(Giacinta Pace/NBC NewsWire via AP Images)
In the annals of Fox News, October 2012 will likely stand out as a shining moment. Buoyed by a wave of Republican optimism about Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, the network seemed tantalizingly close to realizing one of its key ideological goals: ousting President Obama from the White House. Renewed enthusiasm among conservatives was, in turn, triggering record-high ratings for much of the network's programming and helping it to beat not just rival news competitors MSNBC and CNN during prime time, but every other TV channel on the cable dial. What's more, the prospect of an ascendant GOP come January meant Fox News might soon return to the era of access and prestige it enjoyed in Washington during the presidency of George W. Bush. The future looked so bright that News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch signed Fox News president Roger Ailes to a lucrative four-year contract extension, even though the 72-year-old Ailes's existing contract wasn't due to expire until 2013.
Then November arrived, and with it reality.
Fox News's shellshocked election night coverage, punctuated by Karl Rove's surreal meltdown upon hearing of Obama's victory in Ohio and, thus, the election, capped off a historic day of reckoning for the network and conservatives alike. Chastened by defeat, Republican politicians and right-wing pundits have subsequently been grappling with the repercussions of the caustic tone and incendiary rhetoric their movement has adopted. This ongoing debate about whether broadening conservatism's appeal requires new messages or just new messaging has ignored the 800-pound gorilla in the room, however. Noticeably absent from all the right wing's public self-criticism is any interest in confronting the potent role played by the Republican Party's single most important messenger, Fox News.
Standing at the epicenter of the network—and any new Republican Party groundswell—is Ailes. A former political operative of President Richard Nixon, Ailes has inextricably intertwined his professional and political pursuits since founding Fox News in 1996. Indeed, the network chief functions as a kind of proxy kingmaker within the party, frequently meeting with Republican politicians to offer strategic advice. He is a regular confidant of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, and at various times, he (or a network emissary of his) has counseled 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Gen. David Petraeus on their potential future. "Ailes," says former Reagan White House economic adviser Bruce Bartlett, "is quite open about offering his free advice to Republicans…. If you visit New York City, you go see Roger Ailes and kiss his ring. It's like visiting the Vatican. My guess is that there's a lot of back-and-forth between Ailes and whoever is at the pinnacle of power in the Republican Party."
To keep relying on a shrinking number of elderly, white and male subsets of the public, whether to win elections or win ratings, has become a strategy of diminishing returns, however. "I think that you can't separate the problem at Fox [News] from the problem that the Republicans are going through," Bartlett says. He can speak firsthand to this incestuous relationship, as his 2006 book, Impostor—which broke with party orthodoxy over the Bush administration's deficit spending—quickly made him persona non grata at Fox News, he says. (Fox News did not respond to questions about his comment.) "The Republicans are trying to retool to win. That's all they care about, and they're trying to decide, 'How can we be more pragmatic? How can we shave off the rough edges? How can we get rid of the whack jobs who are embarrassing us, costing us Senate seats? But at the same time, we can't do this in such a way that it alienates our base.'" Fox News faces a similar dilemma, Bartlett contends: "It's 'How do we modernize? How do we attract new audiences without losing the old audience? How do we remain relevant without abandoning our traditions?'"
These are fundamental questions, and lately Fox News's fundamentals—audience, ratings and public trust—have faltered. A 2010 study by Steve Sternberg found the network's viewership to be the oldest (with an average age of 65) among an already elderly cable news audience. (CNN's was 63 and MSNBC's was 59.) By comparison, lifestyle cable channels Oxygen, Bravo and TLC were among the youngest, with an average viewer age of 42. And with MSNBC's recent decision to plug 34-year-old rising star Chris Hayes into the coveted 8 pm slot, the average age of that network's prime-time hosts will now be 45, while Fox News's rotation, anchored by 63-year-old Bill O'Reilly, has an average age of 57.
Having cable news's oldest average age for both prime-time hosts and audiences represents something of a double-edged sword for Fox in the cutthroat world of cable TV. One advantage is that older audiences are traditionally more loyal, which is why several industry experts say that Fox News is unlikely to be dislodged from its perch atop overall cable TV news ratings anytime soon. This age-loyalty effect redounds to the benefit of Fox News's best-known prime-time hosts, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, as roughly two-thirds of their viewers are age 50 or older, according to a recent Pew State of the News Media survey.
But at the same time, there is an undeniable actuarial reality at work—or as Bartlett bluntly puts it, "Their viewership is quite literally dying." The most lucrative advertising dollars flow to TV shows that attract viewers "in the demo," short for "demographic"—industry parlance for people ages 25 to 54. By contrast, Fox News's prime-time commercial breaks are blanketed with pitches for cheap medical devices and insurance companies aimed at retirees and the elderly. Perhaps not surprisingly, the network's advertising rates have grown at a much more modest pace in recent years, according to the Pew survey. Similarly, the growth of its ad revenues has diminished every year since 2008.
Because of the relatively older age and smaller size of the cable news audience, viewership tends to be relatively stable, says Columbia University Journalism School professor and former NBC News president Richard Wald. "Its [ratings] move in very small increments." To understand why viewers come and go, he compares a TV network's audience to a target with concentric rings. The core audience—those who are loyal to your channel and watch frequently (and, for partisan media outlets, those who are most ideologically compatible)—is the bull's-eye. Each concentric ring outward represents a segment of the audience that is less likely to watch because of diminished interest or less enthusiastic partisan sympathies. Dramatic ratings shifts can occur, but they tend to be driven by external events, like elections, rather than programming and thus affect all of the networks simultaneously. Most ratings fluctuations are statistical noise, Wald says, resulting from people in the outermost rings tuning in or out based on varying interest. "I would guess that [Fox News's] numbers could change by 5, 6, 7, 8 percent and not reflect a change in the loyalty of the audience."
But here, too, the news does not bode well. Though the network did retain its status as the top-rated cable news network in 2012—its eleventh consecutive year at number one—the steep drop in ratings that its shows have experienced since Election Day has raised eyebrows, precisely because corresponding shows on MSNBC and CNN have not experienced the same precipitous decline.
Just how much of a drop are we talking about? According to Nielsen data, Fox News's prime-time monthly audience fell to its lowest level in twelve years in January among the 25-to-54 demographic. Daytime Fox News programming likewise saw its lowest monthly ratings in this age cohort since June 2008. Even the network's two biggest stars, O'Reilly and Hannity, have not been immune from viewer desertion: Hannity lost close to 50 percent of his pre-election audience in the final weeks of 2012, and O'Reilly more than a quarter. The slide hasn't stopped in 2013, either. Compared with a year ago, O'Reilly's February prime-time ratings dropped 26 percent in the coveted 25-to-54 demographic, his worst performance since July 2008. Hannity's sank even further, to the lowest point in his show's history.
As Wald points out, short-term ratings snapshots can be deceptive. But in the weeks following Obama's 2009 inauguration, Fox News's viewership actually surged, averaging 539,000 prime-time demo viewers versus 388,000 and 357,000 for CNN and MSNBC, respectively. This past January, however, Fox could only muster 267,000 average nightly viewers—a 50 percent drop from that 2009 level, and not much more than MSNBC's 235,000 or CNN's 200,000.
So why are all these Fox News viewers tuning out? Some of the decline may be due to a broader cultural trend of people deciding to avoid cable TV news altogether. However, a recent Public Policy Polling survey of news media trustworthiness suggests there's more going on than public apathy. In February, PPP found a marked drop in Fox News's credibility. A record-high 46 percent of Americans say they put no trust in the network, a nine-point increase over 2010. What's more, 39 percent name Fox News as their least-trusted news source, dwarfing all other news channels. (MSNBC came in second, at 14 percent.)
As might be expected, Fox News's credibility barely budged among liberals and moderates (roughly three-quarters of whom still distrust the network) and very conservative viewers (three-quarters of whom still trust it). However, among those who identified themselves as "somewhat conservative," the level of trust fell by an eye-opening 27 percentage points during the previous twelve months (from a net plus–47 percent "trust" rating in 2012 to plus–20 percent now). Only a bare majority of center-right conservatives surveyed by PPP say that Fox News is trustworthy.
"The people who are among the moderate-rights are actually the ones tuning out most," says Dan Cassino, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University who specializes in studying partisan psychology. Last May, Cassino conducted a survey that found Fox News's viewers were less informed about current political issues than those who watched no news at all. In response, the network's public relations team mocked FDU's college ranking in Forbes and belittled its student body as "ill-informed." This kind of ad hominem attack symbolizes the over-the-top, pugilistic messaging style of Ailes, whose no-holds-barred political instincts have dictated the network's direction since day one.
Ailes's foundational idea for Fox News, explains Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, was to package this bias under the guise of "fair and balanced" news. "It is indeed the artifice of neutrality that makes so much of what they do objectionable, or not just objectionable but noteworthy," Wemple says. And it is effective, he adds: at a recent Value Voters conference, rock-ribbed conservatives almost involuntarily spouted the network's motto back at him when he asked them about Fox's coverage. It's a maddeningly clever bit of misdirection—the network whose branding is most identified with objectivity and accuracy is, in fact, anything but.
"Fox viewers are the most misled…especially in areas of political controversy," Chris Mooney writes in The Republican Brain, his 2012 book about the psychology of right-wing myths. The network's singularly corrosive impact on its viewers' understanding of reality, confirmed by numerous studies Mooney highlights in his book, is amplified by this "fair and balanced" motto, he says. It delegitimizes all other news media to create a vicious feedback loop within the right wing.
Thanks to its loyal conservative audience and its cozy relationship with the GOP leadership, Fox News has long been insulated from the consequences of its serial misinforming. "If your job is to say the most outrageous thing you possibly can and be rewarded for it, why shouldn't you?" Cassino points out. "As long as you get ratings, you're going to keep on doing it." But the recent erosion in ratings and cracks in the network's reputation, Cassino says, have created external pressure to make changes inside the network. (Neither Ailes nor anyone else at Fox News would comment when contacted for this story.)
Most notable among these post-election changes involved Fox News ridding itself of contributors Sarah Palin and Dick Morris and replacing them with former Congressman and left-wing gadfly Dennis Kucinich, former GOP Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, and RedState.com editor in chief Erick Erickson. To some, this personnel turnover confirmed that Fox News was embracing a more intellectually honest, ideologically diverse worldview.
But there's less here than meets the eye. First of all, the impact an individual contributor can have on the network's overall nature is minimal; permanent hosts like O'Reilly and Hannity drive its day-to-day brand. And in the midst of the 2012 campaign, Ailes locked up O'Reilly and Hannity as well as news host Bret Baier—the Fox News lineup from 7 through 10 pm—all the way to 2016. What's more, one shouldn't read too much into the cashiering of Palin and Morris, since, by all accounts, they were terrible at their jobs: the former was criticized internally for being uncooperative with programming suggestions and personally disloyal to Ailes, while the latter was guilty of humiliating the network with his ridiculous election predictions (as well as auctioning off an unauthorized personal tour of Fox News' studios at a GOP fund- raiser). "They were only interested in promoting themselves or perhaps promoting an ideology that may not win," says Bartlett, who singles out Palin's lack of substance for his harshest criticism. "Totally and professionally, she's the Lindsay Lohan of cable news."
Indeed, Ailes's new hires are little more than new faces plugged into a well-worn programming strategy. Kucinich fills the slot of house liberal formerly occupied by Alan Colmes, serving as a handy foil for conservatives to shout at or over. The telegenic Brown, a blue-state Republican, endorses textbook anti-woman Republican policies, but does so without giving off an overtly extremist vibe. And die-hard conservative Erickson is there to reassure the Tea Partiers and the netroots—some of whom inexplicably believe that Fox News is drifting left—that they still have a voice on the network.
Erickson is an interesting case. In February, not long after being hired by Fox, he posted a refreshingly frank essay complaining that the conservative media functions like an "echo chamber" that "peddle[s] daily outrage." Erickson, however, was careful not to include his new employer by name. Of course, selective indignation is something of a running theme for him. After accusing Supreme Court Justice David Souter of bestiality and pederasty in 2009, it took him almost a year to apologize—waiting until after he took a prominent pundit gig at CNN. "Erick Erickson is obviously a whack job by the standards of a normal person," says Bartlett. "But within the ranks of the right-wing wacko universe, he is far closer to the center than, say, Sarah Palin, because at the bottom, he wants to win, see, where people like Sarah Palin don't give a fuck about winning."
Winning, famously, is what drives Ailes, and Rove as well. In the aftermath of the election, Fox instructed Rove to lie low for several weeks. But this benching didn't last long, and by mid- January the network had signed him to a new multi-year contract. Coincidentally, Rove launched a new project geared toward finding more electable candidates for 2014 just a few weeks later. But if the past is prologue, many of these future candidates won't be acceptable to fellow Fox commentator Erickson. "This is perfect grist for the sort of stuff Fox loves to do: 'Let's have a debate between somebody on the right and somebody on the far right,'" Bartlett explains. "That suits their agenda just fine."
In other words, the best interests of Fox News and those of the Republican Party, though inexorably connected, aren't always aligned. The currency of the former is ratings and of the latter, votes. "There's always a tension between the two," says Jonathan Ladd, political science professor at Georgetown University and author of the 2012 book Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters. But because the GOP relies so heavily on Fox News to reach its constituents and spread its message, the network exerts its own gravitational pull on the party. "If the Republican Party wants to make an ideological shift, if they want to modify their vision on immigration, say, it matters a lot if Fox commentators and management are willing to go along with that," Ladd points out.
Fox News clearly jumped out in front of the party on the immigration issue. Only two days after Obama's re-election, Hannity, a hardline opponent of undocumented immigrants, came out on his radio program (which is not affiliated with Fox News) in favor of a pathway to citizenship for them. To gun-shy Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio, who had spent 2012 opposing just such a proposal, Hannity was sending an unmistakable signal: they would now have some political cover on the network if they similarly changed their public views, which Rubio quickly did. In a February article in The New Republic, Ailes, too, made a point of striking a more moderate tone toward Hispanics and said he dislikes the term "illegal immigrant," which the Fox News Latino network no longer uses. These changes of heart, it should be noted, involve only as much courage as it takes to agree with the owner of the company. One day after Obama's re-election and one day before Hannity's epiphany, Rupert Murdoch had tweeted: "Must have sweeping, generous immigration reform, make existing law-abiding Hispanics welcome."
Whether these recent, road-to-Damascus conversions are genuine or artificial may not matter much at this point, though. Hannity and many of his Fox News colleagues have invested so much time inciting animosity toward "illegals" and excoriating legislative attempts at "amnesty" that the network has acquired a reputation of harboring anti-Hispanic tendencies. In the aforementioned PPP poll on media trustworthiness, Hispanics ranked Fox News as their least credible news source, with a net four-point negative rating. (Broadcast news networks all enjoyed double-digit positive ratings.) Likewise, a National Hispanic Media Coalition survey from last fall found that Fox News hosts were more likely than those from any other network to negatively stereotype Latinos. It also noted that the network's audience had the highest percentage of viewers with negative feelings about Hispanics and undocumented immigrants.
Jim Gilmore, the former Republican governor of Virginia and current head of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank, warned against just this type of demographic alienation in a January interview with National Review. "Shrillness and extreme language are driving away the voters who could help us build a majority," Gilmore said. When contacted for this story, Gilmore made a point of saying that the network is "vital" to the conservative movement and added that his critique was not an implicit indictment of Fox News: "All I can say is that if they are doing anything like that and polling is reflecting it, they ought to stop it, because that would reflect badly on the Republican Party."
That Gilmore's willingness to confront the party's mistakes hasn't yet caught up to understanding what's causing them is symbolic of the broad dilemma confronting the conservative movement right now. The unquestioning faith in Fox gives the network little incentive to undertake real change, since it allows Ailes to feel confident those prodigal conservative viewers will eventually return to the fold. While Fox still enjoys ratings victories, albeit narrower ones, conservatives have suffered significant losses at the ballot box in three of the past four national elections. And they face the prospect of even more defeats if they don't lead their movement out of the wilderness of serial misinformation and forgo the temptation of perpetual outrage.
Arresting this descent into grand conspiracy theories and self-destructive rancor won't be easy, though. "It makes it very difficult for guests who are being asked about Benghazi and Solyndra to talk about concrete policy issues," Cassino notes. Gilmore, at least, acknowledges as much. "It is our burden to go on Fox News and give the right message," he says. "If for some reason—ratings or whatever the reason is—the commentators try to drag you to a place where you ought not to be, you have to resist going there."
John Stuart Mill, in his famous treatise On Liberty, understood that a "healthy state of political life" must necessarily include "a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform." So where exactly the conservative movement goes from here becomes a critical issue, since the Republican Party isn't about to spiral into electoral irrelevance anytime soon. Therefore, the degree to which it is grounded in reality and willing to collaborate reasonably in governance should matter a great deal to liberals, specifically, and to our democracy in general.
The devil's bargain that Ailes struck between his network and his politics seventeen years ago, however, looks unlikely to change within the foreseeable future. Fox News remains an all-too-comfortable gilded cage for Republicans—one that showcases the party but also shelters it from the slings and arrows of honest intellectual debate. One can rigidly confine an ideology for only so long, however, before its beliefs begin to ossify and its policies atrophy. It's an ironic twist: the more the network enables conservative ideas to stray from the mainstream, the less appealing the network's conservative coverage becomes. And after years of deeming their codependent relationship an unalloyed good, it's time Fox News and the Republican Party face cold reality. For both to enjoy long-term future success, each must recognize that the other isn't its salvation; instead, they're both part of the problem.