Journalism Review Explores Fox's Liberal Pundits, Confesses Fox Is More Balanced Than MSNBC

March 3rd, 2014 12:43 PM

Alexis Sobel Fitts at the Columbia Journalism Review has tackled the subject of paid liberal analysts at Fox News, perhaps nudged by their hiring of conservative hate object James Carville.

“Call them punching bags, foils, or the engines of honest debate,” she wrote, “Fox’s flock of liberal commentators lay out the nation’s partisan battles in real time—on a network where coastal elites would argue that no dissenting voices exist.” Fitts can’t take up this topic without acknowledging MSNBC can’t match Fox for allowing balance, even if it’s some crafty Roger Ailes plot:

Though MSNBC has a handful of moderate conservatives—namely Morning Joe’s Joe Scarborough—Fox stands out for the prominence it awards its on-air naysayers, many of whom occupy regular roles on the network’s most popular shows. Personalities like Kristen Powers, who made her way up through the Clinton administration and now goes head-to-head with Bill O’Reilly on nationalized healthcare (she’s for it), the death penalty (against), and the Iraq war (against). Their screen relationship is one of playful respect; when their debates grow heated, O’Reilly warmly calls her “Powers.”

Why would liberals in good standing risk becoming Democratic Party outcasts by going to work for Fox? And why does Fox spend good money acquiring them? The first question is easier than the second. Tamara Holder says she’s often asked how a person who once wrote for GrassRoots, a medical marijuana magazine, found herself on a network geared toward the country’s most faithful conservatives. Her one-word answer: “ratings.”

The harder question is the one directed at Fox’s motives. Ratings, of course, would be the logical answer here, too. But it’s possible that’s not the sole explanation.

This apparently Fox's "masterful manipulation of ideology." While MSNBC suffers from "too much liberal outrage" in their "news" mix, Fox inserts enough (outnumbered) liberals to "solidify" the audience in their conservatism:

At face value, its roster of progressives supports the network’s tagline of “Fair & Balanced,” a motto liberals have always discounted as clever branding. Whether Fox is employing adversaries because public feuds fuel ratings, or because it’s in pursuit of a franker public debate, they aren’t saying. (The network declined requests to participate in this piece.)

But the way the voice of dissent is wielded—liberals are always outnumbered, thrust into subjects that descend into brawls—often undercuts balance in favor of fireworks. It’s a version of on-air political theater that some research suggests can actually further polarize opinions. Put another way, having two conservatives and a liberal can be a more powerful force than three conservatives—a counterintuitive approach that can solidify political beliefs and quash the other side.

Fitts repeated the point that MSNBC seems more afraid of upsetting its core audience by allowing the other side to get in an argument:

While the liberal hosts of MSNBC often skewer conservatives, the debates happen with villains who are not in the studio: lambasted, by proxy, in news clips. At Fox, they happen in person, with a real-live liberal who is often on staff. “I still think that Fox is the one place on the cable dial for sure where that kind of freewheeling debate takes place,” said Juan Williams, who was hired as one of the network’s first progressives. “Of course I find it ironic, because it’s a network with a lot of conservative personalities.” Fox has been so supportive of the liberal Williams that he has even guest-hosted The O’Reilly Factor, the network’s top-rated show. Williams attributes his good ratings to surprise: “I think the audience is like, ‘Oh, he’s there tonight. I’m used to arguing with him. How is this going to work?’” It’s hard to imagine a conservative subbing in for Rachel Maddow.

IF CJR is going to identify the conspiracy here, it was only natural they would turn to liberal Ailes-bashing author Gabriel Sherman for a summary:

Choreographing the role of those with opposing views is a technique Fox News founder Roger Ailes perfected while working as a television advisor to Richard Nixon during his 1968 presidential race. To craft an image of Nixon as a warm candidate, the campaign staged city hall debates—complete with hand-selected adversaries. “It had this veneer of authenticity because he was fielding questions from liberals, from Jews, from blacks, from different groups that might be hostile toward Nixon,” said Gabriel Sherman, author of The Loudest Voice in the Room, a biography of Ailes. “If you’re trying to appeal to an audience that doesn’t want propaganda—they want news—it’s going to make it seem like you’re giving it to them from both sides. But really it’s a situation that’s designed for conservatives to win.”

Sherman is following in the footsteps of Al Franken, who loved to put the "Colmes" in "Hannity & Colmes" in a smaller font. When MSNBC viewers can't countenance an actual debate with an intelligent and committed conservative on their airwaves -- and some lefties on Twitter spit hate throughout "Morning Joe" as if that was heinously right-wing like Fox News -- then they're left knocking Fox debates as inauthentic, tilted debates.

Did Gabriel Sherman face a debate on his Ailes book on any of the liberal outlets on which he did interviews -- including a pile of shows on taxpayer-subsidized public radio? Does he have a "veneer of authenticity" when he argues in favor of debates?

[HT Columbia-watching Dan Gainor]