It was the right call. For all its ratings prowess and fat profits, Fox, like the GOP itself, is under existential threat in a fast-changing 21st-century America. Indeed, Megyn Kelly, the latest blonde star in an Ailes stable that seems to emulate Hitchcock’s leading-lady predilections in looks and inchoate malevolence, was promoted to her prime-time perch last year precisely to bring in a younger, less monochromatic audience. It’s a mission that neither she nor any other on-camera talent can accomplish. All three cable-news networks are hemorrhaging young viewers (as are their network-news counterparts) in an era when television is hardly the news medium of choice for Americans raised online and on smartphones. But Fox News is losing younger viewers at an even faster rate than its competitors. With a median viewer age now at 68 according to Nielsen data through mid-January (compared with 60 for MSNBC and CNN, and 62 to 64 for the broadcast networks), Fox is in essence a retirement community.
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).
The Fox News membership is more than happy to be cocooned in an echo chamber where its own hopes and fears will be reinforced by other old white “people like us.” This Stockholm syndrome applies even to its more upscale members. On Election Day 2012, to take a representative example, Kelly interviewed Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal pundit, about the likely results that night. Noonan, citing “all the data that I get,” concluded that “something is going on there” and that “the dynamism” is on “the Romney side.” The “data” that persuaded her of victory was Fox News data: The only pollster she cited was a network favorite, Scott Rasmussen. Nate Silver could have told her that Rasmussen’s polls were untrustworthy, having shown a four-point pro-GOP bias in 2010 (as would also prove roughly the case in 2012), but why would she or any other Fox talking head or viewer listen to the likes of that rank outsider? Clearly few if any of them did. When the reality-based data of actual votes came in on Election Night, it only followed that Fox Nation would be shocked, as most dramatically revealed by Karl Rove’s famous on-camera meltdown. Anyone who had spent the entire year in the Fox News cocoon—repeatedly hearing happy-news polls from Rasmussen and the even more egregious Dick Morris, repeatedly being assured that Benghazi was the silver bullet certain to take out Obama—knew the election was in the bag. Even Romney was blindsided by defeat, as befit a candidate whose campaign did its best to shield him from any non-Fox press. “We’d much rather go on a Fox program where we know the question is going to come up and Mitt can give his answer and it’s not going to a frenzy of questioning,” was how a Romney senior adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, explained this self-immolating all-Fox strategy.
Rather than waste time bemoaning Fox’s bogus journalism, liberals should encourage it. The more that Fox News viewers are duped into believing that the misinformation they are fed by Ailes is fair and balanced, the more easily they can be ambushed by reality as they were on Election Night 2012. We are all fond of quoting the Daniel Patrick Moynihan dictum that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But we should start considering the possibility that it now works to the Democrats’ advantage that Fox News does manufacture its own facts. Much as it lulled its audience in 2012 into believing that Romney’s “47 percent” tape was just a passing storm, so it is now peddling similar assurances about Chris Christie’s travails.
Fox News’s theoretical political power is further compromised by the internal crisis it shares with the GOP: its inability to navigate the conflict between the party Establishment and the radical base that is dividing the conservative ranks. The network has veered all over the place to try to placate both camps, only to end up wounded in the crossfire. In the early stages, the tea party was a heavily promoted Fox News cause, with Glenn Beck, then in residence, leading the charge. “It’s tea-party time, from sea to shining sea!” was how Kelly kicked off wall-to-wall coverage of the various Tax Day rallies held around the country on April 15, 2009. The network gave ample promotion to every flaky tea-party novelty act, from Michele Bachmann to the Delaware senatorial candidate Christine (“I’m not a witch”) O’Donnell, and promoted any and all tea-party fantasy presidents, from Sarah Palin to Herman Cain. When, finally, there was no choice for Fox but to fall in behind Romney—a last-ditch option for Ailes after his own preferred standard-bearers, Christie and David Petraeus, rebuffed his recruitment efforts—the anyone-but-Mitt GOP base disdained Fox much as it did the nominee himself. Popular talk-radio hosts like Mark Levin and Michael Savage belittled Mitt, Rove, and his Fox cheerleaders during the campaign, as at times did Rush Limbaugh. That schism has only widened since Romney’s defeat. When Fox regulars like Rove, O’Reilly, Brit Hume, Dana Perino, and Greg Gutfeld agreed with John Boehner that shutting down the government to defund Obamacare had proved a self-destructive strategy for the GOP, the base was having none of it. “Karl Rove, your record sucks!” ranted Levin in September. “Why would we listen to you?” On the other side of the right’s spectrum, the few surviving moderate conservative commentators favored by liberal outlets, from David Frum to Michael Gerson, disdain Ailes’s operation as well: “More people own ferrets than watch Fox News,” said David Brooks.