We deride Fox News Channel for saying "us" and "our" in talking about the American war effort, a strategy that conjures images of gung-ho anchor Shepard Smith, like Slim Pickens in "Dr. Strangelove," riding a Tomahawk straight into Baghdad.
And we deride the channel for the infamous and canny "we report; you decide" slogan, because, I learned all over again after watching five straight hours of Fox News earlier this week, there isn't, comparatively speaking, that much reporting, and because the channel's very point seems to be to reaffirm the opinions of people who have long since decided.
Picking at the efforts of the Fox News Channel is great sport these days among the nation's media critics, people like me who tend to use the royal "we" for the sake of a catchy lead paragraph.
This, the folks in the bunker at Fox would argue, is due to the rest of the media's liberal agenda, an agenda Fox News slyly re-alleges with every repetition of "fair and balanced" (the others aren't) and "we report; you decide" ("they" don't give you that chance).
A less calculatedly paranoid worldview would recognize that scrutiny is the price of success, of the channel becoming, in a sense, the Scud stud of this Persian Gulf conflict. Ratings during the war have confirmed that Roger Ailes' and Rupert Murdoch's upstart operation has become the clear leader in cable news popularity.
Even when the bombs started falling, viewers did not, as many had predicted, jump wholesale over to CNN, which made its name during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, in a time without cable competition, and which continues to have far more newsgathering resources than Fox.
Fox News has held the lead it built in peacetime by following its well-established and fairly simple recipe: dollops of news reported by comely anchors and correspondents tossed atop a main dish of attitude and argument led by charismatic and right-leaning hosts.
As important as the politics is the feeling of chumminess, the nicknames ("Shep") and frequent references to the Fox News enterprise that suggest a club into which like-minded viewers are invited. To the outsider, however, it can feel like spending time with a cranky uncle.
But it adds up to precision-targeted marketing, a smart bomb of a channel that speaks, alone among American TV news outlets, to those who want their news to resemble a Washington shout show and to include open sneering at, among other targets Tuesday afternoon, the New York Times, Europe, Turkey, the United Nations and, of course, the former and current military men who were questioning the U.S. battle plan and the media who reported on such questions.
A thorough job
It plays to the choir, often beautifully. It does not, however, offer the most thorough news presentation. In areas such as depth of coverage resources and quality of onscreen graphics, in most everything but ratings and a statistic I'll call OPM (opinions per minute), Fox News Channel clearly trails its rivals. It also continues, perplexingly, to use the distinctly small-time, borrowed-from-local-news label of "team coverage" for what could be called, simply, "coverage."
This is not a question of ideology. Yes, Fox might be said to be the American answer to Al Jazeera, seeking to put every nugget of information in the best possible American light.
But every U.S. TV news operation has shown pro-American bias during this conflict, taking most of what the Pentagon says at face value, for instance, and doing nothing to hide embedded reporters' sense of identification with their military units.
Cable rival MSNBC, like Fox, goes so far as to include a waving U.S. flag on its cluttered screen and to use the government's official "Operation Iraqi Freedom" as its blanket coverage title.
And NBC, after initially supporting contributor Peter Arnett in the controversy over his sycophantic comments to Iraqi TV, decided the next morning to cut him loose. With so much competition, no one wants to risk becoming the Dixie Chicks of television news.
Fox, of course, turns the patriotism dial up to 11, sticking the rabidly pro-service Oliver North in the field as an embedded "commentator," for instance. But the channel is, for the most part, honest about it, defending its patriotism frequently on air as the righteous stance.
Truth and support