The lucrative business of Obama-bashing
Four days before Barack Obama was sworn into office, a prominent radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, told his conservative listeners that a major American publication had asked him to write 400 words on his hopes for the Obama presidency.
“I…don’t need 400 words,” he said, “I need four: I hope he fails.”
The remark set the tone for a steady stream of unbridled and often bizarre criticism from Limbaugh and like-minded radio and TV commentators, several of them working for Fox News, the network owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Obama responded four days after his inauguration, telling a group of Republican congressmen they needed to break away from a mindset of confrontation.
“You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.”
What followed should have helped the new administration to reflect on the wisdom of singling out a media critic. But it didn’t. Limbaugh promptly portrayed himself as a man of such pivotal importance that the president of the world’s only superpower needed to pay personal attention to his tartly-worded opinion.
The controversy over his ill wishes for the president caused, as he put, his ratings to go “through the roof,” a reassuring development for a man who makes $38 million a year under an eight-year contract that runs through 2016. The score of that early skirmish: Limbaugh 1, Obama 0.
The White House is now engaged (as in war, not diplomacy) with an even bigger target, Fox News, to the evident delight of Murdoch. “There were some strong remarks coming out of the White House about one or two of the commentators on Fox News,” he told the annual shareholders’ meeting of News Corp, the media conglomerate that includes Fox. “And all I can tell you is that it has tremendously increased their ratings.”
His cheerful observation came a few days after the administration switched from occasional counter-attacks to full-scale offensive. Anita Dunn, the White House Communications director, fired the first rocket in mid-October by saying Fox News was not a legitimate news organisation but operated as a research and communications arm of the Republican Party.
The president himself stayed out of the fray this time but two of his closest aides, Senior Advisor David Axelrod and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel followed up with similar comments on television news shows. Axelrod went as far as to urge other news organisations not to treat Fox News as a legitimate news outfit. Fox denies its news coverage is slanted and says critics fail to understand the difference between reporters and commentators.
SHOCK VALUE AND SHOW BUSINESS
Past performance is no guarantee of future results but it is probably a safe bet that the controversy will be good for the Fox bottom line – and that the commentators with the most provocative attacks on Obama will benefit most, a pattern reflected by the network’s third quarter results.
They showed Fox News as the dominant cable news organisation. It drew an average 2.25 million prime time viewers (a 2 percent increase over the previous year) – more than twice the combined number of its nearest competitors, CNN and MSNBC, both of which suffered considerable audience declines.
The shows by Fox’s top conservative commentators all showed steep increases, but none more than Glenn Beck (up almost 90 percent), who said of Obama on a Fox show in July: “This president has exposed himself as a guy, over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people and white culture.”
Commentators aiming for shock value are not in the business of context, such as pointing out, for example, that Obama’s mother was white and that he had close and cordial relations with his white grandparents. Obama was visibly shaken when his white grandmother, Madelyn Dunham died, a day before he was elected president.
Beck’s “hatred for white people” remark prompted several advertisers to abandon his show but that didn’t hurt the bottom line. A Fox spokeswoman said at the time that offended advertisers had shifted to other Fox programmes so there was no revenue lost.
Which raises the question why Fox News, which effectively functions as the voice of the opposition, has been more of a commercial success than its competitors which feature liberal, pro-Obama commentators and give a platform to people who want the president to succeed?
After all, he won the elections with the votes of Americans who bought into his reform agenda. And according to a Washington Post/ABC poll to mark his ninth month into the presidency, his job approval rating stands at 57 percent and only 20 percent of the country now consider themselves Republican, the lowest percentage in 26 years.
Even on the most hotly disputed aspect of Obama’s health care plan, the public option seen as socialism by conservative commentators, a majority of Americans are coming out in support of the president, according to that poll.
So why is the White House acting as if right-wing critics pose a mortal danger? Thin-skinned sensitivity to criticism? John Batchelor, a conservative radio show host, has a different suggestion: ignorance.
“The White House war on Fox,” he wrote on the website The Daily Beast, “shows its ignorance of the network’s true purpose: show business. And Team Obama is giving Murdoch just what he wants.”