Magazine article The American Conservative

When News Is Propaganda

Magazine article The American Conservative

When News Is Propaganda

Article excerpt

Cable networks perfect their partisan slant - and that means war.

The video age has sped up our cognitive powers. We get to the point faster. ... People who watch the evening news see entire South American cities collapse under earthquakes in sixty seconds or less. So if you're just talking for sixty seconds, you'd better be good and interesting.

-Roger Ailes, 1989

"I hope you enjoyed that fancy burger, Mr. President."

Less than four months after President Obama was sworn in, Sean Hannity was knocking his choice of mustard.

The story hit Fox News Channel's primetime lineup in the spring of 2009 after ricocheting around local news blogs and MSNBC earlier that day, and it became a partisan Rorschach test: liberals saw common-man appeal in Obama's visit to the faddish environs of Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Virginia - where one can order a patty topped with foie gras - while conservatives thought the opposite: elitist snob!

Trying to place exactly when cable news lost its mind is futile, but this is as good a place to start as any: "Burgergate" has become typical of 21st-century cable news. The story was trivial, but it compactly illustrated how Fox and MSNBC have calibrated their partisanship over the last several years.

Since 2008, even though each major party is now represented by a cable news channel - MSNBC for Democrats, Fox News for Republicans - the range of opinion allowed on air has become narrower than Sean Hannity's taste in burger toppings.

On Fox, this has meant more hosts and contributors from the GOP establishment who can be relied on for talking points and well-spun analysis; people like Karl Rove, or former Bush press secretary Dana Perino, now a host for "The Five." Divergent views are out: Hannity's liberal co-host Alan Colmes left their show in 2008, while the idiosyncratic Glenn Beck was booted from the network last year.

MSNBC maintains a token conservative presence, but the network's leftward drift has made it all the more responsive to activist groups' demands for political correctness. Most recently, emboldened by their success in removing Beck from Fox - he became "a bit of a branding issue," said Roger Ailes, which reveals less about Beck's unpopularity than the network's ideological purity - the gendarmerie of acceptable opinion, led by Media Matters and Color of Change, claimed the scalp of Pat Buchanan over alleged racism in his book The Suicide of a Superpower.

To many on the right, the downfall of Beck and Buchanan seems proof positive of the multicultural left's power to crush dissent. But as Ailes's remark suggests, network interests in streamlined branding played as big a role.

Buchanan was a holdover from the old days of MSNBC, before president Phil Griffin proclaimed the network, "the place to go for progressives," and he seemed as out of place among lightweight Republican contributors like Meghan McCain and Michael Steele as he did next to liberals like Rachel Maddow.

During an interview with the Hoover Institution's Peter Robinson weeks after his break with the network, Buchanan revealed, "I knew the book would be controversial. The fact it caused my departure from MSNBC, I'll let people decide whether that says something about my book, or something about MSNBC."

"Breaking it down into the MSNBC versus Fox thing [actually] reflects what's in that book, which is the division, polarization, divorce, and separation of Americans from Americans," Buchanan continued. "A racist back when I was growing up was Bull Connor shooting fire hoses at folks. Now you can hear that comment on cable TV all the time, people just throw it out there."

"I find many of Pats views to be abhorrent, but the best answer is to counter Pat and prove him wrong, not to silence him," Buchanan's former co-host Bill Press told TAC. Liberal MSNBC host Chris Matthews also spoke up for him after the incident.

But Buchanan was a poor fit for MSNBCs progressive brand, and L. …

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