Thursday, April 7, 2011

As Beck Heads for the Fox Front Door

As I (and the rest of the planet) wrote about Wednesday, Glenn Beck will soon leave his Fox News show. There are some really good takes on this.  I'm partial to The Atlantic's version, which gives several reasons why it may have happened -- from Beck is too crazy even for Fox to his drop in ratings to fleeing advertisers to, well, Beck's gotta be Beck, and he'll do it better somewhere else. 

The latter, the personal branding argument, is a powerful one, but I'm going to come at this from its potential effect on the audience.  TV and radio talk shows tend to have a mixed audience.  There is the choir, the faithful getting preached at and who seek out the Becks of the world, on the left and on the right, to hear their opinions and predispositions echoed so they will feel good about themselves and their worldviews.  Then there are the curious, the political news junkies curious as to what "the other side" is up to, or to get ammo to make fun of them.  And finally there are the merely curious, the kind of people who not only slow down to oggle a traffic accident but who will actually get out of the car for a better view (yeah, that's me).

The political effects of such programming are not inconsequential.  Reaffirming beliefs, providing talking points to the faithful, those are significant effects and often watching or listening to this stuff pushes these folks even more to the extreme, and it tends to make them even less likely to entertain argument from the other side.  If indeed Beck went too far, we might take this as a good sign that even Fox has limits on its conservative brand.  But I suspect it's more a financial than journalistic decision, assuming Fox actually makes decisions based on journalistic ideals.

So what's the effect on real people?  I'd like to say the very worst hugger of invented historical conspiracy theories is gone, but his brand is powerful enough that he'll find a soapbox somewhere and an audience will follow.  What we're really seeing is an even further fragmentation of the media, in particular the conservative media, in which Fox might find itself marginalized into representing more of a mainline conservative viewpoint while a not-quite-but-kinda-like-Tea-Party-Conspiracy-Theory model will emerge elsewhere as a mild, but significant, challenge.

In other words, what's happening to the Republican Party is also happening to its primary information organ -- Fox News.

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