“There ain’t no sanity clause,” Chico Marx told Groucho. There is also no Santa Claus. And there was no sanity in the Santa fracas that became an embarrassing liberal-media fixation just before Christmas. For those who missed it, what happened was this: A Fox News anchor, Megyn Kelly, came upon a tongue-in-cheek blog post at Slate in which a black writer, Aisha Harris, proposed that Santa be recast as a penguin for the sake of racial inclusiveness. After tossing this scrap of red meat to her all-white panel of prime-time guests, Kelly reassured any “kids watching” (this was nearing 10 p.m.) that “Santa just is white.” (For good measure, she added, “Jesus was a white man, too.”) Soon and sure enough, Kelly’s sound bites were being masticated in op-ed pieces, online, and especially on cable, where a passing wisecrack best left to the satirical stylings of Stewart and Colbert became a call to arms. At CNN, one anchor brought on Santas of four races to debunk Kelly. BuzzFeed reported that MSNBC programs hopped on the story fourteen times in a single week.
Of course what Kelly said was dumb. But the reaction was even dumber. Every year, Fox News whips up some phantom “war on Christmas” plotted by what the network’s blowhard-in-chief Bill O’Reilly calls “secular progressives.” This seasonal stunt has long been old news, yet many in the liberal media still can’t resist the bait. You had to feel for the NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker, who was drafted into filing a Kelly-Santa story on the Today show for no discernible reason other than that she is not white.
When this supposed “national firestorm” (as Al Sharpton inflated it on his MSNBC show) finally died down, only two things had been accomplished beyond the waste of everyone’s time. Liberals had played right into Fox’s stereotype of them—as killjoy p.c. police. And Fox News could once again brag about its power to set an agenda for its adversaries even as it also played the woebegone victim. “Because they can’t defeat us on the media battlefield, the far left seeks to demonize Fox News as a right-wing propaganda machine and a racist enterprise,” said O’Reilly when sermonizing about the episode on his show. “That’s why Miss Megyn got headlines about a Santa Claus remark that was totally harmless.” Fox News is a right-wing propaganda machine and at times (if not this one) a racist enterprise (witness, among other examples, its fruitless effort to drum up a “New Black Panther Party” scandal over some 95 segments in the summer of 2010). But O’Reilly was half-right. Kelly’s inane remark was harmless and unworthy of headlines. Without the left’s overreaction, there wouldn’t have been any pseudo “national firestorm.”
Still, O’Reilly’s summation was predicated on an erroneous underlying assumption that few bother to question: 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, including Barack Obama, whose White House mounted a short-lived, pointless freeze-out of Fox News in 2009, and who convinced himself that the network has shaved five points off his approval rating.
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. As the post-Obama era approaches, the energy spent combating Ailes might be better devoted to real political battles against more powerful adversaries—not to mention questioning the ideological slant of legitimate news operations like, say, 60 Minutes, which has recently given airtime to a fraudulent account of the murders at Benghazi and to a credulous puff piece on the NSA’s domestic surveillance.
The most interesting news about Fox News is that for some years now it has been damaging the right far more than the left. As a pair of political analysts wrote at Reuters last year, “When the mainstream media reigned supreme, between 1952 and 1988, Republicans won seven out of the ten presidential elections,” but since 1992, when “conservative media began to flourish” (first with Rush Limbaugh’s ascendancy, then with Fox), Democrats have won the popular vote five out of six times. You’d think they’d be well advised to leave Fox News to its own devices so that it can continue to shoot its own party in the foot.
The notion that Fox News has been defeated would seem absurd if you judge solely by the numbers. The year just ended was the network’s twelfth in a row as the most-watched cable-news network. Its number of total viewers surpasses CNN and MSNBC combined. As the longtime Rupert Murdoch–Fox News watcher Michael Wolff wrote of the cumulative 2013 ratings, “Nobody has come close to competing” with Ailes. “He gets larger, everybody else gets lesser.” But as Wolff also observed, “The cable audience, for all the attention heaped on it for its theoretical political sway, is not that large.” To put it mildly. As the overwhelming leader in its field, Fox draws just over a million viewers in prime time—a pittance and a niche next to even the ever-declining network newscasts, of which the lowest rated (CBS Evening News) still can attract a nightly audience as large as 8 million.
Fox News’s political sway in the real world, as opposed to its power to drive MSNBC viewers and their fellow travelers nuts and to generate ridicule from late-night comics, is also on the wane. Speaking to the Television Critics Association in Los Angeles in January, Jeff Zucker, the former NBC chief executive now trying to revive CNN (averaging a mere 568,000 prime-time viewers in 2013), complained like countless before him that Fox is an arm of the GOP “masquerading as a cable-news channel.” It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that out: No fewer than five Republican presidential hopefuls, not to mention Karl Rove and Glenn Beck, were on-camera as paid Fox personalities at the start of the 2012 election season; Murdoch is a GOP donor; and Ailes is a former Republican political operative whose partisan record extends back to his big break as Richard Nixon’s media guru in 1968. But there’s nothing in Fox’s viewership numbers, either in magnitude or in demographic hue, to suggest that there’s a significant number of voting-age Americans who at this point do not already know that Fox News is a GOP auxiliary and view it, hate-watch it, or avoid it accordingly. The masquerade that Zucker seems to find a revelation was unmasked years ago.
Back at its creation, in 1996, Fox News was a true stealth threat to the body politic. The network was assumed by many viewers to be as advertised: a good-faith competitor to CNN, which then was in its sixteenth year of dominating the still-developing genre of 24/7 television news. (MSNBC also would arrive in 1996.) Fox’s guise of impartiality would start to erode with its prurient overkill on the Lewinsky scandal, but still, its Clinton coverage wasn’t all that more sensational than the competition’s. It wasn’t until Fox threatened to dethrone CNN in the ratings after the Bush-Gore debacle of 2000 that the left started to take serious notice and decry what Fox was peddling under its Orwellian rubrics of “We Report. You Decide” and “Fair & Balanced.” By 2004, when Fox lent its growing might to the Swift Boat smears of John Kerry, a concerted opposition started to crystallize. It took the form of a revelatory documentary (Outfoxed) by the television producer Robert Greenwald, the advent of the ill-fated liberal radio network Air America, the creation of an explicit O’Reilly Factor parody in The Colbert Report, and the formation of Media Matters, an aggressive and well-financed watchdog operation conceived by the right-wing journalistic hit man turned Clinton acolyte David Brock. Media Matters also policed MSNBC, which had yet to adopt an ideological identity and was still fielding prime-time shows like Scarborough Country, in which the former Gingrich revolutionary Joe Scarborough compared lesbians to “barnyard animals” and cheered on a Dixie Chicks boycott after Natalie Maines opposed the Iraq War. MSNBC’s marketing strategy would start to evolve (as would Scarborough’s) once Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” and “Special Comment” monologues attacking the Bush White House and its Fox shills struck pay dirt in 2006. But it was too late to overtake Fox News in the Nielsens. The tidal wave of mass liberal rage aimed at Bush-Cheney would start to recede with the 2008 election, and once Obama entered the White House, MSNBC no longer could draw on the fierce anger that might have pushed its viewership numbers into Fox territory.
On the eve of Obama’s reelection campaign, in early 2012, Brock co-authored a book cataloguing Media Matters’ long-running brief against Fox News’s transgressions, The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network Into a Propaganda Machine. But by that point, it was more a valedictory than an exposé. The world knew Fox was a propaganda machine. At the end of 2013, a Media Matters executive, Angelo Carusone, acknowledged as much, declaring that “the war on Fox is over.” His organization devised a three-year strategic plan to devote more resources to monitoring the fast-growing sectors of online, social, and Hispanic media.
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.
As long as Ailes is around, Fox News is likely to grow ever more isolated from the country beyond its “Nation.” If it is actuarially possible, its median viewer age will keep creeping upward. (It rose by two years over the course of 2013.) The network’s chauvinistic Christianity, whatever Santa’s race, is hardly an inducement to a younger America that is eschewing religious affiliation in numbers larger than any in the history of Pew polling. Fox News’s unreconstructed knee-jerk homophobia, most recently dramatized by its almost unanimous defense of the Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson’s likening of gay sex to bestiality, drives away viewers of all ages but especially the young. O’Reilly’s latest moralistic crusade (“Is America Going to Pot?”)—best encapsulated by a scare piece about a 2-year-old in Colorado eating “a marijuana-laced cookie”—seems almost calculated to alienate conservatives who subscribe to Rand Paul’s ever-more-popular style of libertarianism.
Many have mined Sherman’s Loudest Voice in the Room for its portrait of Ailes’s grim childhood and its account of the adult Ailes’s paranoia, his bitchy remarks about his own stars, and his alleged anti-Semitic verbal assault on a once-prized executive. Ailes was driven so berserk by the mere fact of a thorough book on his life and career that he gave exclusive interviews to another, hagiographic biography intended to preempt it and countenanced a reported $8 million settlement to a recently discharged Fox News flack who might have gone public with his own inner-office tales. But the more damning aspects of Sherman’s portrait are not what Ailes apparently most feared: the scandalous personal anecdotes, the incidents of bigotry and sexism, or even the full accounting of his darkest partisan activities. It’s through far more mundane details that the portrait of Ailes’s decline and Fox News’s obsolescence emerges.
More than in any political credo, Ailes believes most of all in the power of television, the medium he grew up in and mastered as a political tool well before many of his competitors. But as his viewers were gobsmacked by the reelection of Obama, so he has been blindsided by the fading of television as the dominant news medium. About new media Ailes knows very little and has never wanted to learn much. When MSNBC emerged in 1996, he mocked it not because of its political identity (it hadn’t chosen one yet) but because of its connection to Microsoft; he wisecracked that Fox News was not in business to “tell people to turn off their television set and go to their computer to get more information.” He failed to invest in new technology in the years that followed, and by his own account he doesn’t “do a lot of web at Fox News.” As the McCain and Romney campaigns were successively confounded by the Obama forces’ technological prowess, so Ailes has been repeatedly ambushed and frustrated by new media, from Gawker, which tortured him with gossipy revelations from a “Fox Mole,” to Google, which earned his ire by refusing to accede to his demand that it rejigger its search algorithms to smite an anti-Ailes blog. Even the success of a one-man website challenging the local newspaper Ailes owns near his home in Putnam County has taken him by surprise and brought him to apoplectic fury. He doesn’t have a clue that his great cable-news innovation at Fox, The Crawl, is aging as fast in the day of Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr as ticker tape did with the advent of computer terminals. He is so tech-phobic that when Glenn Beck left Fox to start his own empire online, he pronounced him “crazy” because “no one walks away from television.”
But even as Ailes is aging out of the media business, he is making no plans for succession. Ever more isolated from other Murdoch executives and the younger generation of Murdochs—if still protected by Rupert—he may not care that much if the ship goes down with him. His irreplaceability will only add to his legend. “Roger is Fox News,” the editor-in-chief of the right-wing website Newsmax, Christopher Ruddy, told Sherman. “Without him you don’t have it.”
Without Ailes and his Fox News to kick around anymore, the left may feel a bit disoriented—much as the right most certainly will once its unifying bête noire (literal and figurative), Obama, is gone from the White House. But while the right remains obsessed with fighting its unending war against a nearly lame-duck president, it behooves liberals to move on and start transitioning out of their Fox fixation. Paradoxically enough, the most powerful right-wing movement in the country, the insurgency in the Republican grassroots, loathes the Boehner-Christie-Rove-centric Fox News nearly as much as the left does. The more liberals keep fighting the last war against the more and more irrelevant Ailes, the less prepared they’ll be for the political war to come.