Earlier this month Bruce Bartlett published a paper titled “How Fox News Changed American Media and Political Dynamics.” Bartlett is a veteran conservative operative who worked in both the George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan White Houses. His paper’s premise is that Fox News has had a harmful effect on the Republican Party’s electoral appeal by herding its already right-wing flock into an even fringier parish where it is shielded from differing views. Bartlett appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources this morning and said…
“I think many conservatives live in a bubble where they watch only Fox News on television, they listen only to conservative talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, many of the same people. When they go on to the Internet, they look at only conservative websites like National Review, Newsmax, World Net Daily, and so they are completely in a universe in which they are hearing the same exact ideas, the same arguments, the same limited amount of data repeated over and over and over again, and that’s brainwashing.”
Brainwashing is not too strong a word. Fox News has become the central authority in a cult-like cabal of rightist true-believers who envelope themselves in the scripture as preached by Fox. This has been proven by in-depth studies that show how conservatives have drastically constrained their news sources to a narrow collection of like-minded, far-right outlets. There’s an implicit belief that exposure to a contrary ideological creed would be a breach of faith and a mortal sin.
It is encouraging, therefore, to see a conservative with an open mind and the ability to recognize the toxic role that Fox has played in the media and in politics. Bartlett’s paper is an interesting and well-documented read. However, it took him long enough to come to these conclusions. News Corpse published an analysis of how “Fox News Is Killing The Republican Party“ six years ago, with an update expanding on the theme last year. I wrote in part 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…] 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.
Conservatives, of course, are appalled by the treasonous utterings of Bartlett. A good representative example of the reaction comes from Politico’s Jack Shafer who wrote a column that seeks to reveal “What Liberals Still Don’t Understand About Fox News.” However, in his attempt to rebut Bartlett he fails to even grasp the logical concepts being discussed. Nowhere is that more evident than when he writes that…
“Fox in its current incarnation is neither a help nor a hindrance. Fox News — and its Svengali Roger Ailes — aren’t the Republican kingmakers they’re made out to be. […] the network is better at employing presidential candidates than electing them.”
Let’s set aside the fact that this alleged rebuttal actually agrees with Bartlett’s core thesis that Fox is having an adverse effect on Republican politics. Where Shafer really goes off the rails is arguing that Fox’s failure to succeed in electing Republicans is not a negative for the Party. If creating a field of losers is not a hindrance, what is?
Shafer goes on to correctly note that Fox’s power is often exaggerated. What is bragged about as ratings dominance is, in reality, a rather minor victory. Shafer notes that “Fox’s most popular program, The O’Reilly Factor, pulls in about 3.3 million viewers on its best nights.” Once again, Shafer is late to the party. That is something News Corpse pointed out six years ago with some additional perspective:
“[S]uccess in the Nielsen ratings has no correlation to public opinion polling […because it is…] focused on consumers, not voters […and that…] There are many reasons people choose to watch TV shows, the most frequent being its entertainment value. So any attempt to tie ratings to partisan politics is a foolish exercise that demonstrates a grievous misunderstanding of the business of television.”
O’Reilly’s 3 million viewers is less than 1% of the American population. It’s also fewer viewers than World Wrestling Entertainment, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the CBS Evening News (the lowest rated broadcast network news program).
So what ever power Fox has is not vested in its audience. And this where Shafer, and most other conservative media pundits, fall off the wagon. Fox’s viewers were not turned into conservatives by watching Fox. They watch Fox because they are conservatives who need to have their preconceptions validated. Then, by being exposed to the bias and disinformation that makes up Fox’s programming, they become ignorant, radicalized conservatives.
The real power that Fox wields is with Republican office-holders, candidates and party strategists. They have been fooled into believing that Fox’s ratings are an indication of the nation’s political mood. Consequently, they believe that taking positions aligned with the extremist right-wingers on Fox will advance their electoral goals. That has cost the party dearly in the last two national elections. In fact, they were so befuddled by Fox that the election results, which most Americans could have predicted, were a shock to many Republicans and Fox pundits (recall Karl Rove’s tantrum on election night?).
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All of this should make the next few weeks oodles of fun as GOP candidates seek to please the Fox-gods so that they win a spot on the debate stage. Fox announced that only the top ten candidates in an average of certain polls (that Fox will decide) will be included in the debates. Therefore, between now and then the candidates on the edge will have to take aggressive measures to appeal to the people who they think are likely to be polled.
That means more chest-beating about war with Iran, more hate-speech about gays, more talk of bigger, stronger fences on the border, more promises to slash taxes and government programs, and much more bashing of President Obama and Hillary Clinton. And that competition to become the most extreme wingnut will filter into the campaign strategies of the rest of the GOP field as they struggle to become the Fox favorite.. All of which will result in making them completely unelectable in the fall of 2016.