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.