Thursday, September 24, 2009

Relentless

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I did a couple of things that were out of character for me this summer. One was conscious, the other --- not so much.

The conscious decision was taking a University course on Hannibal. Ever since I was a kid and saw the absolutely terrible movie version of Hannibal’s war with Rome, starring Victor Mature, I’ve had a fascination with the subject.

A couple of times I’ve tried to envision it as a script but couldn’t figure out how to make it matter for a modern audience. Now, I know how to do that – and I’ve got a course credit from a prestigious American University to boot.

A couple hundred more of those and we’ll be checking off that salutation box marked “Doctor”!

I’m saving most of what I learned about Hannibal for some upcoming posts on the CRTC, my own personal version of the corrupt Roman Empire. If you see a herd of elephants crossing the Laurentians this Fall and converging on Gatineau --- that’ll be me.

The not as conscious element of my summer was that I started watching Fox News.

The first couple of weeks of that were kinda out of my hands. I was just somewhere where it was the TV news people put on in the evening. But soon I became fascinated by what I saw unfolding in front of me and kept watching.

And in an odd way, Hannibal and Fox News have quite a few things in common.

Fairbalanced

Now let me start by saying, I don’t think Fox News is any more “fair and balanced” (their motto) than any other news outlet. And I don’t put much more credence to their coverage of “The News” than I do anybody else’s reportage.

An objective who, what, where, when and why may not be impossible to find in contemporary journalism, but we certainly don’t live in a world where many of the major news services aren’t regularly caught with their biases showing.

And is any of that really bias, or is it just a natural reflection of the ideologies of those in charge of the final message? Nobody is objective. Nobody is without an agenda. And most of us are mostly full of shit when we claim that we have neither.

Now, before this summer, Fox News was just some guy yelling in the background as far as I was concerned. The few times I sampled their wares, it felt like the parent network’s original ratings staple “When Animals Attack” given a shave and a thousand dollar suit. The talking heads all seemed to be channelling rabid evangelical preachers while simultaneously unable to keep their cameras off as much cleavage as possible.

It was all just so shrill and tacky.

And that was when the Republican Party they so clearly supported was completely in charge. Any half sane person had to assume this was the lunatic fringe and worry about what would happen if these people were ever taken seriously.

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Following the election of Barack Obama and a general House and Senate cleaning in Washington, most political pundits were not only predicting the disappearance of the Republican Party but a dramatic shift away from the Neo-Con agenda and outfits such as Fox News.

Like Hannibal, left sitting on a North African beach with his defeated father after Rome had tossed Carthage out of Sicily, it looked like the game was over.

But then something happened.

Much as I cheered President Obama’s election and the promise it held, I got a couple of twinges early on when I heard respected journalists talk about getting an exciting tingle up their leg when they thought about the new President or that they now felt it was their job to help him succeed.

Really? Is that the media’s job? What about those old tenets of the Fourth Estate, that the primary job of the Press was to keep those in power honest?

Hannibal, like all good Generals, instinctively knew that politicians can never be fully trusted. No matter how much you may admire them or their policies. Maybe he’d read Sun Tsu’s “The Art of War”, written 300 years before his own time, which contains the warning “When bureaucrats prosper, the people are harmed.”

I have a feeling a wily old newshound (or maybe just crafty corporate General) like Rupert Murdoch also noticed that other journalists were leaving the field and suddenly saw an advantage. One that has been employed with stunning success.

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I first came to Fox News this summer as the US embarked on its great Health Care debate. Having lived under the Canadian system, I know there’s really nothing to fear about Socialized medicine – beyond having to acquire a bit of a tax fetish to pay for it.

But like many, I was surprised by the force of the Fox News attack on the policy, figuring it probably threatened the glut of pharmaceutical commercials that seem to fuel the newscasts over there.

But then, I became equally stunned by something else. When Congressmen and Senators were questioned about the bill, most admitted that they hadn’t read it.

And not long after, when their own constituents asked the same questions, they still hadn’t read it.

And even after those Town Hall meetings had degenerated into each side calling the other “Nazis” and it was becoming clear the original bill was in jeopardy, politician after politician made it clear they still didn’t know what was in the bill.

Now, Americans shouldn’t think this is unusual behavior. Members of all four Canadian parties passed a tax bill last spring (C-10) which mapped out censorship of the Arts – and it turned out that none of them had read that part before voting in favor.

Our tax dollars at work – and a valuable insight into those politicians Hannibal knew better than to trust.

Like most Canadian artists in the C-10 debacle, many Americans began asking what else their politicians (from both sides of the floor) weren’t paying attention to. But most of the main stream media didn’t seem interested in investigating that story either.

Much like Hannibal noticing that Rome never thought any Army might try crossing the Alps, Fox News realized it had the story to itself. And maybe it had stumbled on something more.

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Fox News’ flagship show is “The O’Reilly Factor”, and it’s always been a ratings winner. Part of the reason for that is the gruff charm of host Bill O’Reilly, who constantly refers to his viewers as “The folks”. Whether his act is sincere or contrived doesn’t matter. Because in television terms, “It works.”.

Surrounded by a rep company of correspondents and commentators ranging from a body language expert who goes over video to determine if the subject is hiding something to comedian Dennis Miller, O’Reilly engages his audience in a nightly discussion of the news of the day that simply isn’t available anywhere else.

And most of the time, that interplay belies all of those myths that the audience for Fox News is Redneck, Racist, Ill-informed and – well – not as smart as the people who get their news from other sources. Most often, the discussion makes its ideological points subtly in the midst of a conversation that wouldn’t seem out of place anywhere.

But in relentlessly questioning “What’s really in the Health Care Bill?”, O’Reilly began drawing a massive audience, tripling and quadrupling those who were getting their information from CNN or MSNBC.

Imperceptibly at first, then more openly, he also began lumping Republican and Democratic politicians together. It was clear his audience didn’t trust either side that much. They’d voted out the former and now were having second thoughts about the latter.

One night, in mapping the audience response to one of his monologues, a red line marking Republican approval and a green one the democrats, O’Reilly had realized that “the folks” didn’t want partisan babbling. They just wanted the straight answers nobody else was even trying to give them.

Via O’Reilly, the Fox News question soon expanded from Health Care to “What’s up with the bailout, cap and trade, cash-for-clunkers, Acorn and all these Czars?” Basically instilling in its audience the feeling that maybe this new President and his closest allies didn’t really know what they were doing or couldn’t be trusted. After all, after an ever-lengthening summer away from the office, they still hadn’t read that damn Health Care bill.

The electorate were fed up with the politics of politics.

AngryCrowd(edited)

It was the same way Hannibal built his army, by convincing a thousand disparate tribes that Rome couldn’t be trusted and didn’t have their best interests at heart.

Now, the Administration and the rest of the media could’ve probably nipped all of this in the bud by openly responding to the concerns the Public expressed or the many ways Fox News stretched the facts to connect their dots. But they didn’t.

Why not? Was it hubris? A belief that Summer was a slow news period and it would all eventually go away? A dismissal of Fox News and their viewers as members of that lunatic fringe?

I don’t know. But I do know that Fox didn’t wait to open a second front.

Late afternoon host, Glenn Beck, a former stand-up comic, Rock DJ and CNN correspondent who describes himself as “A Rodeo Clown”, latched onto the zeitgeist of discontent and distrust and dug in his spurs. Over three months, his own ratings tripled and he turned into a national phenomenon, watched by more people than every other competing news service combined.

What Beck does brilliantly is play the role of a guy out of his depth and struggling to understand. He evokes sympathy by appearing just as confused by what’s happening to his country as many of those who watch him. Again, whether that’s cynical or dishonest doesn’t matter. “It works.”

Beck decided to go after the people Obama embraced as his inner circle, echoing the mantra most of us heard from our moms, “If you want to know what somebody is like, look at their friends.”

So he attacked those closest to the President, in the same way that Hannibal made a point of personally dispatching the generals sent against him.

After one battle, he sent 200 hundred blood-stained gold rings back to the Roman Senate. They had been taken from the dead hands of the cream of Roman Knighthood. A message that he would decimate the ruling class rather than ever come to terms with them.

A typical Beck program often includes a segment with Beck at a blackboard trying to figure out something like this…

A guy missing his tinfoil hat? Somebody looking for fire where there isn’t even smoke? Wouldn’t it be helpful if a real journalist delved into all this?

But all summer long, none did, insisting on taking pot shots at the messenger instead.

Meanwhile, Fox News found endless new ways of hammering the Administration. Was MSNBC silent because CEO Jeffrey Imelt needed the Cap and Trade bill to pass for the sake of GE’s bottom line? Could there be any other logical explanation for Obama dolls being sold in the NBC store?

During the Cash for Clunkers program, Fox found mechanics going broke because people were trading in their old cars instead of fixing them and a dour lady from a Kidney charity that was struggling because the government was paying for junkers people would otherwise have donated to her group.

Blow after blow sent the message that the Administration agenda was hurting the little guy and looking after somebody else.

During each program, Beck pleads for people to help him save the country, to send him intel, to be whistleblowers. Maybe it’s just the modern TV version of offering Captain Midnight’s Secret Decoder Ring.

But --- “It Works”.

If only 1% of Beck’s audience is doing what he asks, that amounts to about 10,000 true believers on the lookout in every single state in the Union.

It took him weeks of going after Green Jobs Czar, Van Jones, to end that man’s political career; a campaign completely ignored in the main stream press.

The New York Times, in its first report of the scandal, on the day Jones resigned, attributed his fall to an old video where he referred to Republicans as “Assholes”. The truth is, it was a long list of videos repeatedly shown on Beck’s program, including one where Jones, speaking to an inner city audience, affirms that White environmentalists are specifically choosing to dump dangerous materials in Black neighborhoods.

Minutes after claiming Jones’ scalp, Beck was twittering his followers with a list of who he wanted information on next. In an era where every newspaper editor knows the term “citizen journalist” Beck was actually making use of them.

Within days, he had forced the reassignment of the head of the National Endowment of the Arts over a demand that Artists who wanted grants sign on to the President’s agenda first.

And then he scored a major coup, presenting incredible hidden camera video shot inside Acorn, filmed by a pair of neophytes, that caused the Census Department to bar the community organizer from leading the next Census and the Senate to cease funding the group.

Since many on the Right had worried Acorn might skew the Census to change the boundaries of Congressional Districts to favor the Left, this could translate to a stunning reversal of electoral fortunes.

And it was a bloodless coup accomplished by complete amateurs and so revealing of the silence of the main stream media that it had “Daily Show” host John Stewart staring blankly into camera and asking American journalists, “I’m a fake journalist and I’m embarrassed. Where the fuck were the rest of you guys?”

And that’s what this is all really about.

At a time when TV news is struggling to survive, where things are so screwed up that Katie Couric earns more money for reading the news than NPR has to fund all of its news programming, Fox News saw a vacuum, moved in and filled it.

And still --- nobody else seems to have the stomach to take them on. Like the Romans, they seem content to hunker within their city walls while Hannibal pillages the countryside.

After decades of plundering Rome, Hannibal was finally defeated by Scipio Africanus, a Roman General who simply copied his tactics and used them against him.

And that is the only strategy that might also save the other news channels and network news departments who are watching their ratings plummet while Fox News increases its numbers by thousands of new viewers every night.

This is a revolution in television news that has gone virtually unchallenged by the the media establishment.

If Fox News really is being disingenuous about the American President’s agenda and the complicity of the Press, then other journalists need to get to work and get to the truth.

Otherwise, these guys are going to dictate the public mood and control the political agenda for a very long time.

glennn

Again, I want to be clear, that this isn’t really about politics, your own perspectives or what you think the right direction for society might be. It’s an example of how somebody determined to succeed can quickly gain the upper hand and change the game.

It’s an illustration of the way power and influence works and how to make your agenda the one which gets adopted.

You need to be relentless. You need to find the weakness in every single decision your opponent makes and refuse to accept anything less than what you want.

After 10 years of watching Canadian television decline, while we have tugged our forelocks and spoken politely with the CRTC, it’s clear that conciliation and polite debate do not work. It’s time for us to start going after those who refuse to hear our voices, to force them on pain of their own survival to finally act in our interests.

What Hannibal knew instinctively, Machiavelli, voiced very succinctly, “Don’t stand around too long with the knife in your hands.”

You find the opening and you strike.

Now excuse me while I go find some elephants.

5 comments:

Ken said...

A very well-conceived piece, Jim. Where the fuck are the real journalists indeed? Having said that I'd like to point out that in my exposure to FOX News, never have I seen an actual "discussion," least of all on The O'Reilly Factor. I guess my one question here would be is the culture of fear still alive and well in America? Is it alive here in Canada? Dick Cheney, Jim Flaherty and Stephen Harper would seem to bear out that it is. And as long as that fear can be stoked by the lunatic fringe...yup, I wrote lunatic fringe, then FOX News and the Op/Ed page of the National Post will continue to maintain traction in North America.

jimhenshaw said...

Thanks, Ken. And your points about Fox news are valid. I don't think there is any doubt the debates and discussion and a lot more over there are closely structured.

But, I'm not sure we get anywhere with the "lunatic fringe" and "these people scare me" arguments.

That's partly because there are elements on the Left that could be equally characterized that way by people with only a slightly different life view.

But mostly, it's that preaching fear is the primary weapon of every politician. And we're always told to be very afraid of the other guy's ideas -- or just the other guy.

What counters fear is truth and that's supposed to be the job of journalists. If they actually did it, methinks the culture of fear (no matter who espouses it) would have less muscle.

And more importantly -- when are you going to start writing again? We miss you!

MCF said...

Hi Jim,
I thought this excerpt might add to the discussion:

From, "American Libertarianism Dancing to the Shock-jocks" in the Financial Times, by Jurek Martin.

It is becoming increasingly evident that libertarianism is a common thread in the patchwork quilt of vocal opposition to Barack Obama’s attempts to change the way America is run. Not only does it pull many of the organisational strings behind the often raucous public protests of the last few months, but its essential philosophy, that the less government the better, is espoused by some of the titular leaders of the mob.

Chief among these is Glenn Beck, the radio and television demagogue who emotionally peddles socialist-and-worse conspiracy theories to an unquestioning audience four hours a day, five days a week. He is threatening to usurp Rush Limbaugh as the Chief Denunciator of all things liberal, as witnessed by the fact that Time magazine, admittedly not the publication it was, put him on its cover last week with a near-fawning profile.

I find that Mr Beck, deliberately or not, sometimes walks close to what I would regard as a form of incitement to insurrection, no light matter in a country with so many susceptible people who happen to possess guns. It may be no coincidence that in these noisy times threats against Mr Obama’s life are running many times what they were against any previous president, putting the Secret Service more on edge than usual.

But if you listen to his rambling rants, as I force myself to from time to time, the libertarian strain in his thinking becomes quite clear; far more so than Mr Limbaugh’s, whose shtick is much more of the authoritarian but orthodox anti-liberal variety. And where El Rushbo deploys bombast and heavy-handed sarcasm, Mr Beck, often near real or fake tears, comes over as much closer to Howard Beale in the film Network – “I’m as mad as hell and can’t take it any more.”

Of course, there has long been a libertarian strain in the Republican party, though it has often been discounted on specific policy issues, such as support for a strong military and opposition to abortion. But, as a cause, it has always lacked a leader of unquestioned stature and political savvy (Ronald Reagan was never a true believer and the eccentricities of Congressman Ron Paul, who is kept to the margins).

Times have changed. It was Newt Gingrich, before he ever became Speaker of the House in 1995, who brought the rightwing commentariat into the Republican tent, and now the cart is before the party horse. The party now dances far more to the tunes of Mr Limbaugh, and increasingly Mr Beck, than to its leadership, assuming there are differences between the two. Republican congressmen who dare to dissent from either frequently have to apologise for their heresy.

The great question is whether all this thunder is confined to the hyperactive right or is achieving wider resonance. I suspect the former, at least for now. Even a casual look at the angry participants at tea parties and town halls reveals a collection of the disaffected and dispossessed, mostly older, whiter, poorer and less well-educated than the population as a whole, and with myriad motivations, of which belief in libertarianism cannot be high among them.

Still, a debate about the role of government has been ignited, far from the first time in American history. It may not be as intellectually elevated as that engaged in by the Founding Fathers but it bears some resemblance to that generated by the social policy reforms of FDR and later LBJ. It even has its own Coughlins and Winchells, the early radio polemicists.

To my mind, libertarianism, which embraces some attractive positions, gives the movement a respectable veneer that today’s hooligan protagonists do not command in their own right.

MCF said...

Oh, and this in response to Ken's question, "Is fear still alive and well?"

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/power-of-the-hidden-message-revealed-1794256.html

Ken said...

I'm back writing. Not in a big way yet, but I am. Thankfully I had a busy summer on the job (knock wood).