…well, not formally so, but I think what follows could well fall into the bounds of an argument constructed to the requirements of informal discourse — and what could be more devoid of formality than this here blog?
The proposition, that Fox News is not a real news organization has been put forth, forcefully, by members of the Obama administration. It has been disputed, vehemently, by Fox employees and network supporters — including some who should definitely know better.
Some might say that the nature of those defenses confirms the original proposition: to compare a public statement that a given media organization is biased is obviously not the same thing as constructed and concealing an enemies list of people and organizations targeted for disruption and retribution.*
The former is a “we report, you decide” moment; the second is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. Further support for this kind of dispositive dismissal of Fox’s defense comes from a couple of very recent media tempests, most notably the false claim that Fox was singled out for exclusion from an administration media event, credulously picked up by other media outlets.
But all of this is inferential. After all, it’s just possible, I suppose, that Fox’s pattern of talking points – driven coverage slanted in favor of one party and against the current administration is simply the result of meticulous news gathering producing the patterns presented as news on Fox.
So, given that a theme of this blog is that the point of understanding a bit about science is to help one think about what’s going on around us, I decided to see if I could find some empirical measures to test the claim that Fox is not truly a news gathering institution.
So, in my ongoing tribute to Warner Wolf, let’s go to the videotape (or teh Google, as we now all bow to the sovereign of the intertubes).
How can we determine whether or not Fox is a news organization? Let’s try a version of the what in arithmetic would be called the transitive property. If we can agree on the notion that some other entity nominally comparable to Fox or two are real news services, then we can see how well Fox matches up with them. If Fox and its competitors are recognizably similar as institutions, then we can say that just as if a = b and b= c, then a= c, Fox is a real news enterprise. If not, not.**
So let’s see, shall we?
According to Journalism.org’s latest review of the state of cable news, (from which most of the figures below have been drawn, unless othewise linked) Fox lags behind CNN and ahead of MSNBC in the raw calculation of budget for news — though with the major caveat that MSNBC uses the news-gathering apparatus of its sister organization, NBC News as its major source of journalism. In what follows I’ll focus on the CNN vs. Fox comparison almost exclusively.
CNN had in 2008 the highest budget of the cable nets, coming in at 686 million and change.
Fox’s total was 521 million and change: notably less, but still substantial.
CNN’s staff totaled about 4,000 last year.
Fox’s US staff was 1200, and while I could not readily find Fox’s overseas’ totals, these matter less than one might imagine, for reasons to be explained below.
For a broad comparison, NBC News’ staffing total, as of the most recent round of cuts, is somewhere in the neighborhood, probably slightly below 6,000.
So: in budget terms Fox is a competitor, though not the leader, but it’s staffing totals hint at a different story. Remember that news gathering is a labor intensive business — you need producers and associate producer/reporters to actually find out stuff that can make it on air — and the fact that Fox has one third the numbers of its rival CNN is suggestive.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the suggestion becomes a little more solid.
Back at Journalist.org, the budget totals get broken down into two broad categories: programming and general/administration. These aren’t terribly informative categories, but let’s just look at the breakdown.
Fox spends 2/3rds of its budget on programming, about 316 million, leaving only 156 million for everything else.
CNN flips that ratio, almost, spending 273 million on programming and 380 million on G/A.***
Why does this matter? Because, while it is difficult — impossible really — to get into the weeds of either CNN or Fox’s detailed spending priorities with this kind of top level numbers, broadly speaking, programming is not news gathering.
What it certainly covers is the cost of the on-air talent and the production of the stuff you see on screen. And the disparity in spending totals and staffing priorities reflected in the CNN vs. Fox comparison reveals both a lingering effect of the history of each network, and the blunt fact that Fox is in at least one crucial way different from CNN.
The history: CNN as it was first conceived and executed by Ted Turner and his team followed the strategy of emphasizing the brand and the product and not personalities. No one anchor or on-air personality was supposed to be seen as the face of the network; no one was to have the power of a Chronkite or a Jennings.
That’s changed, somewhat, obviously, with a prime time lineup including the likes of Wolf Blitzer, Lou Dobbs, and Larry King. These, however loathesome (and yes, I’m looking at you, Lou), are stars and are paid accordingly, costs attributed to the programming in CNN’s cost structure.
But the daytime lineup and the bulk of the news programming (as opposed to the talk/opining side of CNN), is not so personality driven, and the cost of on-air talent follows that relative (and deliberate) lack of star power. From 9-4 on weekdays, the net offers programming under a single title — “CNN Newsroom” — with multiple hosts, and a corresponding and house-culturally appropriate emphasis on the brand and the activity. Follow that up with three more hours of “The Situation Room” and precede it by three hours of “American Morning” and you get the idea.
Fox, by contrast, emphasizes its on air talent throughout its schedule. Fox shows with the names of the hosts attached start at 1 p.m. and continue with reruns through till the 6 a.m. debut of “Fox and Friends.” It’s signature hosts command formidable salaries. Bill O’Reilly, for example, is estimated to take in an approximate 10 million dollars a year under his latest Fox contract.
Whatever you think of O’Reilly, that is not an outlandish number by the outlandish standards of media star salaries. Contrast that with Jay Leno’s reported numbers at the end of his Tonight Show run: a cool 27 million; or perhaps a more direct comparison would be to Katie Couric’s salary of approximately 15 million.
But if O’Reilly’s take-home and that of his fellow Fox headliners is in line with the prices networks are willing to pay for ratings success and advertiser interest, such sums still put an enormous amount of pressure on the total budget for a news operation. Something has to give.
Just as one last illustration of the point. When NBC recently cut about 5 percent of its news division staff — 300 people, it tried to whack those least likely to affect its capacity to gather news. Dateline, a magazine program, got hammered — but the rest of the news division was to be left mostly alone. Expensive talent was let go to preserve producer jobs — and those producers are the front line journalists in TV news.
At Fox, by contrast, its budget priorities emphasize on-air vs the nuts and bolts of actually gathering news. This is where those staffing numbers begin to take shape. Why, with 70% of the budget does Fox only deploy on the order of 1/3 the staff CNN does?
Answer number one is what is already obvious in the disparity in the programming expenditures of the two nets: Fox has a more expansive on-air operation than CNN does. It relies on stars, and it has a very high standard (in cable terms) of production values on set — another expensive programming choice.
And the corollary of that is that the actual work of finding the news counts for less…with the confirmation coming directly from one of the few available direct measures of new gathering capacity, the number of bureaus a network supports.
Fox has been increasing its bureau coverage — as of 2008, it maintained 17 bureaus, up from 12 in 2007.
CNN, by contrast, staffs 46 bureaus, up ten from 2007.
Crucially, Fox maintains a risible international presence: just six overseas offices with none in Latin America or Africa, just one in Asia — and that Hong Kong, and not Beijing or Tokyo,or Delhi, or Islamabad –only one in the Middle East (Jerusalem, and not Baghdad or Tehran), to accompany the usual suspects in Europe — London, Paris, Rome and Moscow.
Even little, last place MSNBC does better, and CNN completely rolls up the pretender: five bureaus in Latin America, seven in Europe, including Istanbul, which geographically straddles the line between that continent and Asia, six in the Middle East…and you get the picture.
So, to wind this up. Is Fox News a news organization with sizzle? Or is it sizzle in drag as a journalistic operation.
And the answer is that with some exceptions, (I’m looking at you, Shep Smith) Fox is not a news producing organization. I wouldn’t call it talk radio either, pace the President.
Rather, Fox News is best understood as an entertainment service. The way it spends its money is the way that entertainment divisions of networks parcel out the bucks.
They pay for high-profile, highly rated on-air talent. They dress up that talent in the sets that look like a news operation — but then, so does Jon Stewart, so does Stephen Colbert, (hell, so did Lou Grant). They do hire some folks to dig up stories, and they broadcast their work in the quietest moments of the day…but that’s a relatively low cost trick to apply the costuming of news to an operation designed mostly to engage the emotions of their audience, and not to inform them — which is, of course, the classic dividing line (honored often in the breach, to be sure) between entertainment and news.
But when it gets down to where they actually put the bulk of its resources, Fox News behaves strikingly different from CNN and broadcast network news divisions.
They don’t put in the hours, the dollars or the people to do what they claim to do. They decide (what to cover)…but they do not report, at least with nothing like the level of effortof their competitors.
So, to the proposition that Fox News is not a news organization: it has been shown that Fox News differs substantially from CNN in its journalistic efforts.
As CNN generally regarded is a news organization, then the fact that Fox does not compare with its rival demonstrates that it is not a conventional journalistic operation.
That which to be proved has been demonstrated…or more briefly …
Update: There is, of course, a reason that Fox has opted for the entertainment model over the news organization approach. It works.
*Just in case you were wondering about what that distinction means in practice: Obama and his aides say they take extra precautions when dealing with Fox, viewing them as an advocacy outlet for their political opponents. Nixon’s men wanted to unleash the IRS (and CIA-trained burglers) on those that offended them. What part of that difference is hard to understand.
**And yes, I do understand that applying the transitive property to objects like news operations, putative or otherwise, contains pitfalls not found in arithmetic. Just havin’ some fun, y’all; don’t get too literal on me here.
***These numbers don’t match the above totals because they reflect the original budget plans for 2008, and the totals above reflect actual expenditures; I don’t have access to the updated breakdown, but the points that follow track the decision making of the networks, and these budget intentions contain the decision makers priorities.
Image: Norman Rockwell, “Fact & Fiction,” cover illustration for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, vol. 124, no. 3201, 11 January 1917