November 11th, 2009 | Published in Uncategorized
This post by Shannon Love at Chicago Boyz argues in The New York Times of Cable News that Fox’s dominance of the cable news business is driving news content similar to the way the New York Times has long determined what stories will be reported on. I’m not at all sure it is that simple, but something is going on. In my view, printed newspapers are probably no longer economically viable and both TV news and the Internet are taking over with results that are not yet clear.
Because I live in Australia and only get back to the US every couple of years I hadn’t realized how much market share Fox had gained. I used to think that because the US moved right during the Reagan years, and the MSM hadn’t, Murdoch had simply moved into the available market share that wasn’t being served. But it is clear now that it is more complex than that – Fox is doing something well enough so that even Democrats are watching.
I have reached no firm conclusion, but watching the Ft Hood coverage I could see clearly – indeed count on Fox – to not try to hurriedly explain away or rationalize Hassan’s actions. PTSD, workplace harassment….sure those factors might have been present but they were not the elephant in the room. It was clear from the beginning that because of the nature of the attack and the Muslim name that there might well be a totalitarian Muslim aspect to the attack. Fox’s efforts to see if there was an such an angle immediately paid off in an interview with a recently retired coworker. I watched CNN and MSNBC continue to try to frame the attack as simply another workplace shooting, but was surprised and wryly amused when CNN beat everyone else to some convenience store footage of Hassan in impeccable Middle Eastern dress on the morning of the shootings. Looping that over and over finished the ‘just another stress related workplace shooting’ line. Pictures can create the lasting impression – much like showing burning US tanks for minutes at time did in 2004. (Just to make it clear – the convenience store footage gives the lasting impression of a radical Islamist, the burning tank footage gives the lasting impression of American defeat without actually proving much about either.) Fox continued to dig as did CNN and apparently MSNBC was forced to go along as the evidence of the Islamist nature of the attack mounted. What hadn’t occurred to me before was that Fox was forcing the hands of the other cable networks – but at 60% market share that is not at all daft. If CNN had 60% or more, as they once did, I think they would have stuck with the softer line – and had the power to do so.
So is Fox controlling the TV news ‘narrative’? Perhaps – I don’t know, but I do know that things are changing. I was surprised to discover on a visit Barnes and Noble recently the extent to which the words New York Times Bestseller dominated the book trade. I found dozens of books touting some connection to the Times and exactly one with the words “National Best Seller”. My thought was that in the industrial age world of print the Times has come to dominate even more than I had realized. Theoretically, according to McLuhan, TV is a combination of the centralized control typical of the industrial age and the simultaneous awareness that typifies the electronic age. Today on the Internet we see the hierarchical replaced by the networked. Or to use Eric Raymond’s metaphor The Cathedral and the Bizarre.
So what is happening? I think the industrial age is not over and that TV, with it its ‘one to many’ industrial model, will continue to try to control the narrative. Fox’s opponents may or may not regain the upper hand, but my long term expectation would be that other news-gathering and dissemination models will emerge on the Internet that will eventually change or replace the older industrial model. Given my view of human nature I don’t expect the struggle to control the narrative will go away – just become more difficult in the more fragmented electronic space that McLuhan predicted. A few weeks ago on Leo LaPorte’s podcast This Week in Google Jeff Jarvis made a remark to the effect that conventional reporters still think of themselves as preparing material for an audience, and don’t realize they are just another node on the network.