Fox News makes an anti-Obama attack ad: How production value impacts perception

Take a moment to watch this video:

Entitled “Four Years of Hope and Change,” you get dramatic visuals and music – a greatest hits of Barack Obama’s first term as president. Well, if you didn’t like the guy, anyway.

The facts seem to be fine from a cursory glance. It would be an excellent creation of the Romney campaign or some political action committee. Thing is, it wasn’t a creation of a blatant activist group. It was produced by Fox News and ran multiple times Wednesday on its morning infotainment program Fox & Friends.

Liberals freaked out. Media Matters for America has roughly 12 different headlines about the “ad” on their website today. The Huffington Post has been on it since this morning.

Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik matched hyperbole-for-hyperbole, calling the hosts “witless,” the network “rotten to the core,” and the video itself “resembl[ing] propaganda films from 1930’s Europe.”

Fine. Partisans are going to see things in the light that favors their position. But when conservatives complain about the video, you’ve got to pay a little more attention.

Ed Morrissey, purveyor of the conservative blog HotAir, thought out-loud about a news organization making what is essentially a political attack advertisement:

I don’t disagree with much, if anything, in this video presented earlier today on Fox & Friends.  Neither, I suspect, will many of our readers.  But does this make anyone uncomfortable at all in regard to its source?

Should a news organization produce and publish attack ads like this?  I know the initial response will be that other news organizations offer biased perspectives and hagiographies of Obama that go well beyond a single video … and that response is entirely valid.  However, we usually criticize that kind of behavior with other news organizations, too.  If anyone wanted to look for evidence that the overall Fox News organization intends to campaign against Obama rather than cover the campaign, this video would be difficult to refute as evidence for that claim.

For the record, Morrissey’s thoughts have been met largely with disagreement from his website’s readers.

Fox News responded later in the day, removing the link from their main news page (though it still exists elsewhere on the website, and was still highlighted on the call-to-arms-like Fox Nation page Wednesday afternoon). The brass at the news network was unaware of the piece prior to its airing, a Fox News spokeswoman told members of the media.

The video’s airing just one day after Mitt Romney mathematically clinched the Republican primary has fueled speculation that Fox is preparing for an election season geared more toward getting one man elected than reporting the news. But that would seem counter to the recent repositioning efforts of Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes.

In a read-worthy feature for Newsweek in the latter part of 2011, Ailes told Howard Kurtz about a “course correction,” a step back from extreme right-wing rhetoric, evidenced by the parting of ways with Glenn Beck, the mellowing of Bill O’Reilly, and the promotional emphasis on news teams headed by Shepard Smith, Chris Wallace, and Bret Baier – branded as “The Journalists of Fox News.”

There’s little question – the video was not journalism. But was Fox out of step to air it?

Fox & Friends is perhaps the trickiest of all Fox News programs to label. A morning show with soft stories and opinionated personalities, but also with a decent dose of hard news. Would it have been better to air on Hannity, for instance?

Or are we getting in a fuss over production value? The informational content of the video was nothing you wouldn’t hear a conservative commentator share on a normal day of cable news programming. Did music and imagery turn it sinister? Isn’t something readily recognizable as propaganda better than something spread under the guise of “news”?

These are interesting questions, because it seems that production value is the entire reason for the backlash. Perhaps we feel like there was more time put in to it; more thought put into the impact of the message; more opportunity for a gatekeeper to edit or pull the package. Perhaps we trick ourselves into thinking a pre-recorded clip is more planned than a live exchange of talking points. Perhaps we deceive ourselves and belief such an overt attempt at persuasion is more effective then subtlety (despite a foundation of research that would suggest otherwise).

Perhaps we media observers are just shocked that a news organization would be so blatant.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be.

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