After a decade of phenomenal ratings growth, America’s leading conservative media brand faces a crisis of ideological identity
Recent headlines about Fox News have given liberals gleeful Schadenfreude: Dick “Landslide” Morris, gone. Ratings the lowest in since 2001. Roger Ailes practicing the kind of pre-emptive paranoia (buying up the domains for bizarre iterations of a biographer’s name) that inevitably accompanies Nixonian delusions of infallibility and hubristic defeat.
To be sure, the departure of Sarah Palin generated a certain degree of wistful nostalgia: she was a bouffanted, bedazzled punching bag as much as she was a folksy aphorism-mangler, as well as a black hole for dropped “g’s” and common sense.
Some observers have taken these events as proof of the ongoing GOP implosion and signals of their devolution from opposition party to regional grandstanders and designated spoilers. This theme has been echoing ever since the channel’s election night coverage unfolded as an action movie-level collision between reality and Karl Rove’s ample and admittedly daunting forehead.
But such prognostications suffer from buying into the logic that has until now been a part of the formula that made Fox such an overwhelming success: Fox = Republican party. The network’s rating grew an astounding 570% from 1999 to 2009.
The marriage between the network and the party has been almost entirely beneficial to both entities. Working together – brazenly, even explicitly so – has been a force multiplier for the GOP brand and message. It’s not really a surprise that as the linked swimmers have started to go against the current of history, their connection puts them both at risk of drowning.
On the surface, the question appears to be: who will let go first? Jettisoning Morris and Palin suggests that Fox is loosening its grip and attempting to edge away from the Tea Party-based ideological rigor that weighed down the GOP in 2012. But almost simultaneously, Republicans have been speaking publicly about breaking away from their dependence on the network. As one strategist told Buzzfeed:
“Fox is great. But those viewers already agree with us … How else are different demographics going to get to know you if you never reach out to them?”
No matter who may be trying to end the marriage first, extricating themselves from the relationship won’t be graceful: the habits of mental cohabitation are too difficult to break. Witness the coverage of Benghazi, where conservative outrage on the channel remains strident and forceful and in harmony with Republican officials, despite the willingness of most of the country to move on to matters closer to home. It’s a positive feedback loop that spirals into irrelevance: Republicans pursue a conspiracy that only Fox viewers believe, based on reports only Fox airs, and new information gets hammered into a shape that fits the existing narrative.
And then, there are topics such as Obama’s reliance on drone strikes. Here, libertarians and Obama opponents might find common cause with liberal civil rights activists, but the network’s coverage is hamstrung by its Republican-led Obamacentric myopia. Rather than attack the notion of drone strikes on American citizens as in and of itself an alarming escalation in the always-suspect “war on terror”, Sean Hannity and other hosts decry “Democrat hypocrisy” on the matter. Here’s Hannity a colorful, typical outburst:
“Democrats, specifically Barack Obama, spent the first four years of his presidency literally just butchering George Bush day in and day out. Remember Gitmo and the vicious attacks the left hurled at Republicans? Well, it sure seems as if the shoe is now on the other foot when word of a confidential Justice Department memo leaked out that concludes that the US government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be ‘senior operational leaders’ of al-Qaida or ‘an associated force’.”
I can assure Sean that there are some liberals who have carried their protests against Bush’s policies (if not their “literal butchering” of him) right through to protests against Obama’s expansion of them. I share a masthead with one! There’s another who has the show opposite you on MSNBC. She’s probably not available to go on your show, granted, but booking one of the 24 congressional Democrats who’ve protested the administration policy might pay off with an expanded group of allies, if not viewership.
That is, if Hannity’s and the other Fox personalities’ rather sudden interest in extra-judicial executions stemmed from a genuine concern about civil rights issues and not blind rage at the ascension of a popular Democratic president, and at the movement of the country leftward at the same pace and with the same apparent inevitability as continental drift.
This rage unites Fox and the Republicans more firmly than any conscious strategy and lies at the heart of the problem facing them both: it’s not that they work together so much as they have the same goals. To be sure, Ailes has always been conscious of ratings and he’s a businessman at his core, but the ratings have been so good for so long that ideology has animated decisions about programming. This applies not just to Fox, but to an entire industry of self-consciously conservative news outlets whose allegiance to the same set of ideas is undoing their worth as both news outlets and party platforms.
When we think of conservative media, Fox has so dominated that it is a synecdoche for the enterprise – an attitude that extends to outlets that properly should be competitors. Bloggers and radio talk show hosts, emerging properties such as the Daily Caller and Breitbart, take their cues from and feed themselves Fox. Working not just in ideological concert but even in an institutionally orchestrated manner (remember the big Caller scoop about Obama’s “other race” speech?), they dilute their individual credibility even as they successfully propagate the message.
There is such a thing as liberal bias in the mainstream media, but it has a different expression – it is less of a concerted effort – because there is something spooky and conspiratorial about the way conservatives regard the very idea of media, and perhaps information more broadly: it is not a neutral element, ever. Everything is evidence for or against an idea. And because there is broad agreement on what ideas are best, there is no incentive to compete in a marketplace of ideas and no comprehension of why that might be necessary and useful.
This socialist paradise is falling apart.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013