On page C4 of last Tuesday’s New York Times is an article about MSNBC’s decision to fire right-wing talk show host Michael Savage.
Facing it, on C5, is an ad from Fox News Channel (search ), proclaiming that the network has now been number one in the all-news cable ratings for eighteen months in a row. And counting, as the ad says.
The two stories are interestingly related.
Imitation, it has been said, is the sincerest form of flattery. But in its attempt to imitate Fox by hiring Savage in the first place, MSNBC (search) demonstrated not flattery so much as ignorance, a complete misunderstanding of what it is that has made FNC number one for the past year and a half.
And MSNBC is not alone. Not just would-be imitators, but critics like Ken Auletta (search ), who wrote about Fox recently in The New Yorker with not the slightest intent to flatter, also show their misunderstanding.
There are many reasons for FNC’s success. One of them is that Fox gives time to more conservatives (search ) than do the other broadcast news outlets. But---and this is the salient point---Fox gives time to the right in addition to giving time to the left, not instead of giving time to the left. The men and women responsible for the network’s format were perceptive enough to realize that with 24 hours a day at their disposal, 168 hours a week, there is ample opportunity for all points of view, even including those to the right of conventional conservatism (search) and to the left of conventional liberalism (search).
Fox News Channel’s success, in other words, is the result of its breadth of perspectives, not their narrowness.
And, equally important, those who promote their views on Fox seldom do so in an insulting, verbally violent manner. Yes, there is disagreement. Yes, there is occasional contentiousness. Yes, there are even raised voices from time to time.
But there are no Michael Savages (search).
Savage, it has always seemed to me, is a simple-minded liberal’s notion of what a conservative really is; i.e., a hate-monger more than a believer in small government and individual initiative. (By the same token, Janeane Garofalo (search), in my view, is a simple-minded conservative’s notion of what a liberal really is; i.e., a shallow, do-gooding naysayer more than a believer in big government and its attendant social programs.)
But these are distinctions MSNBC seems not to have made. Rather, what network executives apparently did was reason as follows: If Fox is successful because it gives the right a hearing, we’ll go even further to the right and be even more successful. The hell with Dwight Eisenhower; we’ll get Attila the Hun!
The result was predictable. Savage’s program was a ratings disaster, beaten . . . well, savagely in the ratings by Fox and CNN. And last Saturday, the program’s taste sank even lower than its numbers.
A man, apparently a crank caller hoping to goad Savage, phoned in and said something that inspired the host to ask whether he was “one of those sodomists. Are you a sodomite?”
The man said yes.
To which Savage responded, “You should only get AIDS and die, you pig. How’s that?”
To which MSNBC responded by canceling Savage’s program, a decision which, according to a network official, “was not difficult.”
And so MSNBC, I would guess, has learned a valuable lesson. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but if you don’t understand precisely what it is that you’re imitating, you are not really flattering. And you’re certainly not succeeding.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT.