Cable news network adept at tapping into deep-seated concerns

Networks cater to all kinds of demographics. But overlooked amid recent hand-wringing over racial politics and the separate debate over whether Fox News merited a front-row White House briefing room upgrade is the main ingredient in the channel’s stew: fear.

With Barack Obama’s election, Fox has carved out a near-exclusive TV niche, while having plenty of company in radio: catering to those agitated (consciously or otherwise) by having an African-American in the White House. Yet a broader secret of its success — preying upon anxiety in general — hasn’t really changed since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

As the original home of the “news alerts” (which usually aren’t alerting us to breaking news), Fox News under CEO Roger Ailes has been adept at tapping into deep-seated concerns. And in order to powerfully connect with core viewers, it’s not enough to disagree with President Obama’s policies; rather, they must be couched as an existential threat to U.S. society.

In this context, accusing FNC of race-baiting is an oversimplification. Yes, there has been a good deal of coded language to stoke misgivings about Obama being a “radical” and “socialist” — terms meant to resonate among those old enough to associate their use with extreme elements of the 1960s antiwar movement.

But that’s merely part of the fear factor that’s become crack cocaine to TV news, and FNC in particular. Whether Fox planned this or stumbled onto it — in the way programmers in the movie “Network” realized they had a hit on their hands after Howard Beale began shouting — is, at this point, immaterial to the discussion.

Is Glenn Beck a true believer or showman, a “rodeo clown,” as he once called himself? Either way, his voice has become the rallying cry around which Fox News is organized. And that drumbeat sounds like a slogan popularized by “The Fly” remake: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Thoughtful conservative commentators have cited the dangers in such overheated rhetoric. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum has become one of the most articulate, writing after passage of healthcare reform, “Conservative talkers on Fox and talkradiohad whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or — more exactly — with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?”

Frum added that talk hosts operate “responsibility-free” — playing a different game than Republican politicians, since perpetuating frustration and outrage boosts their ratings.

Beck premiered on FNC the month Obama was inaugurated, and it has been an ideal marriage. As talkradio host and Fox contributor Laura Ingraham recently conceded on “The Colbert Report,” the Obama administration has “been great” for her medium and for Fox News.

As threats go, terrorism isn’t in the headlines every day. On the other hand, transforming the President into America’s potential undoing — a kind of Manchurian candidate (maybe foreign-born?), determined to punish whites for past transgressions — has made fear an ever-present part of the daily menu.

For all the invectives hurled at Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in the three-cable-news-network era (which didn’t begin, unbelievably, until halfway through Clinton’s presidency), the most egregious attempts to delegitimize Obama are both distinct and not particularly subtle. The latest theme — illustrated by Fox’s crusade regarding the New Black Panther Party — hinges on fear of racial bias where whites are the aggrieved party.

As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted, Fox’s eagerness to “drive the media narrative … simply has no equivalent on the left.” Still, the most ruthless liberals — those more committed to partisan advantage than accuracy — have inevitably drawn lessons by observing, and will retaliate whenever Republicans regain power.

Since its inception, Fox has emulated the “If it bleeds, it leads” mindset of local news, garnishing its presentation with snazzier graphics and more urgent production values. The canny post-Sept. 11 adaptation has been, “If it scares, it airs.”

Race is just the latest and perhaps ugliest aspect of that equation. And despite debate over whether FNC deserved preferred positioning in the press room, in today’s media climate, it seems appropriate for the house that fear built to command a front-row seat.

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