Switching Channels

One of the ways in which conservatives have (if I may) outfoxed liberals on the question of media is that conservatives have turned to the private sector for relief and liberals to the public.

As we all know, back in the 1970s, when conservatives concluded -- and accurately so, in those days -- that they were outnumbered on the airwaves and in the op-ed columns, they decided to correct the imbalance by building their own media. The New York Post, The Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh and his hell spawns, The Weekly Standard, and FOX News: As we have learned all too emphatically, two daily newspapers, vast radio networks, and an intellectual magazine (or two, counting the already extant National Review) -- all anchored by the cable-news channel, which bestows the television medium's uniquely mystical imprimatur on the whole enterprise -- have proven to be a pretty enviable and effective operation.

By contrast, liberals have mostly, during this onslaught, sought redress from the public sector, targeting the FCC and seeking to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. Each side has followed its natural instincts, conservatives believing that the market provides the answers and liberals, the state. The one major private-sector effort, Air America Radio, had a disastrous start; here's hoping that Stephen and Mark Green, who took over the network last month, can right things. In the meantime, though, the liberal world, as ever, awaits its Murdoch or Moon.

But the media landscape is starting to shift, and current dust-ups over FOX and Don Imus offer strong evidence that this is precisely the moment for some liberal moneybags with an interest in the private sector, a good nose for a reasonable risk, and a nice sense of historical mischief to put the money on the table.

Democrats, led by John Edwards, are finally starting to do something I thought they should have been doing for at least seven or eight years: telling FOX to go stuff itself. Edwards, or whoever it is in his camp who came up with the idea, deserves the highest praise for doing this. Since Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have joined him, attention should turn now to the other presidential candidates and, more crucially, to every Democrat in Congress this side of ex-Democrat Joe Lieberman: None of them should go on FOX.

Why? Edwards' statement got one small but important point wrong: FOX is not per se a "right-wing" network devoted to conservative principles. It is a soulless propaganda network devoted to keeping the Republican Party in power.

Those are two very different things. The American Prospect is dedicated to the liberal creed, The Weekly Standard to the conservative gospel; but each criticizes Democrats and Republicans, respectively, and each expects the party nearer its world view to hew to a certain set of beliefs. If, for example, the 2008 Democratic platform were to abandon trade unionism and embrace globalization whole hog, you can be sure the Prospect would have little truck with such a party. Likewise, if the Republican Party suddenly became a pro-choice party, the Standard and the Review would go postal.

FOX, however -- after registering the initial shock, FOX would need roughly three days to gather itself and lay down a party line that the change was sensible and proper, represented no hypocrisy at all, and indeed the real hypocrisy was on the part of whiny liberals for suspecting whether the conversion was real (can't you just hear them?).

The distinction is crucial to journalistic integrity. If you're able to whack the people who represent your side when they fall short of your ideals, you have met some basic standard of journalistic integrity. If your goal is to help one political party win elections, you're Pravda. That's what FOX is, and that's what the Edwards campaign should really be saying.

At the same time that FOX is being exposed by Democrats (which carries far more weight than it being exposed by media critics) for what it really is, Imus has finally been exposed for what he is. FOX competitor MSNBC has at long last pulled the plug on the old fartbag, as it should have ages ago. (The network's action was followed in short order by CBS Radio itself.) Shock-jockism will not wither and die as a result of this, but it will never again have quite the political influence that it did have.

Something's in the air. This is exactly the right time for some liberal multimillionaire or -aires to try to start a cable channel. Yes, it's a lot of money. But far from being some act of charity, such a channel could prove that progressive ideas can actually survive in the private market and turn a profit. Besides, it's a lot less money than, say, a presidential campaign or a lie-based war. (Crucially, and contra FOX, it must not be a soulless Democratic Party organ but a lively, news-gathering, serious, and occasionally funny apostle of ideas and principles rather than candidacies and political power.)

For the last four years, wealthy liberals have been trying to work in concert to build the fabled infrastructure. They have, to put it kindly, comparatively little to show for their efforts. There's one really big thing they can do that, done the right way, would change the terms of the debate in Washington instantly. Rupert Murdoch understood this. Why is it such a mystery on our side?

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's editor-at-large. He writes a column most Wednesdays for TAP Online.

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