To the list of profound post-Sept. 11 changes that fizzled--bipartisanship, the death of irony--add the great sobering of cable news. Before the attacks, five-year-old Fox News was gaining on established rival CNN with an in-your-face, chatter-heavy lineup. CNN (like TIME, an AOL Time Warner property), which had long subscribed to the motto The News Is the Star, was shaking up its management and hiring star talent like anchor Paula Zahn--swiped from Fox amid much acrimony--to snazz up its often staid image. But the war made viewers want news, not shouting--old CNN-style news, with in-depth reports from far-flung correspondents.
Then normality broke out. By January, with the smoke clearing in Afghanistan, cable news was back to hockey-rage trials, Mike Tyson-biting scandals and the Sept. 10-era question, How do you grab viewers on slow news days? Fox, it turned out, had the most successful answer. Last month, for the first time, the network outdrew CNN in total-day viewers, despite being available in 9 million fewer homes. On the whole, its viewership was up 109% over the year (CNN countered that because its own audience grew 51% over the same period, Fox's gains did not come at its expense), while MSNBC lagged both considerably.
Detractors say Fox owes its success to conservative viewers drawn by rightist-skewed news. Fox says it simply provides a "fair and balanced" alternative to liberal-media bias. Either way, it would be naive not to see that the channel, home to a raft of conservative personalities like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, is a comfortable home for right-of-center viewers. But while it is tempting to see Fox's success in red America-vs.-blue America terms (i.e., Bush regions vs. Gore regions), there is as much a cultural as a political divide, manifest as much in Fox's look as in its talk. Watching Fox News is like sitting inside a very patriotic video game. Thundering martial drums play over a Jan. 28 George W. Bush speech as the phrase WORDS OF WAR flashes across the screen, then zooms at you with the swoosh! of an attack jet. This is not news packaged to impress blue-America TV critics; it's NASCAR with Pentagon briefings. Call it crass or pandering--if you get your news from Jim Lehrer, you probably call it both--but it says, viscerally, that the news is worth getting passionate about. And perhaps because of its love of a good fight, Fox seems to book further-left debate foils--for instance, Larry Holmes of Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, one of several World Economic Forum protesters appearing last week. (It also hired CNN host Greta Van Susteren, though her defense-attorney background may put off law-and-order conservatives.)
Fox News has done with general news what CNBC did with business news--treated it as ESPN treats sports, with conflict, a little jocularity, NFL-style graphics and rooting interests. Traditional, detached TV news tells you the news is interesting. Fox News tells you the news rocks. Thus the clubhouse, good-times atmosphere at Fox, from the towel-snapping, frat-house yuks of morning show Fox & Friends to the anchors who, after learning of Fox's ratings win, taunted CNN with the glee of a point guard who just sank a three.