The media as observers and participants

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Politico's Ben Smith makes a good point about Fox -- and, indeed, all media:

The challenge to reporters is to cover Fox -- and, at times, MSNBC, and a range of print and online publications, and to a lesser degree every media outlet -- as the political actors they often are. …

And as the POLITICO article suggests, it's a story that will only get bigger as the 2012 Republican primary campaign ramps up. That's a campaign in which Fox News is just undoubtedly the single most important player -- it pays the candidates, and reaches the electorate. Its executives' and hosts' specific decisions will be crucial to deciding the nominee. Coverage that treats Fox as an observer, not a player, will miss much of the point.

One thing this means is that, contrary to the media's tendency to beat itself up for being too slow to chase after stories Fox (or Breitbart or The Weekly Standard, etc) is promoting, they should be extremely wary of such stories.

But the nakedly partisan and flagrantly dishonest tactics employed by the likes of Fox News aren't the only ways in which the line between observer and participant is blurred. There are far more subtle (and less nefarious) ways in which this happens.

News reports that speculate that a scandal "threatens" to dog a politician contribute to it doing so, whether or not it should do so on the merits. Speculation about how voters will react to a speech plays a role in shaping that reaction. The constant insistence that national security issues will benefit Republicans makes it more likely that they do so. Media who don't ask politicians about the views of executive power and the Constitution help ensure that the public doesn't think much about those issues. And so on.

Smith's point that reporters should treat Fox as a political player rather than merely an observer is spot-on. But they should also keep in mind that they aren't merely observers, either. The decisions they make about what to cover help determine what politicians and voters talk and think about. Their speculation about how an event "plays" politically helps shape how it plays. There's no way for them to avoid that -- but it's important that they be aware of it.

Fox News Channel
Ben Smith
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