OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rupert Murdoch?

For those familiar with the source of the quotation, the Edward G Robinson crime melodrama Little Caesar (1931), the answer must be no. But are there now finally some chinks in the armour of one of the fastest-growing Murdoch media mainstays, the Fox News Channel in the United States?

In a word, yes. And the delicious part is, the wounds were self-inflicted.

For the longest time, advertisers and agencies have been transfixed at the rapid, unexpected ratings growth of Fox News, which competes against CNN (Cable News Network), the AOL Time Warner all-news cable channel that since its inception had been the ratings and ad sales leader.

Suddenly, it seems, Fox News - with its bombastic approach to news coverage, eschewing objectivity for a pugnaciously opinionated, flag-waving, right-of-centre world view modelled after in-your-face American talk-radio stations - has emerged as the leader in viewership and so-called "buzz", though still lagging in commercial revenues because CNN is still perceived as the leader in, for lack of a better word, class.

Fox News, mischievously promoted with the slogans "Fair and balanced" and "We report. You decide", seemingly could do no wrong, especially under the reign of George W Bush, as US popular opinion tilted rightward in the wake of 9/11. But as your Herman and the Hermits once so eloquently advised, "This door swings both ways", and the portal suddenly has hit Murdoch, Roger Ailes, the chairman and CEO of Fox News, and Bill O'Reilly, its star anchor, in their posteriors.

The delectable element of the turnabout-is-fair-play story, as chronicled by gleeful American news outlets looking for something to write about during the silly season of late summer, is how Fox News fell prey to someone who, truth be told, is on the fringe of the US media establishment. He is Al Franken, an author, satirist and TV personality - and neighbour of mine on Manhattan's Upper West Side - whose liberal viewpoint point has clashed repeatedly with O'Reilly's.

So when Franken prepared to publish his new book, facetiously titled Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (which featured unflattering portraits of O'Reilly, inside and on the cover), the Fox News star, who hosts the network's top-rated show The O'Reilly Factor, insisted, according to industry sources, that a suit be filed to prevent publication. To cut a long, embarrassing story short, a federal district court judge dismissed Fox's case, which improbably claimed that Franken, described as "shrill and unstable" and perhaps even "deranged", had violated a Fox News copyright on the phrase "Fair and balanced", in almost record time.

The judge ruled that the cable network's case was "wholly without merit, both factually and legally". That cleared the way for the book to be published, and the publicity generated by the court battle helped it climb almost instantly on the Amazon.com bestseller list from No.489 to No.1.

Will the loss prove a turning point in CNN's efforts to repel Fox News' attempts to steal away advertisers? Time will tell. But as Franken told The Washington Post: "A news organisation probably shouldn't be trying to suppress free speech." And even Madison Avenue understands a principled stand once in a while.

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