When Nielsen Media Research announced that the Fox News Channel had topped rivals CNN and MSNBC in monthly ratings, the news was greeted as the gravest blow to leftist media bias since Bernard Goldberg's imaginatively titled book Bias hit the streets. "We believe that if anybody's point of view is eliminated, that's biased, including conservatives," said syntax-challenged Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes. And more than a million viewers--fed up with the way Peter Jennings advocates nationalizing the stock exchange, Tom Brokaw eviscerates the "fascist pigs" of the World War II generation, and Dan Rather openly calls for the destruction of Israel--agreed with him.
But Fox News' motto--"We Report, You Decide"--hints at another piety, held in even higher regard than the agon of Republicans and Democrats. This belief, shared even by those who find Fox as reliable as Das Reich, holds that the public is tired of idle punditry, talking-head spin, round-table bloviation. What the people want, goes the song, are facts!
"Citizens intuitively know that the best and most reliable work of the press comes when it is providing independent information," Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, of something called the Project for Excellence in Journalism, suggested in a recent New York Times op-ed. "We know...that people like information and factualness," Rosenstiel continued, introducing survey results showing increasing public dissatisfaction with the media. "People actually resent the media getting ahead of the facts." Fox News anchor star and reckless driver Shepard Smith cites the network's "fair and balanced" product as the reason for its ratings victory. In one Columbia Journalism Review poll, large majorities of journalists said punditry by reporters "worsens" and "trivializes" their "craft," endangers credibility, and blurs the line between fact and opinion. "If we had a show here like Washington Week in Review, I wouldn't let a [Cleveland] Plain Dealer reporter appear on it," said the paper's editor, David Hall.
Most ominously for what Eric Alterman in his seminal book Sound and Fury calls "the punditocracy," the American people seem to agree with these low opinions. In a recent Pew Center poll, a solid majority said the media "gets in the way of society solving its problems," a third believed media criticism "keeps political leaders from doing their job," nearly half found criticism of the armed forces "weakens defense," and a quarter simply deemed the media "immoral."
All this would make food for thought, if only the public, in undiminished and indeed ever-growing numbers, did not demonstrate its thirst for the very opinion slinging that is such a blight on the culture. A few hours of viewing the newly triumphant Fox News reveals less investigative journalism than punditry unchained: The O'Reilly Factor (self-pitying superstar Bill O'Reilly's "spin-free" hour), Hannity & Colmes (a lib/con face-off/yawn fest in the classical mode), The Big Story (mushmouthed banalysis by ghoulish MSNBC retread John Gibson), and so on. Granted, the chump change ratings of Fox News--like those of all the cable news channels--is more a testament to audience fragmentation than to the overriding will of the American people; but if news junkies really are fed up with palaver, they've got a funny way of showing it.
This is hardly the only instance of a revealed preference for punditry. Fans of the new MSNBC show Alan Keyes Stop Making Sense unanimously praise the recidivist presidential candidate for bringing "truth" to the liberal media, though Keyes does no original reporting, expends no visible effort verifying data, and in fact doesn't even seem to be listening to his guests. Practitioners of Web logging, the current Big Thing in vanity publishing, congratulate themselves for "fact-checking" the major media, while producing an opinion-to-fact ratio not seen since the golden age of talk radio. (And a gander at the Arbitron top 20 indicates talk radio's golden age still has some legs left.)
Or consider the section of local newspapers consistently ranked as most popular with readers: the sports page. With hundreds of Web sites providing scores, fan bulletin boards tracking every hint of a trade, and several 24-hour cable channels providing continuous news and highlight clips, sports reporting functions have been entirely pre-empted. By the logic of Excellent Journalism types, sports pages can add no value beyond spin and thus should be headed for the showers. But this logic means nothing to the sports fan, who knows the joy of seeing news you already know rehashed by a writer you really like (or, even better, a writer you really hate).
This interpretation of the facts has no constituency. Good-journalism nags are wedded to the notion that good citizens loathe the "kommentariat." Opinioneers themselves are convinced they're serving the Truth and take offense at the notion that their definition of truth consists largely of shouting their opinions louder than the other guy.
But there is something laudable in the rise of the bloviation nation. Among other things, what is instantly recognizable as opinion is much easier to ignore than what is presented as fact. (The notion of zombified masses sitting around accepting Bob Novak's every brain fart has always been a fond one.) More important is the fact that, against the wishes of civic-minded schoolmarms, increasing numbers of Americans are gathering in a thriving, self-selecting, and increasingly participatory version of what activists call The Commons. That this gathering place looks less like Speaker's Corner than a corner bar is of concern only to those already convinced the neighborhood is going to hell.