Sunday, July 18

Frank Rich: Happy Talk News Covers a War

In the now legendary White House press conference of March 6, 2003, not a single reporter, electronic or print, asked a tough question about anything, including the president's repeated conflating of 9/11 with the impending war on Iraq (eight times in that appearance alone). To some critics on the left, this Stepford Wives performance indicated a press corps full of conservatives, but I doubt it. This lock-step spectacle was at least in part an exercise of the Burgundy principle of pandering: don't do anything that might make you less popular with your customers. In that same month, Frank N. Magid Associates, still a major player in the news consulting business, released a survey telling its clients that war protests came in dead last of all topics tested among 6,400 viewers nationwide. In other words, if you're covering the news based on what's happening as opposed to what your viewers like, you're taking a commerical risk. Given that the ownership of local stations, networks and cable news alike is now concentrated in far fewer hands than it was in the 1970's, such thinking quickly becomes orthodoxy in much of the American news business.

In the new documentary 'Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism,' Robert Greenwald unearths some juicy documentation of Fox News Channel's manipulations on behalf of its political agenda. But Fox isn't exactly pursuing a stealth strategy: anyone who can't figure out that it's in the tank with the Republican party must be brain dead. It's more insidious when some of its more fair-and-balanced competitors blow-dry the news not to serve an ideology but to tell the public what they think the public wants to hear. That's why the networks have been reluctant to show casualties in Iraq. That's why we rarely see on American TV the candid video Michael Moore unveils in 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' whether of the president or of the grievously wounded, sometimes embittered soldiers who've returned from his mission in Iraq.

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