The in-your-face right-wing partisanship that marks Fox News Channel's news broadcasts is having two dangerous effects.
The first is that the popularity of the approach -- Fox is clobbering its direct competition (CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, etc.) -- leads other cable broadcasters to mimic it, which in turn debases the quality of the news available to that segment of the TV audience.
The second, far more dangerous, effect is that it threatens to destroy public confidence in all news.
The latter, I admit, is more fear than prediction, but let me tell you what produces that fear. Fox News Channel -- though the people who run the operation are at great pains to insist otherwise -- is deliberately partisan. It is as though right-wing talk radio has metastasized into cable and assumed a new virulence.
The main difference is that radio's Rush Limbaugh, for instance, doesn't pretend even-handedness. As he has said, he doesn't seek to be balanced but to balance the rest of the media, which he sees as generally dominated by left-of-center attitudes.
Part of the FNC approach, on the other hand, is to promote itself as "fair and balanced." I suppose it does so with a wink and a nod to its far-right audience, who must know it isn't balanced. Certainly those near the center of the political spectrum know it.
So why would I consider Fox such a generalized threat? Because I think the plan is not so much to convince the public that its particular view is correct but rather to sell the notion that what FNC presents is just another set of biases, no worse (and for some, a good deal better) than the biases that routinely drive the presentation of the news on ABC, CBS or NBC -- and, by extension, the major newspapers.
For the Foxidation process to work, it isn't necessary to convince Americans that the verbal ruffians who give FNC its crackle have a corner on the truth -- only that all of us in the news business are grinding our partisan axes all the time and that none of us deserves to be taken seriously as seekers of truth.
This is huge. As a friend remarked recently, time was when if you found it in the New York Times, that settled the bar bet and the other guy paid off. But if the Times and The Post or any other mainstream news outlet -- including the major networks -- come to be seen as the left-of-center counterparts of Fox News Channel, why would anyone accept them as authoritative sources of truth?
What is at risk is not a reputation for infallibility; everyone knows that even the best newspapers and most careful broadcasters make mistakes. But it has been generally accepted that the mainstream media at least try to get it right -- even when they too grudgingly acknowledge their errors after the fact.
What worries me is that journalism could become a battlefield of warring biases: I'll sock it to your guy, your party or your position on a public issue, and you'll sock it to mine. And we'll both believe we've done a good day's work. Come to think of it, a review of the stories on Social Security suggests that it is already happening to some extent. And one result is that you are less sure than you ought to be as to what the truth about Social Security really is.
Maybe I'm making too much of a small thing -- depicting FNC as a huge and menacing ogre when it's only an annoying little pest. A look at a recent week's ratings reveals that Fox News Channel was far from being the most watched among cable shows. It ranked behind the likes of TNT, Disney, USA, Spike TV and TBS for prime-time audiences and even lower for the total day. Its prime-time average of 1.1 million viewers was well behind CBS (12.4 million), NBC (8.3 million), ABC (9 million) and even the Fox broadcast network (9.4 million). Fox News Channel, I am saying, is not the toughest kid in the schoolyard, only the baddest kid in the particular sandbox of cable news.
Still, I'm worried that what is happening in that sandbox may wind up polluting the entire schoolyard. And no one, including the big kids of traditional journalism, seems sure what to do about it.