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Thursday, November 1, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

A Fox in the penthouse: Murdoch-style business news

Special to The Times

TV viewers recently got their first glimpse at business news, Rupert Murdoch style. There were few surprises. The new Fox Business Network is overseen by News Corp. President Roger Ailes, whose record as a bare-knuckled Republican strategist is inseparable from his tenure as head of Fox News Channel.

The launch of Fox Business Network looked eerily similar to Murdoch's entry into the world of cable news 11 years ago. When Ailes and Murdoch formally declared their business plan in January, Murdoch claimed the new channel will be "more business-friendly" than GE-owned CNBC, whose reporters "leap on every scandal."

Ailes echoed his boss: "Many times I've seen things on CNBC where they are not as friendly to corporations and profits as they should be." At Fox, he continued, "we don't get up every morning thinking business is bad."

Yet, one would be hard-pressed to find any evidence that CNBC is peddling some brand of Marxism. CNBC investment-advice shouter Jim Cramer recently declared the economy "fantastic ... very low inflation, great employment and fantastic profits. ... And the stock market's telling me that." Hardly a line out of the Communist Manifesto.

And, new CNBC star Erin Burnett has been praised by Rush Limbaugh for talking up the purported good news about the Bush economy — not to mention defending Chinese manufacturers using lead paint in kids' toys.

This strategy of bashing the competition should sound familiar. In 1996, Fox News Channel was launched as an attempt to counter a nonexistent liberal bias in the news media. Fox's slogans — "We Report, You Decide" and "Fair and Balanced" — were outrageously misleading, but the message they sent couldn't have been clearer: Those other media outlets are hostile to conservatives and Republicans.

The fact that Fox management could hardly offer evidence of this pervasive bias was almost a footnote — Ailes once claimed that weekly news magazines were biased against religion, since their coverage was "always a story that beats up on Jesus." Good luck finding any Jesus-bashing in Time or Newsweek.

The not-so-subtle partisan message was heard loud and clear on the right.

"Rupert Murdoch needs all of our support here, folks," Limbaugh announced on his short-lived Ailes-produced TV show, explaining that the media baron was launching Fox News because "CNN has drifted way too far to the left."

Fox Business Network, it would seem, is hardly straying from the right-wing playbook — business boosterism, issuing warnings about "big government" excesses, and so on. This shouldn't be a big shock, considering that Ailes and Fox News host Neil Cavuto are overseeing news coverage.

That would be the same Neil Cavuto who quipped during the 2004 presidential campaign that Osama bin Laden might be wearing a Kerry/Edwards button, and called New York Times columnist and well-respected Princeton economist Paul Krugman a "sanctimonious twit" before adding, "Now may I suggest you take your column and shove it?"

The partisan spin Cavuto can be expected to give to FBN's coverage is illustrated by his claim on Fox News Channel that 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry's naming John Edwards as his running mate caused an "Edwards Dip" in the stock market. Similarly, a Fox contributor claimed during the campaign that "as Kerry's numbers increase, the market seems to go down on almost a one-for-one correlation."

But pandering to the right didn't stop Fox News Channel from being a ratings success — at least in the relatively small pond of cable news — and with business viewers being an even smaller and arguably more conservative-leaning group, FBN could be a similar winner in its niche. This could tempt CNBC to try what CNN and MSNBC did when Fox began to hit them in the Nielsens — move to the right in a pathetic attempt to outfox Fox.

Since 1999, MSNBC pushed one right-wing pundit after another on its audience, including Oliver North, Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, Joe Scarborough and Tucker Carlson. Savage's bigotry proved too toxic for television, while the others were mostly ratings failures.

MSNBC pulled the plug on one attempt to counterprogram against Fox with progressive talk host Phil Donahue, with a network executive complaining that Donahue — then the network's top-rated personality — "delight[s] in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives." At CNN, management has allowed Lou Dobbs to pursue a brand of immigrant-bashing populism.

So, if Fox Business Network succeeds by slamming gloomy economic naysayers and preaching the sunny side of unemployment figures and trade deficits, expect its competitors to push even harder to keep pace.

As for the rest of us — who might like to see business journalism that took a critical look at Wall Street greed, corporate profits and the like — well, no one's found the money to start that channel yet.

Peter Hart is the activism coordinator at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) and author of "The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly" (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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