Do the Foxtrot!

John Edwards' decision to back out of the Democratic debate in Nevada a few weeks ago caused a chain reaction in which other Democratic candidates withdrew their participation and the entire debate ended up being canceled. This debate was planned by the Nevada Democratic Party and was to be hosted by Fox News.

As a result of his decision, John Edwards' street cred among liberals, especially the activists in the blogosphere, was enhanced. Roger Ailes, the Fox News Chairman, was not too pleased with what happened and accused the Democrats of being in the pocket of the liberal MoveOn.org.

So, who really came out on top here? And what do the Democrats do with Fox now? Well, for starters, LA Times columnist Ron Brownstein provides an excellent analysis of the situation. Here's one of the most prescient passages from his column:

[O]ne of the premier conservative media institutions now faces the likelihood of a sustained siege from Democrats using the same fluid tactics many conservatives have long applied against the mainstream press. Fox executives might not consider such an outcome fair, but even they might have to concede that it is balanced.

Well, here's what I think.

First of all, I have watched Fox News before. I started off as a CNN viewer, but decided to check out Fox one day just to see what all the fuss was about. It seemed a bit livelier with all the high decibel sounds and alerts and whatnot. But when I looked at the substance and the quality of their newscasts, I was immediately turned off. I have a master's degree in journalism, and I take my writing seriously. I got the impression from Fox that they were not as serious about responsible journalism (e.g., the Barack Obama madrassa controversy) as they were about providing safe harbor for conservatives so they could continue to blame Bill Clinton for everything that's going wrong under the Bush Presidency. There's nothing wrong with being an outlet that tilts conservative (or liberal). Think of the Washington Post vs. the Washington Times, for example. But to brand yourself as "fair and balanced" when it is so obviously not the case is a bit dishonest, in my opinion.

This bias exists in their coverage of news stories as they relate to politicians and in the way they refer to them. Do you remember Fox newscasters referring to President Bush as "Our President" or Rudy Giuliani as "America's Mayor?" These were not commentators making these references. They were the newscasters themselves. (If I can find a source, I'll post the link.) So they're framing their stories through those prisms and imply that if you don't agree with their perspective, you are to be ostracized. As someone who appreciates quality journalism, I cannot take Fox seriously. (Check out this chyron from a recent Fox broadcast for yet another reason why.)

My mother and sister sometimes check out The O'Reilly Factor and Hannity and Colmes and tell me to change the channel so I can listen to their nonsense. But I don't bother because I don't want to have anything to do with supporting their ratings. Those shows are not about political debate (such as the now sadly-defunct Capital Gang or Meet the Press). These shows are about dressing down small fish of limited influence and accusing them of representing far more people than they actually do. It's childish, and it's unnecessary.

(In the end, I came back home to CNN for my news and MSNBC for my news entertainment.)

So what about the Democrats? Well, there's the argument that if you freeze out a media entity, it can backfire. People that are loyal to that entity may become more energized to submarine your candidacy. It may lead to the development of a negative caricature in which you are seen as unable to defend yourself in hostile situations, a trait that does not define leadership. And others may interpret your snub of that entity as a snub of them (because they like that entity), thus turning them off from your candidacy. To counter these negative consequences, some advocate confronting the entity head on and fighting back.

My theory is antithetical to conventional wisdom, however. Consider this:

If all the Democratic candidates snubbed Fox and snubbed them often, Fox would have to continually explain to their viewers why they can't broadcast any interviews with Democratic politicians. They would have to explain why they can't access the Democratic newsmaker or policy shaker that everyone is talking about. They would have to explain why they can't find enough Democrats to appear on Fox News Sunday to balance out the conservatives they invite to their panels. And what if a Democrat won the presidential election next year? Could you imagine the damage he (or she?) would do to Fox if they could never have a one-on-one interview because the network had been blacklisted?

You know what? Viewers are going to get sick of that and are going to go elsewhere to get their news. They might like Fox and they may find the network to be sympathetic to their political views. But even though they may hate Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, and Barbara Boxer, they still want to know what they're saying and what they're doing because as politicians, they have a direct impact on their lives. Fox would not be considered a reliable or credible news source if Democrats were nowhere to be found in its programming. If enough evidence mounts that Fox is one-sided and the consequences of this one-sidedness begin to significantly interfere with the quality and diversity of its content, I think that even the most casual Fox viewers will reach a point in which they turn away from the Fox News Channel because it can't be trusted to deliver what its name suggests: news. Perhaps then the network will reassess its approach to Democratic figures or its viewers may question why a network sympathetic to their views is so reviled. Either way, change for the better would be effected.

By the way, Fox News is now teaming up with the Congressional Black Caucus to sponsor another debate. The CBC has no Republican members, and Blacks in general overwhelmingly vote Democratic. This joint sponsorship may be a good way to mend fences, but I think this tango of trepidation (the Foxtrot!) will continue. We'll see who steps on whose toes first.

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