Fox cries wolf

Murdoch web accuses Time Warner Cable of playing its own game

In its recent dispute with Time Warner Cable, Fox, on its website, accused the cable operator of waging a campaign that “masquerades as a grass-roots effort to enlist viewer participation.”

News Corp. certainly should recognize the tactic, having all but invented it — seeking to draft the public as an ally in otherwise arcane business disagreements or, better yet, helping cloak a corporate agenda as populist outrage.

Fox’s parent has developed a pretty good business covering politics, and appears to relish injecting politics into business. The company’s faith in this strategy is intriguing, since the general reaction to most intra-showbiz squabbles is a pox on both their houses.

Fox and Time Warner’s jockeying over retransmission payments — settled at the eleventh hour, following a colorful volley of ads and harsh rhetoric — is only the latest situation where Rupert Murdoch’s empire has contributed to publicly ventilating contractual matters once settled in smoke-filled rooms. This particular skirmish garnered more attention than any I can remember, perhaps because Fox floated the prospect of blacked-out college bowl games and (gasp) “American Idol” as a cudgel — a galvanizing threat thanks in part to slow news days on cable, where pop culture provides a nice change of pace from underwear terrorism.

While such exchanges are fairly common in cable-carriage standoffs, News Corp. has sought to employ shame or fear of losing customers as a leverage-gaining tool against corporate combatants before.

The most blatant example occurred a half-dozen years ago, when the company bankrolled an entity dubbed the Don’t Count Us Out Coalition — essentially a front group that used minority lobbying organizations as cover for News Corp.’s business-related concern about Nielsen Media Research’s switch to local peoplemeters.

The danger was that the new methodology would reduce ratings for minority viewers — thus depressing revenues for Fox’s major-market stations, which disproportionately appeal to the large minority populations in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Hiding behind a rainbow coalition, Fox effectively snookered various liberal politicians — including then-New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Rev. Al Sharpton — into advancing the company’s cause by urging Nielsen to postpone the rollout.

With the News-owned New York Post helping sound the drumbeat as well, “It was relatively easy for Fox to shape the story to suit its purposes,” as an analysis by media-research firm Carat Insight noted, headlined “Fox Fights Dirty.”

Under Roger Ailes’ leadership, Fox News Channel also long has operated much like a political campaign, which includes dispensing with the false pleasantries and civility that are so common in the media industry — where nobody is fired, as displaced executives segue to “independent production deals” or spending more time with their families.

By contrast, FNC’s PR team bluntly (and entertainingly) impugns rival talent for registering dismal ratings and dismisses competing executives as failures, fabulists and loons. This pugilistic posture — often capped off by the mock-sincere line, “We wish him well” — prompted NPR’s David Folkenflik to observe a few years ago, “Fox News has the brawling instincts of a Chicago ward heeler and the vocabulary of a London tabloid headline writer. No rival in the media world comes close.”

Still, Fox News appeared to cross a new threshold of activism with Glenn Beck’s arrival and the channel-wide embrace of the “tea party” movement — where the coverage often lapped over from chief chronicler into (literally, in at least one instance) orchestrating cheerleader. Protest leaders and attendees returned the favor by brandishing signs that tout FNC as the only “fair and balanced” source for news.

Fox can hardly be blamed for creativity in aggressively pursuing its corporate interests — though there’s certainly a raw stench of cynicism in the underlying belief that third parties can be manipulated into taking sides and carrying its banner.

The bottom line is that Murdoch’s stewardship of News Corp. has long been characterized by a philosophy best summarized in the 1987 version of “The Untouchables” — namely, never be caught bringing a knife to a gunfight.

It’s too early to determine whether that game plan actually benefited the company during the Time Warner brouhaha. As for News Corp.’s apparent commitment to capitalizing on the public’s gullibility, we wish them well.

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