It is hard to imagine that Fox News only began operations in 1996, such has been its impact in shaping the political climate in the US, and not in a good way. There has been a lot of buzz recently about a paper published by Bruce Bartlett where he argues that Fox News has created a separate world for its viewers that is increasingly disconnected from the actual world and as a result is hurting the Republican party that has become joined at the hip to it.
The basis thesis is one that will be familiar to critics of the faux news network but the reason people are talking about it is because Bartlett is, or at least used to be, a solid member of the Republican party establishment, having served in the administrations of both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
Fox News benefited from the path set by talk radio which came to dominate the AM radio spectrum following the decision by the FCC to eliminate the fairness doctrine in 1987 that required political opinions to be balanced by opposing views. Radio and TV Broadcasters were now free to advance an agenda and conservatives seized the opportunity with gusto, starting with Rush Limbaugh.
His paper argues that at the time Fox began, people on the conservative end of the spectrum felt that the major media were liberal (using the popular meanings of these somewhat ambiguous labels) and thus immediately glommed onto a TV network that seemed to, at last, reflect their own views. They became devoted consumers of this channel, allowing it to be the source of facts about the world and shaping their understanding of events, to the exclusion of all other sources that might challenge that view.
As Bartlett writes:
Studies show that Fox viewers have a distinct set of political attitudes and voting patterns that are as much anti-liberal as they are conservative. Indeed, they have a different perception of political reality than those of all other television news viewers. As media critic Michael Wolff put it early in the Fox era:
Fox is not really about politics….Rather, it’s about having a chip on your shoulder; it’s about us versus them, insiders versus outsiders, phonies versus non-phonies, and, in a clever piece of postmodernism, established media against insurgent media,
In the George W. Bush years, however, and especially after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, there was a noticeable shift in tone at Fox. Rather than being satisfied with a position relatively to the right of the other news networks, it began objectively tilting well to the right of center. The shift was immediately noticed by media observers. Whether driven by politics and ideology or simply by ratings, the shift proved highly successful. As Harvard press analyst Alex Jones observed:
In a conservative time, a time of war, Fox viewers like their news from a strong American perspective, with flags rippling in graphics and a pugnacity toward the nation’s critics – the people John Gibson, host of Fox’s nightly ”Big Story,” referred to last week as the peanut gallery. Such blunt speaking is a point of pride at Fox, which, for example, reports on “’homicide bombers”’ in Israel, rather than “suicide bombers.”
Right wing bias and inaccurate reporting have become so blatant that even some Republicans cannot take it.
Fox’s bias is so bad that even some conservatives can’t stomach it. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, one of the most conservative Republicans in Congress, has said, “There are certain shows on Fox I can’t watch. Because they’re totally not fair and totally not balanced.”
And Fox’s slipshod handling of facts was even acknowledged by Newt Gingrich during the 2012 campaign. “One of the real changes that comes when you start running for President – as opposed to being an analyst on Fox – is I have to actually know what I’m talking about,” he said. “It’s a severe limitation,” Gingrich added.
It is widely known among public relations professionals that Fox has an “enemies list” of people who are not permitted to be interviewed on the network. All proposed guests are vetted by senior executives and banned if they have criticized Fox or hold views likely to rile its conservative viewers.
The net result of such an intensely ideological drive is not surprising. “A number of surveys have found Fox views to be less well informed and more likely to have factually untrue beliefs than those who receive their news from mainstream sources… that there is something about watching Fox News that leads people to do worse on these questions than those who don’t watch any news at all.” [My italics-MS]
While Fox News was initially seen as a propaganda arm of the Republican party and helped them get their message across, over time the roles have reversed and Bartlett argues that now the Republican party has become an appendage of Fox News, having to follow the agenda set by them.
Although this arrangement unquestionably aids Republicans in winning elections and votes in Congress, it is not without its downsides. One is that Fox now exercises such powerful control over the GOP that it has become the party’s kingmaker in presidential primaries. Indeed, during the 2012 election cycle, a number of aspirants for the Republican nomination had been paid Fox commentators, including Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. And woe to the Republican who runs afoul of Fox’s top brass or ignores their advice, as Mitt Romney did on one occasion in 2012. Fox is now so important in GOP primaries that candidates must put aside pressing campaign concerns when summoned to a Fox interview, where any error is magnified within the Republican bubble.
Conservative David Frum says that the network is actually harming the party, saying “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox. And this balance here has been completely reversed. The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican party.”
In a follow up article, Bartlett looks at one manifestation of this problem during the 2012 election. When polls consistently showed that Barack Obama was beating Mitt Romney, the meme that the polls were somehow skewed against Romney became the ‘fact’ that Fax News promoted and so-called ‘unskewed polls’ that purported to correct the biases of the national polling organizations and showed Romney winning were heavily promoted. One consequence of this was that little effort was made to modify Romnye’s message or tactics.
As a result, the Republican party lived in a complacent bubble that only got pricked by reality on election night where the reaction by those in the party and Fox News was stunned disbelief. The predictions of conservative pundits about the final electoral votes were so wildly off as to be laughable.
Fox News continues to play a heavy role in this year’s election. It already forced Mitt Romney to abandon his hope of trying to run again by signaling that they would not support him but it is not yet clear who they are putting their weight behind this time. The Fox News primary, along with the auditions run by billionaires, is the real one to watch, not the actual Republican primaries which are just theater.