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Monday, October 09, 2006

Fox News at 10: Time magazine rewrites history

Time magazine has helped shape the conventional wisdom in American media for decades, and it’s following tradition today by doing its usual mainstream best to rewrite history in its semi-tribute to Fox News’ ten years of power.

Time credits— or blames— Fox News for changing the face of television news. But that’s a little like crediting the Sex Pistols for inventing punk rock. Before Johnny Rotten came to town, there were the Stooges. There were the Dolls.

And in this case, there was tabloid television, as envisioned, invented and carried out by Peter Brennan and his band of Aussie pirates and Yank hangers-on, first at A Current Affair and then at Paramount’s Hard Copy in the late Eighties and early Nineties. They shook up television news and set it on the course that landed Katie Couric in Dan Rather’s seat, long before Roger Ailes got on board at Fox and took the existing tabloid television template, replaced the good-natured Aussie democratic takedown humour with a nasty streak, added noxious right-wing politics and GOP ass-smooching to the mix and began filling hours of airtime with yakking heads.

Sure, Fox News influenced, confused and led its cable news competitors by calling it “fair and balanced” with a nudge and a wink. They helped keep America in fear after 9/11, gleefully greased the skids to the Iraq war, scared the competition from speaking out against Bush’s regime, kept Bill O’Reilly on the air despite a perverted sex (the repressed Catholic only talked about it) and office sexual harassment scandal, pioneered the don’t-ask-don’t tell gay newsreader policy far better than CNN, and through memos and meetings, kept ominous party line “talking points” in the background of every newsday.

But though “it’s still possible,” as Time says, “to divide the news calendar into BF and AF—Before Fox and After Fox (‘Fox’ meaning Fox News),” it’s a bit offbase when it insists that “much of what you see on TV news exists because of Fox.” Without the tabloid television team that set the stage and provided many of the bodies for Fox News to get off the ground (veteran tabloid innovators Ian Rae and Jerry Burke were among the Fox News start-up crew), Roger Ailes wouldn’t have had a game plan.

Years ago, when Marvin Kitman was writing an authorized biography of Bill O'Reilly (whatever happened to that?), we explained to him that Fox News was succeeding because it looked into the camera lens and envisioned its audience as the same target tabloid television had conjured—white, lower-middle class, with the kids and parents gathered together, with a grandparent in a rocking chair, at suppertime. Kitman was fascinated to realize that the doofus was succeeding because unlike the news vets who ran the straightlaced Inside Edition, his Fox bosses were allowing him to unleash his inner Maury Povich.

We led Marvin to the book, Tabloid Baby. And we lead Time to the book's Epilog, written in Disneyland in 1999:

“…Tabloid television and network news are unrecognizeable compared to what they were when it all began. Former network newsreader Deborah Norville may be hosting Inside Edition, but it was her successor at NBC’s Today show, Katie Couric, who was on the scene in Littleton, Colorado, a couple of mornings after the massacre at Columbine High in April 1999… Yes, the twain have met, they’ve mated, and Murrow’s legacy of idealism has exchanged fluids with Murdoch’s rules of cynicism…”

Specifically:

TIME FACTOID: “In the end, that wink—that is, the Fox gestalt of insouciance, attitude, and even playfulness—has had a bigger effect on the news media than any Bill O'Reilly rant.”

FACT: The wink, the “gestalt” (look it up), the playfulness: Ailes took it from Peter Brennan’s tabloid TV template.

TIME FACTOID:“Fox taught TV news that voice, provocation and fun are not things to be afraid of. “

FACT: Tabloid TV.

TIME FACTOID: “Probably every TV news program outside of PBS has been Foxified by now.”

FACT: Watch PBS news. They do it well.

TIME FACTOID: “The explosive graphics on your newscast: that's Fox.”

FACT: See the “Ka-chung”

TIME FACTOID: “The ‘freeSpeech’ opinion segments on the new CBS Evening News: that's Fox, too. Anderson Cooper yelling at a FEMA official or crusading in Africa: that's Fox. Keith Olbermann ranting at George W. Bush and O'Reilly on MSNBC's Countdown: that's Fox through and through…”

FACT: That’s Tabloid Television.

TIME FACTOID: “Ailes’ argument that nearly every other mainstream media outlet slants left is self-serving and mostly wrong. (The MSM really slant toward the institutional, establishmentarian center, which is a bias as dangerous as any other.)”

FACT: Ailes is right. The “MSM” slants to the left.

Anyway, in days to come, there will be a lot of “think” pieces and features blaming or praising Fox News for its ten-year reign of GOP terror. But tabloid television has been a neglected influence. Its heroes, from Dunleavy to Abramovitz to Holloway, have been largely forgotten by that “MSM.” And remember, when A Current Affair and the team reassembled last year, it was Roger Ailes who wrested power over its broadcast division and quickly pulled the plug on the show—before anyone could recognize that the TV wizard was not a fat man behind the curtain, but actually from Oz.

Read all about it here.

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