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Did Fox News Drive Santorum Out of the Race? | The Nation

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Ari Melber

Ari Melber

Law, politics, new media and beats, rhymes and life.

Did Fox News Drive Santorum Out of the Race?

Rick Santorum was the last (viable) man standing in the GOP primary, so his exit from the race marks the end of a primary season that has been varied but, for Republican voters and observers alike, rather unsatisfying. Still, Santorum was a superlative candidate in many ways.

He was probably the most ideologically extreme, the most consistent and clearly the most efficient—spending less than half as much money per delegate as Mitt Romney (a mismatch emphasized by The Nation’s Melissa Harris Perry). In a year of showmen and carnival barkers, Santorum also had one of the toughest relationships with the media, a crucial constituency in presidential politics.

Santorum was barely covered in the 2011 preseason, while the press lavished attention on Rick Perry (0 delegates), Herman Cain (0 delegates), Michelle Bachmann (0 delegates) and several non-candidates (Trump, Palin, Christie et al.). Reporters typically object that it’s hard to know whom to cover before voting begins, but Santorum’s path undermines that defense. He essentially tied for first in Iowa, the pivotal opening contest, and was the only candidate besides Romney who built a consistent following across the country. But most of the press continued to prioritize more interesting, less viable challengers, like Gingrich. It’s bad enough that the media focus more on the horse race than public policy—four times more this cycle, according to data released Tuesday by George Mason University—but it should try to get the horse race part right. And that doesn’t even count the elephant in the room.

Fox News is the most important information axis in Republican politics. Over half of Tea Party Republicans say it’s their “primary source” of news, according to Pew, and Fox also nursed a potential conflict of interest as the former employer of Santorum and Gingrich. The channel may not have loved Romney, but it gave him plenty of attention. Santorum, by contrast, was virtually shut out of coverage unless he was personally appearing on the channel. Last week, for example, the Columbia Journalism Review documented that Santorum was barely mentioned on Fox broadcasts throughout the entire day of programming. Why? Many speculated that Fox determined Romney was the most viable candidate to beat Obama, and it was time to get on with it.

Campaigns struggling with fundraising are especially reliant on “earned” media coverage, so Fox’s decision took a big bite out of Santorum’s momentum. Last month, he took the unusual step of publicly complaining that Romney had “Fox News shilling for him every day.” After Santorum’s exit on Tuesday, New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman reported that Fox has no interest in rehiring Santorum, partly based on that remark. If Fox does decline to rehire Santorum, despite his increased fame and relevance, the move would fit neatly with David Frum’s maxim that “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.” He should have added that it’s at-will employment.

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