Media wars: Sun, Sky and the shadow of Fox, Part 2

LONDON, UK, Oct. 28, 2010/ Troy Media/ – Murdoch-aphobia officially hit Canada in August. Already showing symptoms over the coming launch of Quebecor Media’s conservative Sun TV next January, many media observers became feverish when they learned Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper had met with Murdoch and Fox News Chairman and Chief Executive Roger Ailes over lunch in New York City in March.

What the ensuing hue and cry over “Fox News North” boiled down to was that being conservative must disqualify Sun TV from serious news broadcasting and that all Fox look-alikes were a threat to democracy. But rather than rehearse the arguments of the usual suspects, I want to reference the Globe and Mail‘s John Doyle’s “10 things you need to know about Fox News North,” which neatly sums up Murdoch-aphobia.

Doyle actually calls off the attack dogs and “welcomes” Sun TV. He does so because for him any Fox clone can only lend itself to be the butt of “hilarity” that will make a “great target for comedians and satirists.”  Ah, the Jon Stewart position. And right there Doyle reveals what most detractors of Fox’s success constantly reflect: an intellectual contempt, not just for Fox News, but for Fox’s audience, which had the temerity to “vote with the remote.”  An audience, by the way, where almost a quarter describe themselves as Democrats, a further quarter as Independents and 44 per cent as Republicans.

Doyle, defending a charge that CBC is a “left-leaning” public broadcaster, asserts that, in any event, CBC is not “shoved down anyone’s throat.”  Au contraire. Many may prefer not to watch it for reasons other than that they perceive it as biased to the left. But, as with the BBC in Britain, conservative Canadian taxpayers would certainly object that left-leaning ideology is being “shoved down” someone’s throat somewhere – and at their expense. Clearly, if one sector of society believes CBC to be antagonistic to their values – and Doyle helpfully makes my point by revealing a key conservative element (the Conservative Party) accuses CBC of being “blinded by ideology.” Democracy demands greater media competition.

Media democracy

In pursuit of its campaign against the Sky bid, The Guardian, the doyen newspaper of the British left, suggested Murdoch may be “Britain’s Berlusconi,” drawing the analogy that the Italian prime minister and media magnate is “strangling Italy’s democracy.”  Scary stuff, right? Except that it neatly ignores the fact that Silvio Berlusconi runs an enormous private media empire and Italy’s public broadcaster. It’s a cosy arrangement that Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia satcaster, Editoriale L’Espresso, threatens to break and into the bargain, you’ve guessed it, help democratize the Italian airwaves.

And if democracy-supporting media are our prime concern, we need look no further than Rupert Murdoch’s track record, and specifically the rise of Fox News.

We already know that Fox’s audience has elevated it to dominate cable news and threaten the ratings of the networks’ Big Three, NBC, ABC and CBS. It’s not hard to see why. In a Pew Poll of the 2008 U.S. election-news coverage, Fox News was found to be the least biased in its election coverage. An election in which, by the way, “ideologically neutral” journalists wanted Obama to win by a margin of eight to one. The poll even showed that Fox News coverage was slightly more critical of John McCain than it was of Barack Obama. Even more surprising, a poll in January this year revealed Fox News as the “most trusted” of all U.S. news providers.

It can hardly be surprising then that the declining mainstream media are failing to listen to what their broader audience wants. Poll after poll confirms liberal/left media bias while much of the media remain in denial. A 2004 Gallup poll of journalists confirming the level of bias showed something else – that half of those polled believed that journalists too often allowed their ideology to “colour their work.” Further, Gallup polls between 2001 and 2009 consistently show the American public, where only 20 per cent identify themselves as liberal, believe  the mainstream media “too liberal” in their news coverage by, on average, three to one.

Is this what Murdoch and Fox’s detractors think of as a media mainstream truly representative of democratic values? Is it any wonder that public opinion of journalists has them ranked alongside car salesman and worse?

Whether Murdoch and Fox are right-leaning or not, indeed whether any private-sector media organization is left or right-leaning, is not my concern. Owning up to a particular editorial worldview (as major newspapers once did) should not equate with unfair coverage. Anyone actually watching Murdoch’s Fox, for instance, must be struck by the ding-dong battles between left and right, even among its presenters, something as rare as hens’ teeth elsewhere in U.S. television. No wonder mass-media news-channel ratings continue to slump, while Fox bucks the trend.

More disturbing, across the increasingly politically correct mainstream, journalists have stopped doing their job. They are failing to remain skeptical or asking the “hard questions.” Instead, they prefer cheerleading for the latest, usually doom-mongering, populist cause.  And nowhere currently is this more pronounced than in the mainstream news media’s reprehensible attempt to ‘close down’ the public debate on climate – a science still in its infancy.

Bottom line

It is hard to garner any ideological coherency across Murdoch’s media empire, especially in Britain. Rather, Murdoch is an astute and opportunistic businessman well-able to identify a gap in the market – not least the under-representation of conservative values by a Fourth Estate dominated by liberal ones. While I do not suggest that Murdoch, or anyone else for that matter, be granted a media “blank cheque” in the name of unfettered capitalism, I do maintain that Murdoch has served democracy far better than have much of today’s media.

Far from Fox TV News’s representing the “media shame” of America –  however much anti-Murdoch “know better” elites might try to undermine it –  its democratic rise to “most trusted” status represents a triumph not only for media democracy, but also for democracy itself.