Republican Senator To Town Hall: Don’t Be Biased By Fox News

In a stunning demonstration of clarity, another right-winger has had an epiphany with regard to the influence of Fox News on the public at large and on the Republican Party in particular. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn is joining David Frum in questioning the primacy of Fox News. This is an enlightened stance for the arch-conservative senator because it recognizes the reality that for the past few years, as Fox’s ratings have increased, Republican support has fallen off a cliff. Last year I wrote a fairly detailed analysis of how Fox News is Killing the Republican Party where I noted that…

Fox has corralled a stable of the most disreputable, unqualified, extremist, lunatics ever assembled, and is presenting them as experts, analysts, and leaders. These third-rate icons of idiocy are marketed by Fox like any other gag gift (i.e. pet rocks, plastic vomit, Sarah Palin, etc.). […and that…] By doubling down on crazy, Fox is driving the center of the Republican Party further down the rabid hole. They are reshaping the party into a more radicalized community of conspiracy nuts. So even as this helps Rupert Murdoch’s bottom line, it is making celebrities of political bottom-feeders.That can’t be good for the long-term prospects of the Republican Party.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is not your ordinary Republican. He is amongst the most extreme faction of the fundamentalist wing of the party. He is a member of the secretive politico-Christian cabal known as “The Family,” and a resident of its scandal-plagued C-Street House. He is a fierce opponent of abortion. He endorsed Alan Keyes for president in the 2000 Republican primary. He is a prolific abuser of the senatorial “hold” that allows members to anonymously block legislation. And now this icon of rightist orthodoxy is committing the ultimate sacrilege. It began with a response to a constituent at a town hall gathering who complained that the health care bill would result in people going to jail for not purchasing insurance. Coburn corrected her her saying that…

“The intention is not to put anybody in jail. That makes for good TV news on Fox, but that aint the intention.”

Coburn also defended the conservatives’ favorite target for demonization, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, against the knee-jerk hecklers in the crowd. He insisted that she was a “nice person” and then again called out Fox News for cultivating a culture of incivility:

“What we have to have is make sure we have a debate in this country so that you can see what’s going on and make a determination yourself. So don’t catch yourself being biased by FOX News that somebody is no good. The people in Washington are good. They just don’t know what they don’t know.”

But Coburn didn’t stop there. He went on to encourage his audience to seek out diverse sources of news and information and not to be locked in to the narrow perspective of a single, agenda-driven enterprise. He appealed to them to…

“…stay informed on the issues. Don’t just watch Fox News or CNN. Watch ’em both. […] I do a lot of reading every day and I’m disturbed that we get things like what this lady said, and others have said on other issues that are so disconnected to what I know to be the facts. And that comes from somebody that has an agenda that’s other than the best interests of our country.”

Coburn has just asserted that Fox’s agenda is unpatriotic. He may face some pushback from Sean Hannity on that. Glenn Beck may brand him a communist. But what we are witnessing here is not a political reversal by Coburn. He is still the ideological Dark-agist he has always been. What’s happening is that he has recognized the fact that Fox News has been demonstrably harmful – not to the interests of the country (which it has) – but to the interests of his Party. He is afraid that the fringe brigade will overtake the mainstream conservatism that he espouses and drive voters to the Democrats, the Tea Baggers, or discourage them from voting at all.

When someone as far right as Coburn sees this light, then the truth has floated up close enough to the surface that it will be hard for others to ignore. Including Fox News. If the mini-trend of Frum and Coburn (and Andrew Sullivan and Charles Johnson and …) continues we may see some programming changes at Fox. The question is which direction? If Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes want to advance their conservative interests, and those of the Republican Party, they had better tack hard to the center. Their current course is headed straight into a perfect storm of tea bags, birthers, McCartheyites, militias, and secessionists. But if they want to sustain their ratings dominance, they have to keep feeding the fanatics that make up their base.

Fox has been the king of the ratings hill for several years, yet that has not helped them electorally. It was in those years when Fox’s audience was expanding that Democrats won control of both houses of Congress. It was in those years that Barack Obama was elected president and Democratic congressional majorities increased. And most recently, Fox was unable to hold back passage of the health care bill despite incessant promotion of the anti-reform troops (pundits, politicians, and protesters) and a barrage of false reporting on the substance of the legislation. This couldn’t be clearer evidence of the conflict between Fox’s success as a television network and its success as a partisan public relations agency.

This is going to be interesting. The folks at Fox are as devoted to their wealth as they are to their agenda. In fact, the two are nearly inseparable. They use their wealth to advance their agenda, and they push their agenda to increase their wealth. But they are going to have a hard time threading this needle. It’s a choice between market position or issue advocacy. Or, put another way, it’s a choice between Glenn Beck or electoral victories. They can’t have both. The decision may tear them apart. There have already been sharp division between factions at Fox, most notably when Rupert Murdoch’s son-in-law announced that he was “ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes’s horrendous and sustained disregard…” for journalistic standards.

Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.

Update: Sen. Coburn sought Bill O’Reilly’s absolution on Monday. His appearance on the program was a mixed bag in that Coburn tried to maintain his critical stance on Fox, but also kiss up to O’Reilly. O’Reilly, on the other hand was his idiotic self. He declared with absolute certainty that no one on Fox ever said that someone could go to jail for not having health care under the Obama plan. Of course, that was easily disproved. In fact, Glenn Beck said it on O’Reilly’s show. It don’t come funnier than this, folks.