Okay, so you’re at a family function, and you find yourself alone in a corner with your Tea Party-supporting Uncle Bob. And Aunt Lydia’s home-made root beer has had that one week extra to really ferment. And you’re a progressive/liberal/commie, and Uncle Bob is at his most obstreperous. (I’m aware that a lot of you who read this aren’t actually progressive/liberal/commies, but go with me here.) And so you suggest that his opinions aren’t actually factually based, because he watches Fox (or Faux) News. And he says, ‘oh, and the news you get from MSNBC isn’t biased?’
And there’s the equivalency. Fox News vs. MSNBC. Maybe Fox News does lean right, but the entire mainstream (or ‘lamestream’) media is biased too. On Fox, we conservatives are getting the straight scoop, the real skinny, the actual news divorced from leftist ideology. Fox is a corrective, sure, but that doesn’t mean Fox isn’t ‘fair and balanced.’ Fox also clearly distinguishes between ‘straight news’ and ‘opinion,’ and has some first-rate journalists doing the straight news bits. But MSNBC is basically nothing but opinion, with hosted opinion-based shows back to back to back. Except for weekends, where MSNBC does reality shows set in prisons.
I don’t watch Fox News much, but I do watch it some. Let me start off by saying this: in general, Fox News commentators are better at their jobs than many MSNBC hosts are. I don’t mean truer, or more factually based, or more reasonable. But. . . let me explain.
When I was in grad school, I had a job in radio. My station, WFIU, was a PBS station, and so we carried Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and other PBS programming, as well as, of course, such public radio fave-raves as Car Talk and Garrison Keillor. I also had a show of my own; a classical music call-in game show called Ether Game. I hosted it every Tuesday night, mostly written by staff (I had staff!), but occasionally by me. And on Saturday mornings, I had a sports talk show, co-hosted by a friend and fellow sports nut.
That sports talk show was the single most difficult thing I have ever done. We were just establishing ourselves, and didn’t have a lot of callers at first. A lot of sports talk radio is dreadful; shouty and angry and judgy. I wanted something different, a sports talk show focused on evidence and expertise. I interviewed an Olympic swimmer about her practice routine, for example. A gymnast about Title IX. A wide receiver coach about how to train wide receivers. That kind of thing. I love sports, know sports, can talk about sports with, I think, some knowledge and insight. But my gosh it was difficult.
Try it. Try talking non-stop for ten minutes. On any subject on earth, on something you perhaps know a lot about. You have to talk with some fluency, and you can’t repeat yourself, and you have to say something engaging and interesting to listeners. I knew and liked the subject matter, I knew a lot about it, I’m a reasonably articulate guy, I think, and I researched; OMG did I research. It’s still incredibly difficult. To be good at talk radio requires a very specific skill set that very few people on earth have.
I loathe Rush Limbaugh’s politics, for example, but I admire his talent immensely. He’s incredibly good at what he does. Howard Stern is amazing on radio, not that I share his obsessions and foibles, but he’s extremely good at what he does. Dave Ramsey’s exceptionally gifted. Garrison Keillor is a frickin’ genius.
Well, talk radio tends to be dominated by conservatives. I’m not sure why, but it does seem to be true. And most Fox News hosts came from radio, and brought that skill set with them. I think Sean Hannity is one of the most annoying people on earth, but he’s a talented radio guy, and he’s brought his own articulate presence to Fox. Bill O’Reilly’s a radio guy. Glen Beck was, and is. If you watch Megyn Kelly’s show, you can see how much she struggles with the format. She can be a sharp interviewer, and she’s good at TV, but she can’t just riff, the way O’Reilly and Hannity can. She doesn’t have that radio background.
Far and away the best show on MSNBC is Rachel Maddow’s show; not surprising, given her background in (liberal) talk radio. If you watch Rachel regularly, you’ll notice a habit she has. She repeats herself a lot. She’ll say something like, ‘the strongest allegations about Chris Christie, the biggest arguments against him, the people making the toughest case against him. . . .’ That’s a radio trick; people are in their cars, driving, and not necessarily paying close attention, so you repeat yourself a bit, with slight varieties between each repetition, to make sure you’ve captured their full attention. It enables her to make a more nuanced argument, and to base it in history of some kind. That’s her strength. And if you watch her on election nights, you realize how good she is at off-the-cuff improvisation.
So Fox News is, in many respects, just better at TV broadcasting than MSNBC is. On Fox News, the messaging is tight, clear, punchy. On MSNBC, it feels more self-indulgent. Lawrence O’Donnell isn’t a very good TV show host–nowhere near as good as Rachel–because he goes off on idiosyncratic tangents. (And sometimes has to apologize later). Now, when there’s a big major story breaking, MSNBC is excellent, because they simply become an extension of the work being done by the professionals at NBC News. Fox doesn’t have as many real journalists at their disposal; they’re not great at breaking news. MSNBC is improving; Steve Kornacki’s terrific, as is Jose Diaz-Balart, as is Melissa Harris-Perry. But Al Sharpton’s show is painful to watch, as is Chris Matthews’. And I really dislike Morning Joe, though it’s a popular show. Beats me why.
But–and this is the point I really want to make–there’s no way MSNBC is anywhere near as important to liberals as Fox is to conservatives. Not even close. The ratings bear this out; Fox clobbers MSNBC in TV ratings all the time. And that totally doesn’t matter. Because liberals don’t tend to get their news from TV. And conservatives do, mostly from Fox.
This is basic demographics. The median age for Fox News viewers is 65. Fox News viewers skew heavily old, white and male. Rachel Maddow actually wins her time slot regularly among the 25-54 age demographic. Older people are used to getting their news from television. They’re also used to TV news personalities being authoritative–Cronkite, Rather, David Brinkley. And Fox News speaks to their fears and concerns. The national debt is a potent issue for those viewers, because they’re worried about their grandchildren.
(This also explains Megyn Kelly getting her own show. She’s not much of a journalist, though she is a pretty good interviewer, and has a feisty, confident on-air personality. But she is an attractive young blonde woman. Demographics; older white men like pretty blonde women.)
But younger, more liberal voters tend not to watch network television at all, and mostly, when they do watch TV, it’s via the internet. And satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert speak to their style and approach. Fox News seems square, earnest in comparison (and the Fox News website is generally considered lame). Liberals are much more likely to get news from a variety of sources, most of them internet sources: Daily Kos, Salon.com, vox.com, 538.com, Huffpo, Politico.com, etc. Paul Krugman’s blog is a daily must-read. I agree that conservatives have their pet websites too: Breitbart, National Journal, Heritage, Cato. But I know conservatives who really do watch Fox for hours every day. I don’t know a soul who could bear to watch that much MSNBC.
So Uncle Bob is right when he says that MSNBC is, in a sense, the liberal equivalent to Fox News. (Though, I would point out that the second most popular show on MSNBC is hosted by a conservative, Joe Scarborough, something for which Fox has nothing comparable). But it isn’t true that MSNBC and Fox are really equal. Fox News is an immensely important part of the conservative movement, and of the Tea Party movement. MSNBC is . . . just another news source.
Of course, mainstream media are also important, though their influence is diminishing. CNN can be embarrassingly bad, especially at international news. And of course, the myth of ‘liberal media bias’ needs to be dispelled once and for all. We all of us, right and left, suffer from confirmation bias, and though I do believe truth exists, it can be frustratingly difficult to discern. Reading broadly and widely helps. Watching one network all the time is a waste of time. We can use news to confirm our prejudices, or we can try to learn something from the media we consume. We can’t watch or read everything. But we have, at our fingertips, the greatest source for information the world has ever seen. Maybe we could use that resource in a way that increases wisdom and understanding.