And perhaps at that other channel: Earlier this year, New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman published The Loudest Voice in the Room, a strongly critical biography of Roger Ailes.
In January, Sherman discussed the book with Jane Hall as part of C-Span’s After Words series. We watched their discussion two weekends ago.
To watch the full hour, click here.
Late in the hour, Sherman and Hall discussed the nature of propaganda, especially as practiced by Fox. Sherman’s description was basic but interesting.
This is the way he began:
HALL (1/29/14): What about the idea of repetition, which is a classic in terms of driving a message. Do you see Fox as repeating the same message throughout the day?Ailes worked for TVN, a Joseph Coors conservative media operation, way back in the mid-1970s.
SHERMAN: Yes, that is one of the principle techniques Fox uses is they develop story lines. You know, the health-care debate was a classic Fox News story line...
HALL: When you say story line, what do you mean? Good guys, bad guys?
SHERMAN: Yes, they develop it into simple plot lines. They develop adversaries...They develop these kind of, these characters who would be on the opposing side, and then they would build up their characters on the “pro” side. So George W. Bush as the president was the hero. They develop these story-lines and repeat them through the day. They start on Fox and Friends, they go through the news hour and then they’re continued in prime time. And you see that going back to TVN, they discussed how the repetition of stories can be a powerful propaganda technique.
In that passage, Sherman described a very basic type of “propaganda.” In this model, simple-minded “story lines” are created, with recognizable “good guys” and “bad guys.” These simple stories are repeated all through the day on Fox.
For what it’s worth, there’s nothing wrong with repeatedly covering a certain news topic throughout the day on a cable news channel. Sherman is describing something slightly different. He’s describing a process we ourselves have long described, in which simple-minded stories are handed to the public, with basic facts perhaps giving way to the need for simplistic script.
Is this the way Fox News operates? This is the way the whole press corps operated in the period on which we’ve done the most work, the late Clinton years and the twenty months of the Bush-Gore campaign.
As the conversation continued on C-Span, Hall seemed to suggest that MSNBC is perhaps developing a similar approach. It isn’t entirely clear what Hall meant, but this was Sherman’s reaction:
HALL (continuing directly): Well you know, you almost sense, if you watch MSNBC and Fox, sometimes you feel as if you’re watching parallel—We don’t know what Sherman meant when he said that MSNBC has “outfoxed Fox on the left.” We don’t know if he actually meant that they have “out-Foxed” Fox in some way—if he meant they have adopted specific Fox techniques, or if our lower-case transcription is more appropriate.
SHERMAN: It’s a fun house mirror.
HALL: —parallel universes...What do you see as the difference between what MSNBC is doing— Do they have, do they have—are they similar, or how are they different?
SHERMAN: Well, in many ways, they have outfoxed Fox on the left. I mean, MSNBC has decided that their business is as a progressive liberal talk channel. And I think that’s an interesting marketing strategy...
But what I think is interesting is that MSNBC is not as good as Fox. You know they—as, just as pure television producers, the programming is not as compelling, because they don’t have Roger Ailes’ unique talents. His ability to foster conflict, his ability to pick talent.
At any rate, Sherman said MSNBC is not as good as Fox at the TV business. He said the liberal channel doesn’t have Ailes’ unique talents, though this was a bit of a left-handed criticism/compliment when you see one of the talents he cited—Ailes’ ability to foster conflict.
Shortly thereafter, Hall referred to a recent comment in which Ailes spoke well of Rachel Maddow’s work. For ourselves, we were already thinking of Maddow’s recent scandal coverage as Sherman sketched the outline of a type of cable news “propaganda.”
In our view, Maddow’s recent scandal reporting has been extremely strange. That said, we think her scandal reporting has always been strange. This isn’t always a party-line affair, although Maddow’s scandal coverage does tend to drift partisan.
When Maddow appeared with Bill Maher a few weeks back, she cited the amount of coverage she gave to the Rod Blagojevich trial. As we noted in real time, we thought her approach was peculiar in that case too.
What explains Maddow’s strangely repetitive scandal coverage, in which facts are sometimes invented or lost and guilt is assigned with great dispatch? We’ll spend some time the next few afternoons pondering that imponderable.
Tomorrow, we’ll return to Sherman’s portrait of propaganda—a portrait which neatly captures the simple-minded, repetitive way Maddow has covered the Fort Lee matter. We’ll also look at the Q-and-A in which Ailes voiced his admiration for Maddow’s work.
Later this week, we’ll look at some of the early profiles of Maddow, looking for other explanation for her peculiar approach to scandal reporting.
In her scandal reporting, Maddow tends to be free with her accusations, and rather free with her basic facts. In the current instance, liberals have been cheering her on.
We think that’s a bad idea. Your results may differ.