Fox trounces CNN: cable news saga

April 18, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff

Crazy Like a Fox: The Inside Story of How Fox News Beat CNN, by Scott Collins. Portfolio. 256 pages. $24.95.

Let's give away the not-so-secret ending up front: The Fox News Channel is a ratings hit because it reflects the singular vision of Roger Ailes, its CEO and chairman.

Integrating quickly paced reports with opinion-heavy programming, Ailes serves a market populated by those disaffected by the so-called "liberal media elite" -- that shadowy quarry conjured up and denounced by such major-league Republicans as former Presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush. It is no accident that Ailes served as a media strategist for the presidential campaigns of both.

In Crazy Like a Fox, Scott Collins chronicles the rise of this new and unquestionably influential force on the media landscape. But his story is larger than that, touching on the evolution of CNN, for 15 years the only true entry in the cable news business and on the challenge posed by the 1996 births of cable news stations Fox News and MSNBC.

In retrospect, the greatest mystery is why MSNBC, the child of corporate parents General Electric (owner of NBC) and Microsoft, fared so poorly. Collins does a nice job explaining the conflicted corporate cultures involved in MSNBC's creation and sets the scene for the ensuing re-inventions that continue to this day.

Collins, a veteran of the Hollywood Reporter who now writes for the Los Angeles Times (which, like The Sun, is owned by the Tribune Co.), understands this world well. Crazy Like a Fox often proves to be an engaging and knowing book, propelled by some valuable insider interviews with such influential figures as former CNN Chairman Tom Johnson, NBC President and CEO Robert Wright, and, naturally, Ailes. However, the book skews perceptibly to the viewpoint of those who give the best access -- especially Ailes and Brian Lewis, his senior vice president for corporate communications. And the seams are visible when Collins relies upon others' clippings.

More seriously, this book presents itself as though it is the collected observations of an agnostic -- someone without a stake in the proceedings. In fact, Collins emerges, perhaps inadvertently, as a cheerleader for Fox's success simply because Fox has succeeded. Yet even in Collins' telling, Ailes and some of his senior aides come across as brawlers first and executives of a real news enterprise a distant second. I can say from personal experience that they are equally capable of deploying charm and bile to a degree currently unsurpassed in American media circles.

In thinking about cable news, the more interesting story actually involves what appears on the air. Fox News succeeds because it is flashy, noisy, boisterous and opinionated -- and because, on cable, you only need to win a large niche following rather than the broader audience required of the conventional networks. The talk on Fox News falls largely -- though not exclusively -- on the right side of the ledger. But it is so prevalent that it can blur the distinction between news and opinion. And that shift can mask what is a much thinner newsroom than CNN, which still has a stronger journalistic instinct. Does the news suffer in tone, context and depth? Does the rest of the media cover different stories -- or cover stories differently -- as a result of the influence of Fox?

Collins brushes against these issues without exploring them. Crazy Like a Fox yields a lively, anecdote-heavy account of how the cable news industry evolved, but gives little sense of what it means for the rest of us.

David Folkenflik covers media for The Sun. He has worked for the paper since 1994 and is a former Sun Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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