National Review’s David French has written an essay airing his grievances against Fox News. He goes on at some length about how powerful Fox is, and how it traps people in a silo of right-wing conversation. He cites Benghazi as an example of a story that would not be in the narrative but for Fox pushing it (his timing on this, given the latest Clinton email discovery, could be better). He warns of the danger of people who want to be “Fox News Famous”, that the network has created a “comfortable conservative cocoon” and describes it as a bubble wherein “Conservatives gain fame, power, and influence mainly by talking to each other” and “they never get a chance to preach to the unconverted.” He singles out Mike Huckabee as a symbol of how Fox warps behavior with the lure of continued influence. He declares that Fox’s problems go to “the very moral and intellectual heart of the conservative movement.”
French is welcome to his opinion. But isn’t it possible that the problems French identifies with Fox News’s programming are merely reflections of the same problems infecting the rest of the conservative movement, not the cause? Aren’t its nagging issues indistinguishable from the problems plaguing every other conservative movement institution run by older folks for older folks, from think tanks to activist organizations to magazines? Doesn’t it say something that the aspects French identifies as being reflections of the lure of being “Fox News Famous” are also aspects found in talk radio, in fundraising appeals, and in candidates themselves – even when they aren’t on Fox?
Fox News is not the moral and intellectual heart of the conservative movement, nor is it built to fulfill that role. It’s a news channel. A big news channel, I grant you, and a very profitable one. But it is also just a news channel. It has just had a better institutional understanding that TV is a visual medium, and has been better at producing appealing content compared to its cable news competitors. So good, in fact, that it is watched by a massive number of Democrats as well as Independents. French’s declaration that appearing on Fox means you are appealing only to the conservative cocoon is bereft of fact. The Pew data from two years ago showed that at the time, 55 percent of the Fox News audience did not identify as conservative. To suggest that Fox’s audience is a conservative cocoon is definitively false.
Nor is Fox to blame for the rise of the Trumpism French finds so disturbing and has opposed so vociferously. Fox News is coming off their best election year performance ever, raising their average viewership in the first quarter of the year to 1.36 million total day viewers. But that is still a fraction of the voting electorate. Did all those people vote for Donald Trump and convince nine of their friends to vote for Donald Trump? Most people are not news junkies, and Sean Hannity’s reach is just not that powerful. It is not as if Trump’s only outlet during the primary was Fox – he was everywhere, constantly, and channels consistently featured his rallies. The Republican electorate shifted to embracing Trump as the primary went on, and Fox’s coverage reflected that shift – it was hardly the only entity driving it.
Broadly speaking, the problems French identifies with people yearning to be “Fox News Famous” could be entirely repurposed as people yearning to be “TV Famous”. Do the compromises French views as necessary to be famous at Fox not apply at CNN or MSNBC, or for Kayleigh McEnany, Scottie Nell Hughes, or Jeffrey Lord? Talking head TV operates on a model that requires people to take opposing sides on issues viewers are themselves discussing, and the reason coverage runs in a direction is more often than not the fault of the viewers and not the hosts. Fox News’s motive is profit, and profit comes with more eyeballs – believe me, if people tuned out from the Benghazi segments, they’d run fewer of them. French finds it problematic that Fox’s aim is not to convert people to conservatism, but converts more often come when they stumble across a perspective that challenges their views and leads them to rethink their assumptions. In Fox News’ absence, fewer challenges to existing media narratives would exist.
French closes his piece by implying that the Fox echo chamber bears responsibility for the fact that Republicans have won the popular vote in only one of the past six presidential elections. This is a nonsense claim. The reason Republicans won the popular vote in only one of the past six presidential elections is because their policies and candidates have failed to be popular and they have failed to adjust them. What bears more responsibility for conservative failure: the Iraq war, a botched response to Katrina, an economic meltdown, a bailout for Wall Street, a squandering of Republican majorities in the Congress, the betrayal on countless issues of incredible importance to the base – from immigration to Planned Parenthood – or the fact that Mike Huckabee can halfheartedly run for president for a couple of months and then go back to halfheartedly hosting a TV show? That’s really the big problem with conservatism today?
Blaming conservatism’s woes on cable commentators hawking books and talking heads altering their talking points to appeal to their audiences is short-sighted. Suggesting that what’s driving the failure of the conservative movement is caused by single cable news channel that will give their ideas a hearing is wrong. And suggesting the problem with conservatism is such a channel, rather than the rot at the core of institutions possessing much longer lifetimes and much larger impact on policy debates than Fox News, that actually deal in the business of ideas on the right, including the promotion of ideas that have fairly consistently failed to inspire the American people, isn’t just wrong – it’s lazy. Conservatism’s problems are much bigger than that.