Media literacy lesson: If media is left or right at its core, Why didn’t Fox News accept MSNBC’s surrender in 2002?
Why liberal and conservative media are nothing more than brands like Coke and 7Up.
It wasn’t that long ago (around 2002, just before the Iraq War) that MSNBC, now considered Fox News’ liberal cable news doppelganger, was envious of Fox News’ considerable lead in audience ratings. High ratings some attributed to its brand of conservative leaning news.
As those with strong media literacy skills know, because the name of the game is eyeballs in media (it alone decides if a show stays on the air), MSNBC started trying to be more like Fox News. To be viewed as a more conservative network with the hopes of stealing some of Fox News’ rating thunder. It got rid of liberal talk show host Phil Donohue (at that time, its highest-rated show). After his departure, Donohue said he was told by MSNBC network executives to have two pro-war guests for every anti-war voice on his show when talking about going to war in Iraq. In most likelihood, a request made by producers and executives who wanted to get closer to flag-waving feel projected by Fox News who seemed to be staunchly supporting the president’s decision to go to war. A support exemplified by Fox News’ on-air personalities like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity communicating that public dissent of that decision was near unpatriotic or Americans should stop protesting and stand behind the president.
MSNBC went on to hire conservatives Alan Keyes, Michael Savage and Joe Scarborough to boost its conservative credentials. They made the changes and waited for the eyeballs to come. They didn’t.
Good or bad, MSNBC discovered that couldn’t out-conservatize and out-flag-wave Fox News. Floundering, MSNBC drifted until they found a significant rating bump when they re-hired former ESPN anchor and pre-9/11 MSNBC news host Keith Olbermann. Olbermann eventually found a voice and an audience for viewers and eyeballs not happy with the Bush Administration.
A brand and message angle they encouraged as ratings went up. Even MSNBC news hosts and shows that were previously cheerleaders or non-confrontational to the Bush Administration took note. Hardball host Chris Matthews, noted for the way he almost fawned over the president walking on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit, started questioning the actions of the Bush Administration harder. Joe Scarborough, started distancing himself from the Republican Party by beginning to speak of himself, not as a Republican, but as a conservative and as a concerned critic of the Bush Administration.
As the eyeballs came for the cable network’s push-back against the Bush Administration (better but still a fraction of Fox), the network threw away the conservative or even neutral premise and started hiring more liberal commentators like Rachel Maddow while other straight news reporters like David Shuster started showing more critical, sometimes almost sarcastic, coverage of the Bush Administration. In the course of six years, a news station shifted from conventional to conservative to liberal. Not to push a point of view for ideology’s sake. But for rating’s sake.
If MSNBC was clearly trying to lean right, why didn’t Fox News (seeing it was “cleaning up its act”) take it in like a baby brother? Make sure it stayed on the “right” path? Because the relationship between the two has never been about having an ideology for it’s own sake. It’s about a brand. A way to compete and be distinquished in the marketplace of news and information.
Even though they are both soda, the fact that 7Up is clear and Coke is not, gives consumers a clear concept to make a choice.
So when MSNBC and Fox News position themselves as idelogocal brands and “battle with each other” they are less about spreading the gospel of ideology but doing in marketing what’s called USP (unique sales positioning). A clear distinction, or least a clear conceptual idea, in the audiences’ mind why they should choose them. Good media literacy skills say you should focus on the actual news they provide and thier accuracy instead.
For more about this and to learn more about media literacy skills, check out chapter my book Does This News Make Me Look Fat? It’s available now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the iBookstore.