When TV news got a voice: Fox, et al

FoxNews is 10 years old this week. This year, Al Jazeera turns 10. So did The Daily Show. All that the three have in common, besides birthdays, is that they brought new voices to TV news: no longer the allegedly objective, cold, institutional tone that journalism took on when it became a monopoly, once-size-fits-all business in this country, thanks to the impact of broadcast on the media marketplace. These fraternal triplets each brought perspective to news, a distinct and clearly apparent worldview, and a passion about serving a public that each believed was underserved.

What enabled this to happen? Simple: Choice. Bandwidth. The ability to broadcast off the broadcast tower and its strait-jacket frequencies. Cable made it possible, and satellite. That’s the frequency, Kenneth (which, by the way, was said to Dan Rather a decade before, when the remote control started revolutionizing American media). And now, a decade after the cable age we are in the thick of the internet age, which allows us to not only hear new voices but also to speak with our own.

I had a ding moment about FoxNews in 2003 when CNN’s Jeff Greenfield interviewed me about bloggers. He came trailing a show producer, a field producer, a cameraman, and a soundman, plus unseen editors behind the scenes. I’d done such segments over the years and never thought anything of it — this is how the pros do it, this is how TV is made — until I came to contrast this with FoxNews, which didn’t have armies of field producers and produced pieces.

That’s when I saw the true genius of Roger Ailes, which had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with money. Ailes was creating a third cable news network with little money and so he built it around not producers and their pieces but around conversation and personality. It made the news a helluva lot cheaper to make; it was, as it turns out, a lot more compelling (or entertaining or enraging, if you prefer). And it gave TV news a voice. This wasn’t the artificially inseminated humanity of network anchors or local news morons. This was opinion and sometimes passion. And it worked. It drew a huge audience; it made money; it set agendas in both politics and media. Murdoch held onto the unprofitable New York Post over the years because he wanted a bully pulpit and now he had a bully pulpit, indeed. But even Murdoch is first a businssman and FoxNews was smart business.

Meanwhile, cable and satellites enabled Al Jazeera to serve its public all across the world. And The Daily Show became the news show unafraid to call bullshit. And old TV news only looks older.

I had my next and similar ding moment just a few weeks ago, when I wrote about a three-camera HDTV shoot in my den, the Buzzmachine World Headquarters, where I have also published to the world and broadcast over MSNBC, CNN, and ABCNews.com from the $99 camera on my laptop. More choice. More bandwidth. More voices.

This is the sweet sound, the glorious cacapohony of democracy and the marketplace. It is ever more jarring to those who thought they could control the message. Yes, FoxNews is irritating if you don’t agree with it. Damned sure the same is true of Al Jazeera. And for some, it’s ditto for Jon Stewart. But who can argue that more voices heard can be bad for a democracy?

So I say happy birthday, FoxNews. Same for you, Al Jazeera, and The Daily Show. Many happy and loud returns.

: LATER: Speaking of The Daily Show, Indiana University prof Julia Fox just studied the content of Jon Stewart’s show vs. network news and…

…she says the popular “fake news” program, which last week featured Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as a guest, is just as substantive as network coverage. While much has been written in the media about The Daily Show’s impact, Fox’s study is the first scholarly effort to systematically examine how the comedy program compares to traditional television news as sources of political information.

[via Greenslade]