The trend was kicked off by the clearly Republican tilt of the Fox News Channel, the cable TV network owned by Rupert Murdoch that proclaims it is "fair and balanced" - as fair as James Murdoch's ascension at BSkyB and as balanced as Paris Hilton's chequebook. As CNN, the Time Warner cable network that deems itself to be scrupulously neutral, lost its lead in the ratings to Fox News, the media powers-that-be thought it may be time to abandon traditional policies against shading reportage to favour one party or philosophy over another.
The pronounced shift to the right is symbolised by the growing power of conservatives throughout the media, building on decades-long efforts by scores of right-of-centre newspaper columnists. There are puissant "talk radio" chatshow hosts on local stations and national networks; writers for publications such as the Weekly Standard, also bankrolled by papa Murdoch, and the New York Sun; and influential opinionmeisters on cable channels including Bill O'Reilly, Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. And their ranks are growing; for instance, the comedian Dennis Miller, a self-proclaimed "big Bush fan", is getting his own show next month on the CNBC cable network.
Suddenly, leftists, liberals and Democrats (if that is not redundant), who have long counted on the media's impartiality to balance the conservatives, are concerned. So they are rushing to counter the Rush Limbaughs and other stalwarts of the right. A group of investors led by Al Gore is hoping to buy the Newsworld International cable network from Vivendi Universal Entertainment, converting it into a channel they say would not be liberal per se but rather appeal to young, hipper viewers. And a consortium of Democratic investors is closing in on a deal to acquire radio stations in major markets such as Los Angeles and New York to form a liberal talk radio network.
"Some pundits say the politicisation of American news - opinion becoming more visible than headlines, politicos starting news outfits - means we are moving toward a 'European' model of media, in which newspapers and news programmes are openly left- or right-wing," James Poniewozik wrote in a recent issue of Time magazine. He doubts that will happen, mostly because Americans "feel this is wrong, cynical, corruptly 'Old World'".
Mostly, though, it's being impeded, for now, by the fact that, as Advertising Age reported on the Gore plans, advertisers are "wary of plunking down ads on a network aligned with a particular political party". They're fearful of alienating the consumers who belong to other parties, or no party at all. That's why CNN, though trailing Fox News in the ratings, maintains a substantial lead in ad revenues. Marketers are reluctant to be perceived as backing Republican and/or conservative values even when they control the federal government. If that ever changes, there'd be a whole new meaning to straplines such as Diet Pepsi's: "You got the right one baby, uh-huh!"