FNC coyly plays the role of underdog and conqueror

Hail Fox News Channel, the conquering victim.

No, you read that right. Fox celebrated its 10th anniversary a few days shy of the Oct. 7 sign-on with a splashy soiree in New York. The hors d’oeuvres included an unusual amount of red meat (for the conservative base?), and that element of playful banter bordering on pettiness that makes the News Corp. channel such great copy, if not beloved among its media peers.

Rupert Murdoch’s cable network dominates its news/information/pontification niche, and chief Roger Ailes couldn’t resist chiding journalists for doubting its prospects (Fox again excerpted quotes predicting the channel’s doom) and thumbing his nose at elder CNN, which was alone in the category when Fox made its debut.

“Now,” he told the gathering of Fox News talent and politicos, “there’s only one channel, and we have no competition.”

Fox is girding to extract higher subscriber fees from cable operators, playing its usual brand of hardball there as well. Somehow, though, amid these triumphs, the Fox “News Alert” about Fox would read something like, “NETWORK UNDER SIEGE?”

Nobody exemplifies the oversized chip on Fox’s shoulder better than its biggest star, Bill O’Reilly, who, when not plugging his latest book, devotes an absurd amount of time to “attacks” against him by obscure columnists and Internet sites that he labels “smear merchants.” Even for a populist hero, it’s the equivalent of Gulliver stomping around on Lilliputians.

Beyond O’Reilly, Fox News relishes brickbats hurled its way by the “media elite,” which the channel uses to bolster its bona fides with conservatives. If they hate us, the theory goes, we must be doing something right.

The latest coup involved former President Clinton’s animated exchange with “Sunday” host Chris Wallace — an episode Ailes coyly characterized to Associated Press as “an assault on all journalists.” Ailes’ gift for hyperbole is matched only by his talent at understatement, such as his reference to Fox as a “little cable channel.”

Fox is much more than that, having tapped into disenchantment with traditional news outlets to vault past CNN and ahead of fellow 10-year-old MSNBC, which sorely lacks the consistency of purpose, management or vision that Ailes has provided.

Yet Fox’s success, and that of its close cousin conservative talkradio, has come at a price.

Conservatives say Fox News simply filled a niche, venting right-of-center voices that weren’t heard in the liberally biased mainstream media. By skewing its news posture right, however, the result has been that both sides of the spectrum deride the fundamental notion of objective reporting, dismissing information that doesn’t conform to their particular view of (or spin on) events.

Nor do only left-leaning Fox bashers decry this consequence. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, conservative writer Peggy Noonan lamented how those engaged in the debate today are “talking past each other,” adding that while alternative media have eroded bias, standards have fallen, too.

Political combatants thus suffer from an inability to agree on basic facts, making the tenor of their discourse that much more vitriolic. It’s an environment well suited to Fox’s general bravado — the sizzle, attitude and enhanced graphics that the company brought to sports — but it tends to entertain more than enlighten. (That showmanship is the most frequently overlooked ingredient, by the way, in Ailes’ hearty, patriotic stew, which owes much to the hyper-kinetic “Eyewitness News” style that ABC’s stations perfected in the 1970s and ’80s.)

The question is where Fox — and indeed, the cable news sector — goes from here. CNN has bet the farm on Anderson Cooper’s boyish charm, while MSNBC has stumbled into a voice of its own in Keith Olbermann — a wry, articulate counterweight to O’Reilly who, with his purposeful needling of the Fox titan, has clearly gotten under his translucent skin.

Yet the NBC-owned channel hasn’t embraced the next logical step — namely, building around Olbermann to create a brazenly left-leaning Fox competitor for those who fear the corporate-owned “mainstream media” buttress and protect established interests. Alas, that would mean implementing yet another directional shift at a news operation whose history resembles the flight path of a hummingbird.

At last week’s event, Ailes said he wants Fox to revive its startup attitude in approaching the next decade.

Whatever lies ahead, though, this much is clear: Fox, the boisterous bully, makes an unconvincing underdog.

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