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The Pro-War Media's Re-Positioning Problem

Gary North | September 7 2006

Fox News and the other pro-war media outlets are now facing the day of reckoning. The United States is slowly losing the war in Iraq. More important for the pro-war media, pro-war consumers of soap are becoming anti-war.

When a true believer switches sides on a major belief, he does not want to hear people spouting the belief that he has now abandoned. He wants to hear something else. Today, millions of Americans are abandoning faith in Bush's wars.

If those media broadcasters that openly defend this abandoned belief do not change, they will lose market share. People will simply stop listening. But, as I will show, they dare not change.

Johnny-one note broadcasters are especially vulnerable to changing audience tastes. They cannot change their note to match their audience's new preferences. This is bad for advertising revenues.

Because the Iraq war is the dominant issue politically today, the outwardly pro-Republican media cannot avoid it. Like the bums of the month in Joe Louis' era, they can run, but they cannot hide.

One by one, listeners will tune out. Maybe they will turn to satellite radio's ad-free niche-audience music. They will not tune in to Air America Radio, let alone All Things Considered. They will just stop listening to politics. They will turn off Rush Limbaugh's self-proclaimed EIB (Excellence in Broadcasting) network.

Day by day, the EIB network is rolling over IEDs.

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are cheap, low-tech, and unstoppable. They are not going to go away. Instead, we are going to go away.

Bush's wars are being visibly lost in the battlefield that counts: public opinion polls. This points to the next great battle: voting booths in November. If the Democrats re-capture the House, the investigations will begin. The Democrats will use the investigative power of Congress the way insurgents use IEDs.

Bush and his subordinates have been confined for over a year to giving their pro-war rally speeches inside American Legion halls, military bases, and the $1,000-per-plate rubber chicken Republican Party lecture circuit. They dare not appear in public to give their "stay the course" message. This was what Lyndon Johnson faced in 1967. He was gone in 1969.

EARLY RATINGS

In the early stages of any war, the Administration and its media cheerleaders have things easy. Once any nation enters a war, the public closes ranks. Critics of the war are frozen out, one way or another. There are the usual excuses: "We must support our troops." "Don't give comfort to the enemy." "We can't just cut and run." They are all some version of this one: "My country, right or wrong."

But if the war drags on, and there are no clear-cut victories, the voters reconsider. The cost of war rises. A fundamental law of economics then asserts itself: "When the cost of anything rises, less of it is demanded."

Simultaneously, the promised benefits of the war retreat into the distance. Another law of economics reasserts itself: "Future benefits are discounted compared to present benefits." There are no present benefits, except for the defense industry.

Costs today are rising relentlessly. Benefits are being pushed into the distant future relentlessly. We have passed the turning point. Estimating the cost-benefit ratio, voters have begun to cut and run.

Our troops will not be far behind.

POLITICAL REALITIES

This war is closely associated with the Republican Party. For three years, most Democrats in Congress have served as Gunga Din served in the movie. He was a faithful bugler in a loin cloth, always hoping to be promoted into the regular army. But, unlike Mr. Din, Democrats have watched from the political sidelines as the parading Republican troops marched into the political trap set by the natives in Iraq. They did not sound the alarm in 2003. Gunga Din sounded a warning in the movie, and he was shot to ribbons by the natives for his courage. The Democrats are now content to let the Republicans get shot to ribbons by the voters. Then they will announce the end of Bush's war and bring the troops home.

If they don't, then a New Model Army of Republicans will. There is this thing about getting shot to ribbons. Politicians prefer to have the troops shot to ribbons, not politicians.

The Administration has a policy of banning photos of caskets draped in flags. No such media ban exists for the political battlefield. The remains of those who fall on political battlefields are given front-page coverage. The victims don't even get caskets. When it comes to post-battle politics, we are treated to the equivalent of Matthew Brady's display of photos from the battlefields of Antietam.

Politicians like to think of themselves in a pose: right hand over their hearts, standing at attention beneath the flag. Far be it for me to challenge their degree of commitment to the flag. They revere the flag as it flies high above Capitol Hill. It shows which way the wind is blowing.

The voters have the right to change their minds. Politicians therefore have the right to change their minds. But Fox News doesn't get to change its collective mind. Neither does Rush Limbaugh.

RE-POSITIONING IS EXPENSIVE

Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and The Weekly Standard are all trapped on the battlefield. They are surrounded. They are outnumbered. They are praying for a replay of Rorke's Drift, but it is looking more like Isandlwana every day.

They staked their claim to leadership by following close behind George Bush. These days, this position of responsibility resembles a job at Disney World, where the kid with the rolling trash can trails the parade of elephants. These days, when Fox News gets a scoop, it's a really big scoop.

These people have defined themselves as supporters of Bush's wars. They did this self-consciously, and they gained high audience share for their efforts. This is called market positioning. Unlike political positioning – let alone political posturing – market positioning is almost impossible to switch after the market changes.

In marketing, this is called the USP: the Unique Selling Proposition. Once a company defines itself in terms of a particular benefit, it will lose market share if it attempts to switch. It builds its client base in terms of its USP. If it abandons its USP, it will be abandoned by its clients.

Here is the problem: It is extremely risky to switch if new potential clients want a different benefit. If the existing client base is committed to the old positioning, the company is unable to switch without suffering huge losses.

Consider Hillary Clinton's marketing dilemma. She is trying to re-position herself on the war in Iraq: from gung-ho to Gunga Din. Kerry tried this and lost. Now he has switched completely. Why not? He has nothing to lose at this point. Hillary has taken up Kerry's fallen flag, tattered as it is.

Here is the hope of hope of the Republican Party: she will not be able to make the switch successfully, but will get the nomination. Even better, Biden will get the nomination. This will help keep antiwar voters and "enough is enough" voters from having a significant choice. The Republicans can then run McCain, who will be in "discreet retreat" mode, and the Democrats will not be able to point the finger and say, "Flip-flopper!"

But for Fox News and the cheerleaders, this is a defeat. They ran up their ratings with pro-war rhetoric. Now they find that this rhetoric is about as safe as a tour bus in Baghdad.

If a Republican wins in 2008, and the pull-out begins in 2009, it will be a nightmare for the Foxes of this world. They will not be able to blame a Democrat for cutting and running. They will have to swallow the castor oil of a military pull-back. And, as it goes through their system, doing what castor oil does to the intestinal track, they will have to stand at attention in full public view as the flag goes by – away from Iraq. It will be a long parade. Think of the pain! Think of the squirming!

CONCLUSION

Inevitably, cheerleaders on one side in any game find themselves performing when the score is relentlessly increasing for the opposition.

The war in the Big Game in Iraq is an away game. The stands on the loser's side are starting to thin out.

Nevertheless, the cheerleaders must yell just as loudly in a losing effort as a winning effort. They must jump up and down with equal vigor as before. But their efforts have no effect on what is happening on the field.

Cheerleaders soon graduate and get on with life. Fox News will also get on with life.

The troops buried in their unphotographed caskets will not get on with life. For them, their Nielsen ratings will remain the same: zero. They are in a tie with tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. For all of them, this ratings war had high stakes. For politicians buying votes and broadcasters selling soap, it didn't.

I am glad that I was never a cheerleader for this war.

By the way, this does not make me a cheerleader for the other side.

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