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john doyle: television

Almost lost in the cacophony of voices over the last few days was U.S. president Barack Obama's call for a moment of silence: "I call on Americans to observe a moment of silence to honour the innocent victims of the senseless tragedy in Tucson, Arizona, including those still fighting for their lives."

Now there's an idea - silence. It's one of those times when blunt meaning can be extrapolated from a politician's bland statement. In this case, maybe, it's "Everybody just shut up."

The disinclination of American politicians, pundits and all the wannabe politicians and pundits to actually shut up is, of course, the core issue in the wake of the horrific mass shooting in Arizona. The world is now awash in talk about "a climate of hate" and "inflammatory right-wing rhetoric" being either tangentially or directly responsible for the shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths of six others at a public political event in Tucson. All that talk is about the danger of talk. Much of it is nonsense, but some if it has the sting of rightful blame.

For some time now, the very core of the U.S. culture has been located at that place where politics and media meet. And where they meet is the all-news cable TV channel. As the news of the shootings sank in on Saturday, there was a numbness to the TV coverage - the reporting of the plain facts of what happened. Then the story evolved into something else. That happened as soon MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann took to the air to allege that Sarah Palin played a significant role in raising the volume of vitriol in the U.S. and to blame Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck of Fox News for the level of extremism in partisan political argument. As a result, this story is about television and its impact.

It's easy to suggest that the current situation - all that incessant hate and inflammatory finger-pointing - is what the Fox New Channel has wrought. It is easy because it is true. The fact that it is easily done doesn't make it any less true. What Fox News has sown is now being reaped.

The Fox New Channel arrived in the U.S. in 1996 and instantly ramped up the vitriol. It accused almost all other media of left-wing bias and presented its own clearly partisan coverage and punditry as "fair and balanced." It was mocked by liberals, but it succeeded in changing the media landscape in the U.S. All the other all-news channels reacted to the presence and ratings success of Fox.

Bill O'Reilly became its star pundit and the most influential fear-monger in the U.S. His blithe disregard for facts and casual use of insults set the standard. That's a fact. It's also a fact that when O'Reilly can reduce the most complex of political issue to what he calls a matter of "pinheads and patriots," as he does almost daily, the template for political coverage is set. And there are consequences. O'Reilly and his pinheads and patriots sloganeering style of TV news empowers every mildly mad, seriously mad or merely inarticulate, bitter American to spew unthinking rage in the most caustic terms. And thus, this is where the political debate and culture in the U.S. is now.

Here, by the way, is the opening of O'Reilly's recent book, called Pinheads and Patriots: "Hey, you! You, the American! You who believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This book is about you. No spin. In this age of Obama, all that you take for granted is changing, yet many Americans have no clue."

At the same time as blame can be laid at the door of Fox News, it is essential to recognize that the style of Fox News is a hit. The channel easily beats CNN and MSNBC in the ratings. So many American TV viewers get exactly what they want and enjoy on Fox News. So while blaming Fox we have to admit that the Fox News channel's success is rooted in Fox's intuitive recognition of the inherent aggressiveness of the American political culture, an aggressiveness that is itself anchored in a public that's fearful of change and hostile to opposing viewpoints.

A few years ago, when I wrote mockingly about Fox News and O'Reilly, I felt the full, Fox-style backlash. O'Reilly called me names on the air, several times, and referred to The Globe and Mail as a "far-left" newspaper. In a matter of days I received thousands of abusive e-mails from Fox News viewers. The language of insult was extraordinarily intense. This being Canada, and Fox News being unavailable here, nobody outside my readership was paying much attention. But The New York Times was, and it lavished a feature story on the battle. What I remember, apart from the white-hot hatred expressed by Fox viewers, was a New York Times editor telling me how important this story was - because it suggested that the Fox News viewers represented America itself to the world outside the U.S. It was just that, in this case, the world outside was me.

It has come to pass: Fox News does indeed define the U.S. political culture and the manner of debate inside that culture. It is to blame, but blame must be tempered by our understanding that Fox News is America and America is Fox News. There will be neither silence nor a change of tone until the Fox News Channel changes, or shuts up. That's not going to happen. Look at the ratings. The ratings don't lie.

Now I'm away to Los Angeles. Andrew Ryan will be in this space tomorrow. Back Thursday.