Over on twitter, Reihan Salam and Patrick Brennan were discussing a Matthew Yglesias post on the Koch brothers’ attempt to buy the Tribune line of newspapers. Yglesias is for it since he thinks that the Koch brothers buying the Tribune papers and turning them into conservative news outlets focused on reporting would be good for the media environment. Yglesias writes some things I agree with and some things I disagree with. He writes:
After all, the big problem with right-leaning media in America isn’t that it doesn’t exist. It’s that it’s terrible. There is a large audience out there that’s so frustrated with the vile MSM that it’s happy to lap up cheaply produced content from Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and you can make lots of money serving that kind of thing up. By contrast, to build a great media company that’s top-to-bottom staffed with conservatives is going to be very expensive.
I want to push back on this a little. Fox News is very good – at being Fox News. As Reihan Salam said on twitter, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday are outstanding politics-focused news shows. Hannity and O’Reilly are very good at being what they are. They aren’t just cheap and the only game in town. They provide entertainment and reinforcement for that minority among conservatives who want to feel good about their political commitments in that moment when those shows are on.
Salam pointed out that the left-of-center audience has more options, and that is true, but number of options is not the problem in itself. We would be only slightly better off (and maybe not better off at all) if there were three more cable news channels that had Sean Hannity imitators in the same time slot. What we are missing is (as Yglesias indicated) a right-leaning news outlet whose most prominent programs are based around reporting rather than commentary and narrative reinforcement.
Patrick Brennan wrote that he didn’t think there was a large audience out there clamoring for that kind of conservative news outlet. I think he (and not Yglesias) is right about that, but the problem is one of perspective. There is a very limited audience for a smarter Fox News. There might be a large (and cross-ideological) audience for an excellent mainstream news outlet with a center-right-leaning newsroom and editorial staff.
A cable outlet that tried to market itself as a smarter or more serious version of Fox News would be dooming itself at the outset. They would be insulting the existing Fox News audience and those conservatives who don’t watch Fox News but also can’t stand a self-congratulatory narrative from the same mainstream media that downplayed the Gosnell murders. Liberals don’t want anything that sounds like Fox News. The apolitical fraction of the public would find a “smarter” Fox News branding incomprehensible. It is a lose-lose-lose proposition.
A more useful conservative news outlet would not be a smarter version of Fox News. It would be a conservative version of the major network news divisions. The intended audience wouldn’t be conservatives as such. It would be people who wanted the best reporting about counter-terrorism efforts in Indonesia, the depletion of social capital in rural America, the rise of evangelical Christianity among American Latinos, and a hundred other things.
It wouldn’t be news for conservatives. It would be news for everyone by a newsroom that recognizes the Gosnell trial as more obviously a huge national story than Martha Burke’s protest at Augusta National. The audience for such a product would tend to skew conservative. No matter how well they guard against bias, such an outlet’s tone and story selection would alienate some liberals. But there are a lot of people (including some liberals) who do not have a strong partisan identity and do not come to the news hoping for affirmation of their choices to join Team Red or Team Blue. A better conservative outlet would have to avoid the temptation to consciously pitch their stories to conservatives as doing so would undermine their product. It would need to be a product that contained can’t-miss, can’t-get-anywhere-else information for everyone.
The conservative media ecosystem is incomplete. The liberal media ecosystem has liberal-produced news for a general audience (ABC, NBC, CBS) and an alternative (MSNBC) for liberals who want their news to make them feel good about choosing Team Blue. Fox News plays both of these roles and the second one more prominently than the first.
We don’t need another conservative alternative to the mainstream media. We need a conservative version of the mainstream media. Patrick Brennan is right that there is no great clamor for such a thing. My sense is that this is a case in which supply could create its own demand. – and the demand would not come not so much from current Fox News viewers, but from across the right, center, and apolitical segments of the population that do not watch much Fox News.
The problem, as Yglesias points out, is that such an outlet would require enormous expense, the reporting would be very difficult to get right, and financial viability would be far from guaranteed. I think it would be worth it to give Mollie Z. Hemingway a prominent television platform to report stories. But then again, it isn’t my money.