|Fox 'course correction' rankles some |
By: Keach Hagey
February 14, 2012 04:34 AM EST
As a white, male, middle-aged conservative talk radio host from Virginia, John Fredericks is something close to the Platonic ideal of a Fox News fan.
And until last year, he was one. But then Fox’s treatment of the Republican primary race — the presentation of Karl Rove as a political analyst despite his having “thrown in for Romney” and Sean Hannity’s clear ties to the Republican establishment — began to grate on him. So he changed the channel.
“I’ve gone from all Fox to no Fox, and replaced it with CNN, which I think right now is giving me a much fairer analysis of what’s going on,” he said. “I feel they’ve lost that independent conservative mantra that had drove people like me to them. I used to feel that I got it straight, and I got an independent conservative view. Now, what I get is some wholly owned subsidiary of the RNC [ Republican National Committee].”
Across the Conservative Political Action Conference this year, there were similar grumbles among conservative activists that the cable channel was no longer speaking for them as it once did.
The grumblers were picking up on a strategy that has been under way for some time — a “course correction,” as Fox chief Roger Ailes put it last fall — with the network distancing itself from the tea party cheerleading that characterized the first two years of President Barack Obama’s presidency. Lately, Fox has increasingly promoted its straight-news talent in the press and conducted some of the toughest interviews and debates of the Republican primary season. Just last week, it hired the openly gay liberal activist Sally Kohn as a contributor.
All along, Fox watchers warned that it risked alienating conservative true believers as it inched toward the center.
Well, consider them alienated.
“To tell you the truth, a lot of conservatives see Fox News as being somewhat skewed on certain issues,” said Patrick Brown, who runs Internet marketing for The Western Center for Journalism, a conservative nonprofit that features stories questioning the president’s eligibility for office. “We actually did a poll recently that said, ‘Is Fox News actually conservative, or has it moved left?’ And some 70 percent of our readers thought it had moved left.”
“Left” is, of course, a relative term.
A casual Fox viewer might barely notice the changes since the network remains critical of the Obama administration and reliably conservative opinion voices, like Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, still anchor key spots in the Fox firmament. But the changes are there.
After the Tucson shooting last year, when criticism rained down on Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck for their violent rhetoric, Ailes moved to lower the temperature, telling Russell Simmons, “I told all of our guys, ‘Shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually.’” A few months later, Beck and Fox announced they were parting ways. As early as last May, New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman was writing about Fox’s “move to the middle.” And in an interview with Howard Kurtz in September, Ailes confirmed it.
The strategy comes with both rewards and risks. Fox’s debates have won widespread plaudits, as well as good ratings — two of its debates are in the top five rated debates of the season, in a list that included several network debates. The channel remains solidly at the top of the cable news ratings, with more viewers last year than CNN and MSNBC combined. Fox News declined to comment.
Now, changes have begun to surface in its opinion programming, too. Last week, O’Reilly invited onto his show a gay-rights activist to weigh in on Roland Martin’s controversial tweets during the Super Bowl. O’Reilly and Martin may be old foes, but the spectacle of watching O’Reilly, who once compared gay marriage to interspecies marriage, attacking a CNN anchor for being insufficiently sensitive to the feelings of gay people was quite a switch from the tone of two years ago. O’Reilly also stuck up for Ellen DeGeneres last week, suggesting that those who opposed her new role as spokeswoman for JC Penney because she is gay were not acting in “the spirit of America.”
Viewers are noticing, as the survey by Brown’s group, The Western Center for Journalism, picked up. The center was co-founded by Joseph Farah, the WorldNetDaily founder and publisher of last year’s big birther book, and is now run by Floyd Brown, a co-founder of Citizens United and best known for producing the “Willie Horton” ad.
But what is interesting is that the survey found Fox viewers felt the change in Fox had come relatively recently. And that they were far from alone.
Cliff Kincaid, president of America’s Survival, had a whole booth at CPAC dedicated to questioning Fox’s programming choices, complete with “Bring Back Beck” buttons and bumper stickers.
“What happened is they buckled under pressure from George Soros and his operatives to get rid of Glenn Beck,” said Kincaid, who wants Beck back on the air so he can continue his “investigative journalism” into Soros’s influence on the media.
He said that pressure went beyond the $1 million that Soros gave Media Matters in October 2010 “to hold Fox News accountable.”
“We talked to a private investigator who interviewed representatives or employees of News Corporation about the threats and intimidation against them for going after Soros,” he said.
But Kincaid’s beef with Fox went beyond Beck.
He complained that the channel had recently hired “two far-left radical feminists,” Jehmu Greene and Kohn, who were “graduates of Jane Fonda’s Women’s Media Center.”
“Fox became successful by filling that void and becoming a platform for conservative voices,” he said. “If they want to watch Jehmu Greene or Sally Kohn, they can turn on MSNBC.”
Beck has always maintained that the split was amicable and he just wanted to go off and try his own thing at GBTV, the Internet-based television channel. But Kincaid, who pointed out that the joint Fox-Beck projects announced with their split never materialized, isn’t buying it.
“I’m sure Beck is fine, he’s happy with GBTV, but there’s a lot of people here that would rather see him back on Fox News,” he said. “Let’s face it, cable news is a notch above just being on the Internet.”
Not all conservatives agree. Jason Hoyt, a tea party activist based in Florida, unplugged from cable nine months ago. Today, he works for a new network of Internet-based channels called Big Voices Media that uses the same distribution model Beck used for GBTV — Internet, mobile and set-top boxes like Roku that put Internet streams onto a television screen. Content ranges from Heritage Foundation videos to live coverage of the Iowa caucuses by tea party groups.
He, too, agrees that Fox has shifted left over the past year, and was particularly disturbed to hear that Fox Business Network announced last week it was canceling Glenn Beck protégé Andrew Napolitano’s “Freedom Watch,” a favorite among tea partiers. The Internet was abuzz with speculation that Napolitano was canceled for supporting Ron Paul, with some organizing email-writing campaigns in protest. But Mediaite warned months ago that the show’s low ratings and lack of business focus put it on thin ice.
“Personally, I can envision a day that we look at all these mainstream channels and see empty seats with tumbleweeds blowing by because we’ve left,” he said.
That’s not likely to happen anytime soon, with Fox’s ratings where they are. But even after 15 years on the air and 10 years at the top of the ratings, Fox is still not quite sure how to wear the role of leader of the pack, so baked into its identity is the sense of outsider’s grievance.
While activists plotted their insurgencies in the basement of the Marriott, upstairs in the main ballroom, Fox News contributors — current and former — took up wide swaths of the speaking schedule, often carrying with them the argument that watching Fox News is itself a form of rebellion.
Laura Ingraham opened her talk with a joke that “if you agree to block Fox News from your cable package and agree to watch only MSNBC,” Obama would grant you a waiver. “Speaking of which,” she added, “I’m hosting ‘The O’Reilly Factor’ tonight.”
She blamed the confused state of the GOP field on the fact that there had been “too many distractions by the dinosaur media.”
Fox is not a dinosaur yet, but it is certainly, by media standards, a responsible adult. As it moves from its wilder days to the media equivalent of a house in the suburbs, it inevitably leaves some early fans accusing it of selling out.
“Something is happening at Fox News,” wrote one Red State blogger last month. “More often these days I hear the language of the Left entering their news programs. Conservative points of view are becoming more rare on Fox and/or treated with scorn…it may not be admitted, but I believe the left’s boycott of Fox is having an effect.”
The blogger, named quill67, suggested the move was commercially driven. “It is my belief that Fox News is hoping to become acceptable enough to the Left in this country to gain big corporate accounts.”
But Paul Levinson, a professor of media and communications studies at Fordham University and author of a forthcoming updated edition of “New New Media,” believes it’s more about boosting viewership.
“If Fox wants to increase its viewership, it’s a smart move to get slightly less conservative and draw in some people in the middle and slightly to the left,” he said. “If they just stuck to their staunch conservative guns, they wouldn’t go anywhere.”
He sees the same “regression to the mean” happening at MSNBC now that Keith Olbermann has left, with the same kind of complaints from the left about the presence of right-wing commentators like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.
Former Fox News contributor Jane Hall, a professor at American University’s School of Communication, said the shift is more of a return to Fox’s roots.
“When I started out there, there was a real sense that they wanted a diversity of opinion,” she said. “And over time, especially when Obama was elected and when Glenn Beck was a big hit, there was a sense that they were really doing well not having that — having Hannity without the Colmes.”
Hall, who frequently appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor,” left Fox in 2009 over her concerns about Beck but has been pleased to see the recent hiring of more diverse voices like Kohn and Greene.
“It seems to me as if perhaps they are making a move back toward their original premise, which is that they wanted to have people who might disagree.”
But Fox may have some demographic reasons for wanting to broaden its reach. Although it has been completely dominant in the cable sphere for years, last year, its ratings in primetime slipped 9 percent in total viewers and 15 percent in the target 24-54 demographic, while CNN and MSNBC gained viewers in primetime.
In part, these numbers are part of a broader trend of viewers turning away from television and toward the Internet, particularly among the young.
At CPAC, for example, some young activists wanting their Glenn Beck fix saw no need to rail against Fox’s programming choices — they just went to Beck’s online news site, The Blaze, instead.
“When I wake up, I go to two sites, instantly; they never close down in my browser: The Drudge Report and The Blaze,” said Ben Johnson, new media director of the conservative media watchdog Accuracy in Media. “They have proven to me to break the most interesting, underreported stories, and that’s what I want.”
On cable, “I’ll gladly watch CNN and I’ll gladly watch Fox,” he said, adding that he’s “of the generation that [likes] my politics with a dose of sugar, which is comedy,” so he tunes in to “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” regularly, too.
But for the older generation, like baby boomers Diane and Don Reimer, activists from the Tea Party Patriots in Pennsylvania, Fox is still the mainstay. Just not quite the one it used to be.
Diana Reimer feels like she hears more apologies for the status quo on Fox these days.
“They’ve definitely changed,” she said.
© 2012 POLITICO LLC