Behind the Scenes at Fox News, Purveyor of Reality TV

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Before the last GOP debate, the network's staffers plotted to created the sort of contrived conflict better suited to the Real Housewives of DC than the race for the White House

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What do Fox News anchors do just before they moderate a presidential debate? Thanks to Howard Kurtz, the tireless media reporter and critic, we now know the answer. "Hours before last week's presidential debate in Orlando," he writes, the anchors "sat in a cavernous back room, hunched over laptops, and plotted how to trap the candidates. Chris Wallace said he would aim squarely at Rick Perry's weakness: 'How do you feel about being criticized by some of your rivals as being too soft on illegal immigration? Then I go to Rick Santorum: is Perry too soft?'"

Those are bad questions. Why put the emphasis on how Gov. Perry feels, an irrelevance if ever there was one? Why prompt his rival with a phrase as uselessly vague and reductive as "too soft"?

Bill Sammon, managing editor of Fox News, was on hand to critique his staffers, and pronounced his approval, saying, "That's going to get some fireworks going." No surprise that generating conflict is an aim shared all the way up the hierarchy. Along with ratings, it's the driving obsession of almost all cable news pros. But if broadcasters must make substance subservient to "fireworks" I wish they'd produce better explosions. How does Gov. Perry feel about being criticized? "Well, I feel pretty normal getting criticized by these folks," he answered.

Ooooh! Ahhhhh! Those fireworks are as dazzling as what Mayor Bloomberg would produce if forced to sell sparklers in Times Square.

Kurtz proceeds to argue that the Fox strategy is an unqualified success. "With the debates, Fox has created a reality-TV show, with the built-in combat needed to win viewers," he writes. "It's working -- Thursday night's showdown was the best-watched debate of the year thus far." That's a dubious conclusion. There are all sorts of reasons (the end of summer, proximity to the elections, change in format and co-sponsors) that successive debates have drawn higher ratings.

More importantly, the most likely effect of stoking typical cable news conflict is an increase in viewership among political junkies and the continued alienation of normal Americans, by which I mean folks who would like to be better informed about presidential candidates, but are put off rather than drawn in by the political press, especially when it goes into reality-TV style combat mode. Is it really a surprise that Americans are disgusted when their prospective leaders are questioned and baited as if they're on The Real Housewives of Washington DC? The business press ought to remark upon the success Roger Ailes has had generating profits at Fox News. He is a fantastically accomplished corporate leader, and Kurtz's report helps us understand why.

But media critics and the political press ought to judge the network's success by other metrics too: the quality of its programming, for example, or its effects on public discourse and civic knowledge. Like CNN and NBC, other recent debate hosts, it fails at producing quality presidential primary debates. 

What I'd like to see from future debate sponsor are more attempts to elicit from candidates statements that they wouldn't otherwise make. The GOP primary is going to be rife with criticism of Rick Perry's immigration record, and defenses of it, whether moderators bring up the issue or not. In general, organizing debate questions around criticisms candidates are already making of one another guarantees that the particular conflict being generated is substantively redundant: it's satisfying in that depraved reality TV show way to see people criticizing each other to their faces, but elicits no new information, a traditional goal of journalists.

Better to pose questions voters would like to hear answered that haven't come up in the campaign, because their rivals don't have an interest in picking that particular fight. There's no reason such questions can't also stoke on-stage conflict. The payoff would just require more effort, creativity and thoughtfulness than we're used to from our cable news anchors, whose jobs ought to be more demanding than reality television hosts, but aren't because too many of us content ourselves to judge them by a single reductive metric: the television ratings they generate.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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