"FOX NEWS ALERT," screams the screen, in red. "FOX NEWS LEARNS OF POSSIBLE THREAT TO NY HARBOR." Do we have your attention now? Who cares if FOX's reporter goes on to say that the New Year's Eve threat is "uncorroborated, noncredible [sic] and suspect"? Attention will be paid.
Attention is television's everyday grail -- its prize, its power and glory, its advertisers' delight and necessity. How to get it and keep it is about the only subject that network chiefs take seriously. There's nothing new about this, but the means have been transformed. Pre-cable, in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, television news used to get attention with a compromise strategy: Put crisp voices over theatrical pictures. Crispness was an assurance of objectivity; objectivity was what the audience required. The stentorian voice of the movie newsreels wouldn't comport well with the hush of the living room, but a restrained tone would certify that reasonable men (for males they were) were in charge.
Out in the field, the correspondent might get a little worked up, but the anchor was, well, the anchor, the well-ordered, unmoved mind, stoic and reliable (Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley) or faintly ironic (David Brinkley). It took the death of John F. Kennedy to put a catch in Cronkite's throat. The pictures were assurances of objectivity -- "See? This really happened!" -- but at the same time they contained the promise that what mattered could be inspected, and thus, implicitly, that viewers as citizens were in charge. The network was keeping an eye on the world so that the viewer might tick off the facts, think, "Isn't that interesting?" and feel flattered to be informed. The occasional specials, live hearings and documentaries impressed federal regulators and satisfied the news organizations' sense of self-respect.
Came cable, and CNN modified the formula. Collecting snippets at all hours, it widened the viewer's global reach, heightened his or her sense of being on top of things. CNN's audience was meager -- 200,000 or 300,000 on normal days -- but spiked during crises such as hijacks, earthquakes and, most massively and memorably, the Gulf War, with its Nintendo-like graphics. The crises worked: They collected eyeballs and eardrums. Decibels paid off. Crossfire demonstrated the theatrics of punditry.
Rival cable networks took the hint: Invest in barking heads and pump up BREAKING NEWS: O. J., Monica, Chandra, et al. Enter Chris Matthews flinging hardballs on CNBC, barely pausing for breath between shouts. On Sunday mornings, major network newscasters went percussive, too, as NBC's Tim Russert and ABC's Sam Donaldson prosecuted the Clinton White House. Meanwhile, on the radio, Rush Limbaugh was bellowing his way into many millions of hearts and spleens, mixing a touch of mirth with a radio preacher's urgency and a demagogue's viciousness. The combination worked. Greetings, Don Imus. Enter FOX, breathless. All crisis, all the time.
In case you haven't noticed, it takes more to seize your attention now, to paralyze your itchy finger before it gets to the remote control. (At least this is what network news chiefs believe, and they're probably right.) It takes bombastic theme music. It takes bumpers -- coming attractions to the news coming toward you after the commercial. It takes a screen crammed with a crawl, with a picture-within-a-picture, with ongoing Dow and weather reports. It takes a major investment in sets: The anchor stands suspended among the incoming images, even strides toward you. The barking heads, for their part, take over the bar room without having to get up on their feet for the brawl. Ever since John McLaughlin devised his formula for getting attention in the Reaganite 1980s, the pundit doesn't talk, he brays. Debate as percussion, public discourse as extreme sports. It's no surprise when FOX's military analyst, David Christian, declares, "For the military, [an Iraq war would be] the biggest Super Bowl."
To the problem of securing attention, the FOX News Channel has found a 24-7 solution: Get its hands around your neck. That's not just politics, it's commerce -- or, rather, politics of the combative type as commerce. FOX News' chairman, Roger Ailes, is a political operative (George Bush Senior's, in fact) and a moneymaker. (Why should he have to choose? Proprietor Rupert Murdoch is both.) The commercial motive dovetails beautifully with a politics of muscularity and resentment. Over this is laid an objectivity scrim, the veil of "we report, you decide." But it's hard to believe that any of FOX's 1.2 million daily prime-time viewers is fooled. The brashness and raucousness speak for themselves, as if much of the shows were broadcast from the middle-school lunchroom. The phony objectivity is the equivalent of Bill O'Reilly's phony populism -- the tribute that tabloids pay to the quality press. O'Reilly, FOX's self-fancying man of the people, with the most watched show on cable TV and hours of daily radio to boot, still whines that he couldn't get on National Public Radio or the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer to talk about his best-selling book. No matter how many hours of radio and TV he gets, they are always keeping him out of their club. Richard Nixon lives.
Throughout the day, FOX's formula is consistent: attitude. Its anthem is all percussion, all the time. Even its weather report blares, and its morning show is raucous -- a frat-house alternative to the other channels' goody-two-shoes presentation. Real guys and gals know how the world works. (Corollary: Only a wuss doesn't.) Goodness (Team Bush) faces off against Badness (Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il) as surely as brawling Sean Hannity mauls mild Alan Colmes. Animal House flies the flag. Show us a problem and we'll show you that they are responsible.
And the so-called liberal competition? The networks and CNN air snippets, not analyses. They snipe at corporate misdeeds but can't tell the difference between a Whitewater and an Enron. They show no interest in totalities. They do not connect dots. The links among oil companies, military strategies, global warming and an oil-soaked administration escape them. They marvel, they wink but they do not fuse their observations into vision or derision.
Could liberals fight back? In a provocative book, The Sound Bite Society, Jeffrey Scheuer argued that television's formats, not just its ownership, tilt rightward because liberals are partial to complexity whereas television prefers simplicity. (Radio, too.) If a liberal is, as Robert Frost is said to have said, "a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel," a conservative idea of a quarrel is a fight against straw wimps.
Today young liberals aspire to write for The West Wing, The Sopranos and like entertainments, not to rival the pundit careers of Limbaugh and George Will. They know where the jobs are waiting and where they are not. It's indisputably a massive disadvantage not to own a network. And we don't really know whether a liberal FOX News Channel is imaginable because the experiment hasn't been undertaken. It wouldn't be cheap. Liberal moguls, Murdoch wannabes, even if their pockets were deep enough, have not materialized, though a few of them are belatedly talking a good show. If the cable space opened up, would talented liberal loudmouths learn to raise their voices, overcome their ambivalence and mop the floor with the right's shoddy arguments? Would they take off the gloves and remind their audiences who their opponents are? The histrionic gifts of Paul Begala and James Carville, currently sharing Crossfire, suggest that the answer is yes. But there's no way to know other than to try.
The fate of Trent Lott sounds an auspicious note for liberals, but would his ascendancy have lasted so long if liberals had a bulldog network of their own? For two decades, Lott had been honoring the glory days of the Confederacy and its Jim Crow sequel -- without anybody noticing. John Ashcroft, among other top Republicans, had taken to the pages of Southern Partisan to record the party's indelible debts to Jefferson Davis -- without making news. What if the Counter-FOX Network had been reporting on these guys -- what they believed, where they came from -- over the years?
Liberal radio and TV -- those might give Tom Daschle a backbone transplant and put some fight in congressional Democrats. As Eric Alterman argues in his forthcoming book What Liberal Media?, the right has been "working the ref" for years, screaming "liberal bias" so fiercely and insistently that it got the established media to bend over backward to prove they weren't liberal after all. What if the centrist media had to look over their left shoulders for a change?