Hold That Thought: The “Enemy” Press Has Its Origins in the Right

Fair and balanced? For some, maybe.

This post originally was originally posted to Facebook in response to a post I had made regarding friends using the term “enemy” as it pertained to the media. I asked to be unfriended, and it rubbed some folks the wrong way. Without further ado, here’s my full response.

How Did We Get Here?

It seems as if my “media is the enemy” post may have struck a chord. Well, truth hurts. So let me entertain you with a bit of journalistic history, and the reason why we are where we’re at today is exactly the same group of people who are the root source of this mess.

The year was 1994. CNN was the place for cable news, and well respected in the field and in the public. But news was dry, the most you got was Robert Novak and Michael Kinsley arguing the right and left on Crossfire. But that’s what the people wanted and responded to. Or at least the news industry thought.

A man named Roger Ailes had a different idea, however. Instead of straight news, let’s do news with talking heads and lots of opinion! That idea was pitched to NBC, and America’s Talking was born. Most of the shows were of poor quality, except late night show called Politics with a longtime Chief of Staff of former Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill named Chris Matthews (yes, of Hardball fame).

The network never got much traction (except Hardball), and within two years NBC pulled the plug to do a brand new electronic media driven network in partnership with Microsoft called MSNBC. Ailes had already left, lured to Fox by Rupert Murdoch to work on a brand new concept in cable news.

This is where it all began. With the nascent MSNBC barely getting a solid footing, a new network promising “Fair and Balanced” news was born with Ailes at the helm that October.

Ailes did not give up on the idea of opinion laden news, despite his failure with America’s Talking. While straight news shows ruled Fox News Channel’s daytime hours evening shows were dominated by opinion. Not only opinion, but noticeably right leaning opinion. Bill O’Reilly then of Inside Edition fame (fuck it, we’re doing it live!) was selected to host a show focusing on hot political stories of the day, while a weak left leaning host in Alan Colmes was matched up with an overpowering right leaning talker in Sean Hannity.

Hannity and Colmes was supposed to be Fox’s answer to Crossfire, but it was nothing like it. Instead of balanced discussion, Colmes was always placed at a disadvantage on the show, often outflanked by right wing personalities. They were flocking to FNC, mainly because they felt they finally had a place where conservatives could tell their side of the story with minimal resistance.

This unbalance was a sure fire hit among conservatives who felt they were underrepresented in news (although ironically, all but owned talk radio). But in the news business it was a different story.

I was in journalism school at the time FNC first got off the ground, and I can tell you that the concept was not well received by academia in the journalism field. It seemed like any idea of actual balance was thrown out the window when it suited Fox, and since it went from a struggling network to a ratings powerhouse in a matter of only two years shook the industry to the core.

No longer was opinion limited to “special comments” like Edward R. Murrow sometimes was wont to do on CBS Evening News in the mid 20th Century. Now opinion was everywhere, and before long, Fox’s talking heads — and their obviously unbalanced analysis — was permeating through the daytime straight news segments more and more.

FNC started earning the nickname “Faux News” (yes fake news was a thing long before Trump) from its detractors because of this. They’d take stories on little things and magnify them to the point it would make the right wing apoplectic. But it was working, and would you blame CNN and MSNBC for trying to do the same thing?

While CNN decided to take the high road in the early 2000s (they really did), MSNBC made a conscious choice to become the “Anti-Fox.” If there was a show on Fox, MSNBC would give you the exact opposite. Keith Olbermann was groomed to be the anti-O’Reilly, while shows with conservatives and liberals would pair typically a stronger liberal personality to a relatively weaker conservative one, the opposite of Hannity and Colmes.

CNN would later attempt to join the fray with better opinion coverage, but for years it was MSNBC vs. Fox — with either side trying to outdo each other for a specific demographic. MSNBC was in a failing position from the start: its target audience would always be split with CNN, whose decade and a half head start had solidified a very loyal audience.

Regardless, the damage was done. Fox News had put cable news on a trajectory of opinion and analysis over actual reporting of the news, and the entire industry suffered. I’d argue today that all three major networks have dialed it back a bit, but nothing could describe better how far the industry had fallen until Al Jazeera America came onto the scene.

Despite its name, Al Jazeera promised something that the old school networks had long lost — straight news and in-depth reporting. In just the year it was on the air, AJ broke more stories we’re still talking about today — the Flint water crisis a huge example (covering it a year before ANY network did in depth!). But the public didn’t want to hear it. First off, people couldn’t get past the name, and secondly, the American public just wasn’t used to hearing the news straight anymore. They wanted it with opinion that suited theirs. Call it confirmation bias.

It was when Al Jazeera failed that I realized that cable news was past the point of saving. Had people actually watched the network, I think they would have seen exactly what they wanted. Despite claims to the contrary, Qatar influenced the coverage little, although certainly in Middle Eastern stories the Arab point of view was given more airtime.

What’s the point of this long, long post, then? The origins of the current state of the media which Trump supporters, and President Trump himself, abhor is actually their own kind. The network that they claim tells them the news like it is wasn’t actually built to be that way. It’s all about what sells, and as Fox proved, demonization of a certain side can do very, very well.

(I’d argue the hyper-partisanization of America also has its origins in Fox News’ strategy too, but that’s a whole other LONG post).

So my tip to you? Don’t just watch Fox. Don’t just read the Drudge Report (which by the way had a show on MSNBC if you didn’t know for a time in the late 1990's). Consume print journalism like the Washington Post and the New York Times. Watch Fox News and Shepard Smith. Hell, watch Rachel Maddow.

But then think. Analyze on your own. Google is your best friend. Don’t just expect one outlet to be perfect . Each news organization — even CNN — has their strong point. But don’t be lazy, and blame the media for your lack of critical thought.

And don’t sit here and bitch and call me or my other fellow journalists the enemy. There’s many of us working our asses off FOR LITTLE PAY to speak truth to power (you’d be shocked at what actual journalists make). We take our jobs VERY seriously, and feel the work is important despite the low return. Most important? A free and unbridled press is necessary for democracy, something no one can argue.

Do you think if Nixon’s press corps would have just sit back and allow him to demonize the press and not uncover his shady dealings to maintain power would have been a good thing for this country? Of course not. Or how about Vietnam? When the American people were clearly being lied to about a war that was unwinnable? Or 9/11? Or WMD in Iraq? There’s many examples of how the “evil” press has been America’s greatest ally. It isn’t called the Fourth Estate for nothing.

In closing, it really scares me how the press is being put behind what a man in power says or in this case tweets. Look throughout history my friends, the first thing to go in the slide towards authoritarianism and totalitarianism is a free press.

Be careful what you wish for. There may be no turning back.

Thanks for reading.