I write about Fox News quite a bit, but really nowhere near as much as I do about other news outlets. The reason for this is that it bothers me more when news organizations that are supposed to strive for the highest of standards do stupid things; with Fox News, stupidity and bullshit is just a given, because Fox News isn't a real news network. What's more, I've always felt that while Fox has certainly had a considerable overall impact not only on the media landscape but on American politics, its current power and reach are sometimes vastly overstated.
The press loves talking about itself, which means that a lot of lip service is paid to Fox's ratings domination as a cable news entity, but those ratings are relative. The reality is that the numbers Fox News's prime pulls each night would get every one of its shows canceled and make for a sidewalk littered with the splattered remains of its programming executives were it to air on a broadcast network. A million viewers sounds like a major coup, but across the entire United States that number amounts to almost nothing. Add to that the kind of audience Fox News draws almost exclusively -- aging white conservatives who do very little to tickle the fancy of advertisers -- and it's a wonder anyone ever complains about Fox News anymore. The network's viewpoint, like that of the party it shills for, is being demographically pushed to the brink of extinction.
What I just said is essentially what the always terrific Frank Rich said, using far more impressive language, in a piece published yesterday at New York Magazine online. In the article, titled "Stop Beating a Dead Fox," Rich makes what sounds like a bold proposition but is in reality simple common sense if you take a step back and look at the big picture. Basically, he says it's time to begin not necessarily pretending that Fox News doesn't exist but certainly not taking the culture war bait it endlessly throws out for the sole purpose of infuriating liberals -- that criticism of the network is the only thing left sustaining its influence.
In truth, Fox News has been defeated on the media battlefield—and on the political battlefield as well. Even the 73-year-old wizard of Fox, Roger Ailes, now in full Lear-raging-on-the-heath mode as portrayed in my colleague Gabriel Sherman’s definitive new biography, The Loudest Voice in the Room, seems to sense the waning of his power. The only people who seem not to know or accept Fox’s decline, besides its own audience, are liberals...
Ailes would like the president and everyone else to keep believing he has that clout. But these days Fox News is the loudest voice in the room only in the sense that a bawling baby is the loudest voice in the room. In being so easily bullied by Fox’s childish provocations, the left gives the network the attention on which it thrives and hands it power that it otherwise has lost.
Rich goes on to speak an obvious but often overlooked truth about the reason for Fox News's consistently high numbers. It's audience isn't like that of other networks; it doesn't have viewers so much as fans, and those fans watch Fox News and nothing else.
The million or so viewers who remain fiercely loyal to the network are not, for the most part, and as some liberals still imagine, naïve swing voters who stumble onto Fox News under the delusion it’s a bona fide news channel and then are brainwashed by Ailes’s talking points into becoming climate-change deniers. They arrive at the channel as proud, self-selected citizens of Fox Nation and are unlikely to defect from the channel or its politics until death do them part. (As Sherman writes, “Ailes’s audience seldom watches anything” on television but Fox News.) Hard as it may be to fathom, Fox Nation is even more monochromatically white than the GOP is, let alone the American nation. Two percent of Mitt Romney’s voters were black. According to new Nielsen data, only 1.1 percent of Fox News’s prime-time viewership is (as opposed to 25 percent for MSNBC, 14 percent for CNN, and an average of roughly 12 percent for the three broadcast networks’ evening news programs).
I wouldn't suggest abandoning Fox News criticism completely; there's still a need for a site like Media Matters, whose vigilance has been instrumental in exposing Fox for what it is. Also, as long as other cable news networks are dumb enough to take editorial cues from Fox News, succumbing to its hosts' relentless and self-serving demands to know why the mainstream media aren't covering the bullshit scandals and non-news items they regularly pursue and trumpet, there will need to be outlets that separate fact from fiction. Fox News knows how to infect the rest of the media bloodstream; it sometimes does it simply by daring other news outlets to give credence to the crap it tries to pass off as news.
But overall, Rich is right. Fox News is nowhere near as powerful as the network would like you to believe, and taking the bait every single time it offers it is exactly what it sounds like: a trap. I'm as guilty as anyone of occasionally falling for this, mostly because it makes for easy copy -- and certainly because there are times that Fox News has committed ethical violations so jaw-dropping that I feel like I have to say something. Still, the conservative movement as it currently exists -- as well as its primary media champion -- is in a precarious position right now and it would be wise to keep that in mind and not do it any favors. There comes that tipping point where responding to an otherwise dying entity enables it to hang on. We might be there with Fox News.
Maybe we're the ones who give life to Fox News's narrative outside of its steadily shrinking conservative echo chamber. And maybe we do so at our own peril.