The great news divide *

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At best, Tim Rutten writes in today's Regarding Media column, 2004 will be the year of living dangerously for the news media. If they are not so lucky, it will be the year that "journalism's slide back into partisanship became a kind of free fall." A snippet:

Its slogan notwithstanding, Fox News is the most blatantly biased major American news organization since the era of yellow journalism. But by turning itself into a 24-hour cycle of chat shows linked by just enough snippets of news to keep the argument going, Fox has made itself the most watched of the cable networks. One American in four now is a regular viewer.

Fox's winning formula is essentially the continuation of talk radio by other means: All opinions are shouted, and contrary views are admitted only if they agree to come on camera dressed as straw men. To anyone prone to twist the AM dial on the car radio, it's a familiar caldron, a witches' brew of rancor, sneers and resentment stirred for maximum distortion.

A certain number of people find this brew entertaining — much, one supposes, as others do bull baiting or cockfighting. The problem is that since it is popular within the relatively small universe of cable news viewers — the medium's most popular show actually has an audience about the size of a good metropolitan newspaper — and because it's cheap to put on the air, the other two networks are attracted to the model.

He takes some solace in knowing that during the Depression, "the pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic radio priest Father Charles Coughlin had an audience twice that of the popular [Rush] Limbaugh. At the time, the country's population was half what it is today, and there were no portable radios and only a handful in cars."

* Add: Romenesko plays the column as the latest volley in the Times-Fox "feud." Some earlier items on that here, here, here and here — and of course it all started here with the full text and elaboration here, unless you count last year when Bill O'Reilly misread Times editor John Carroll's memo railing against liberal bias.


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