or become tainted, too predictable, or any one of a thousand conditions that lead to audience loss or disinterest, it can cause harm beyond just that one program. Variety and controversy go just so far.
FNC’s business block of four half hour shows demonstrate a balance that appeals to investors, interested viewers, and wanabee rich guys of all persuasions. The Beltway Boys featuring two loveable old Washington journalist curmudgeons who analyze and comment on the week’s stories in a surprisingly fast paced format provide informed insights on current events that I have rarely seen anywhere else.
FNC even has the guts to air a very provocative program that actually critiques the entire media for its coverage of significant events during the previous week. Newswatch, again using the enlightened approach of marrying personalities and format, gets at the “whys and wherefores” of the media’s news coverage and exposes the truth about news stories and the people who cover them.
I may have not have accomplished all I set out to do in this article. It may be said that instead of a critique all I did was rave. Oh well. Again let me state that this is a personal assessment of the organization and since I am a devoted viewer, I admit to a certain amount of bias. I do however know what I like.
Whatever else Rupert Murdoch and Rodger Ailes set out to do in 1996, what they achieved in the face of conventional wisdom, critics, and the entrenched media elite is nothing less than a genuine phenomenon. Both men will probably admit if asked that the Fox News Channel as it exists today is something well beyond their initial vision.
This is the latest and final submission for The Wise One. He submitted it the month before he died. Unfortunately, he never lived to see it published. His archives will remain on this web site as long as it remains up. He will be sorely missed! DebV
The California Mess – “I wish you guys nothing but the best.”
Blue Smoke and Mirrors – “Which does more damage – an outright lie or a half-truth?”
A Common Sense Foreign Policy – “Judging from today’s headlines this title probably qualifies as a four-word oxymoron.”
This Dixie Chick Thing – “You girls don’t look stupid and you clean up real nice.”
War Correspondents – “Alright, alright enough already!!”
The True Cost Of Political Proctology – “It would be nice if fear of public exposure kept the cruel, stupid and inept out of public life and power but it hasn’t seemed to deter them in the past.”
Cancer Patience – “Experience is of no value unless it is shared.”
My Rant – “Ok boys and girls, fasten your seat belts, put your seats and tray tables in the full upright position, and get ready. I am going to try my hand at this “rant” business.”
Negro Mattie – “Perhaps the greatest testament to Mattie’s capacity to love was the fact that we were not the only white family to pass by her casket with tears in our eyes.”
Doc – “To say our family respected and trusted our family doctor is an understatement.”
Little Sisters - “I was her foil and scapegoat . . .”