(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?'"