The mainstream media’s fascination with Fox News is doubtless occasionally useful as a corrective to the cable network’s pernicious right-wing influence, but in the end this constant, often feverish attention may act more as an echo chamber that gives the we-report-you-decide brigade considerably more clout than it might otherwise achieve. Fox may have scored its one-hundredth consecutive month as the top cable news network recently, but that impressive-sounding run has given it a median viewership of only 2.13 million, in a nation of more than 250 million people over the age of 15. Even when you add in Fox’s snarly lineup of Bill O’Reilly (3.34 million average viewers), Sean Hannity (2.51 million), Glenn Beck (2.32 million) and Greta Van Susteren (1.98)—plus Hannity’s and Beck’s cumulative weekly radio audiences of 14 million and 9 million, respectively—the population’s direct exposure to the Fox den, given the inevitable overlaps, is at best 5 percent.
It’s the rest of the media, salivating over the red meat Fox News throws into the Beltway arena, that magnify the network’s hyper-conservative message, by making sure that tens of millions who might otherwise never encounter it do. The New York Times recently reported that Fox had become Jon Stewart’s regular punching bag. So far this year, the paper noted, the Daily Show host had devoted two dozen segments to deflating the claims of Rupert Murdoch’s retainers. This time, the peg was the repeated insinuations on the network’s morning show, Fox & Friends, that the crescent-shaped logo used at April’s nuclear security summit in Washington was an Islamic image. Outrageous? OK. Important? Not very. Yet the Times gave twenty-one paragraphs to shooting down the suggestion (The Daily Show checked with the White House, which said the logo was based on the Rutherford-Bohr model of the atom) and describing Stewart’s ongoing anti-Fox crusade.
Newspapers, magazines, radio and the web track Fox as if it were the Sixth Estate. Time magazine feels constrained to list TV’s top ten feuds, ranking Bill O’Reilly’s scraps with Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann at numbers three and four. O’Reilly mostly gives Olbermann the silent treatment, saving his denunciations for what he regards as MSNBC’s left-wing bias; Olbermann delights in hammering O’Reilly by name, often labeling him "Worst Person in the World." So important are these schoolyard antics that the media, mainstream and otherwise, gave wide play last year to efforts by Murdoch, whose News Corporation owns Fox, and Jeffrey Immelt, head of General Electric, MSNBC’s parent company, to curb their obstreperous fifth-graders. After a short stay in the principal’s office, both shouters returned to the status quo ante.
Even when dog bites man, it’s somehow news if a Fox star is involved. That Glenn Beck would be invited to offer his insights at the May commencement of Liberty University, the Jerry Falwell family’s fundamentalist Christian academy in Virginia, is about as surprising as Amen at the end of a hymn. But the story appeared on the Washington Post‘s "Breaking News Blog" and, as of this writing, produces more than 45,000 hits when you Google "Liberty University" with "Beck"—among them, for those who might be dozing in their pews, jesusneedsnewpr.et.
This reach no doubt pleases Roger Ailes, the former GOP operative who has guided Fox News since the mid-1990s and is himself a frequent matter of media inspection. When he took a pay cut this year of 21 percent, to $14.6 million annually, it was regarded as news by the Times, the Guardian and the Sydney Morning Herald. To Phil Griffin, Ailes’s counterpart at MSNBC, he is clearly worth it. "He’s changed media. Everybody does news differently because Roger’s changed the world," Griffin told the Chicago Tribune in May, a bit of intramural gush that quickly bounced about the blogosphere.
Journalists have always framed their universe by battening off one another, because it’s an easy, quick way to generate stories—and frequently sparks. Fox now casts the same kind of bait that Hearst and Pulitzer did in their circulation wars at the turn of the twentieth century, and even our more thoughtful publications find it hard to resist the yellow lures. On May 9 Frank Rich pounced on the network in his weekly Times column for routinely distorting the news to suit its political interest and "even politicizing the facts of nonpartisan existential threats" like the BP oil spill. Mark Lilla, a Columbia University professor of humanities, writing about the Tea Party in the May 27 issue of The New York Review of Books, warns that the demagogues at Fox News "scare the living daylights out of people by identifying a hidden enemy, then flatter them until they believe they have only one champion—the demagogue himself."
Rich is right, of course, and Lilla well may be, too, if a little hyperbolic. But by entering the ring with Fox News, they and the rest of the media daily help promulgate the network’s willfully false portrait of the political landscape. The nation may be tilting right these days, but the vast majority of voters are not, as Fox would have it and the MSM echo chamber often suggests, a hot-eyed amalgam of Tea Partyers, death panel believers, birthers, socialist bashers, Obama haters and Palin lovers. Rand Paul, darling of the Tea Party movement and a Fox poster boy, may have won the Republican nomination for the US Senate in Kentucky, but his 207,000 votes represent less than 7 percent of the state’s 2.8 million registered voters, and only 20 percent of registered Republicans.
The MSM should not ignore Fox News but instead take an e-page from snopes.com: chart the network’s more egregious distortions and hysterics periodically, set the record straight succinctly and move on to more challenging and instructive sources of news.