Fox populism versus MSNBC liberalism

‘There seems to be in the country ... a media war’, Bill O’Reilly once told his viewers, ‘a war between Fox News and talk radio on one side, The New York Times and the liberal networks on the other side’ (The O’Reilly Factor, 18 September 2009). In this narrative, the ‘Washington journalistic establishment’ (The O’Reilly Factor, 30 October 2009) and ‘the liberal left-wing elite’ (The O’Reilly Factor, 11 June 2009) stood on one side while Fox News and the ‘hardworking people’ of ‘middle America’ (Hannity & Cohnes, 27 April 2001) stood on the other. This dichotomous construction of the US news field as consisting of two rival media systems — one for the elite and one for the people — remains intact today, as evidenced by Fox host Tucker Carlson’s recent monologues denouncing ‘the ruling class’ who condescend to ‘the rest of us plebes’ (Maza 2019).

Meanwhile, taking cues from Fox News’s commercial success, MSNBC in the mid-2000s started to counter-programme Fox as the liberal alternative. Emulating Fox’s partisan branding strategy and programming formula, MSNBC also prioritised opinion-based shows over ‘straight’ reporting. Yet even while adopting a partisan brand, MSNBC’s conceptualisation of the public sphere still upheld the basic tenets of liberal democratic theory. Their marketing and programming discourse assumed that social tensions and opposing political demands could be managed through reasoned debate and by making politics more informationally sound, receptive, and tolerant.

So while MSNBC’s recent Decision 2020 promo declares ‘There’s power in deciding for ourselves. Even if we don’t agree’ (NewscastStudio 2020), Fox’s contrasting populist imaginary suggests that the national community will only be whole if and when the elite power bloc that corrupts its body politic is confronted and then excised. Fox News’s antiestablishment posture brings the conservative coalition together by emphasising its members’ common (perceived or real) ‘outsider’ status away from the elite ‘corridors of power’ (The O’Reilly Factor, 23 October 2009). The communal tie for MSNBC liberalism, on the other hand, is founded on the equal inclusion of all individuals and minoritarian voices in the national discussion.

Political theorist Ernesto Laclau put forth a set of theoretical tools for distinguishing MSNBC’s liberal-democratic reasoning from Fox’s populist vision, a conceptual divide he describes as one between ‘differential logic’ and ‘equivalential logic’ (2005). MSNBC’s ‘differential logic’ is clear in the aforementioned Decision 2020 ad. The promo begins with an American flag graphic, with the narrator saying, ‘We all want different things. We all dream different dreams’. At this point, the flag’s stripes shoot off in different directions, symbolising the idea that democracy involves a multiplicity of interest groups and demands. ‘But’, the voice-over reassures, this political diversity is what defines America: ‘that’s what makes us us’. Democracy ‘isn’t really about finding common ground’, the ad insists. ‘It is about finding our footing on uncommon ground’ (emphasis added).

The progressive community is thus brought together through their common commitment to the right of all citizens to pursue their separate group interests and to express their distinct individual beliefs. MSNBC values the ‘politics of difference’ above all else, which aligns with the Democratic Party’s signature embrace of multiculturalism. Yet not only does MSNBC avoid building a singular political identity for its audience to rally around; it actually rejects the effort to do so as a positive expression of its liberalism.

In contrast, Fox’s populist representational strategy is designed to find and perhaps even manufacture ‘common ground’. The populist terms Fox uses to address its audience, such as the folks and middle America, thread and ‘articulate’ the various political issues of the conservative movement — gun rights, pro-life, deregulation — on what Laclau terms a ‘chain of equivalence’ (2005). And this is why such populist signifiers are politically useful. In having an ‘equivalential logic’, Fox can symbolically condense the myriad of factions and interest groups that comprise any given political movement into one unitary bloc.

Still, populist signifiers have no meaning by themselves; their coalescing function only works within an ‘us-versus-them’framework. This conflict model is apparent in an O’Reilly Factor episode about the conservative Tea Party movement. ‘The American media will never embrace the Tea Party. Why? [T]hey look down on the folks. They think you are dumb’ (8 February 2010). While part of Fox’s strategy is to bombard the audience on a nightly basis with a consistent set of associations between different conservative factions (e.g. libertarian men, religious women, blue-collar workers, wealthy business owners), the central way Fox’s programming fuses these constituencies together is by positioning them against a common enemy. Conservatives are one because they are all looked down on by the liberal elite (i.e. ‘they think you are dumb’).

It is fair to question if, and to what extent, conservatives actually face the kind of marginalisation they claim they do. Indisputable, however, is how this resentment about liberal intellectual condescension has been effectively used to mobilise conservative activists and compel conservative audiences. Working in tandem with a white ‘producerisf antagonism against the non-white, ‘parasitic’ factions below (Peck 2019: Chapter 4), this opposition to the educated elites above is one of the master programming themes of Fox News and of the conservative talk industry writ large. Consequently, this discourse warrants scholarly interrogation and, as A.J. Bauer has stressed, needs to be understood on its own conservative terms (2018: 25).

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