How Fox News Screwed the GOP
Mitt Romney disembarks from his campaign plane at St. Paul International Airport in Minneapolis, Minnesota this week. A multi-hued line up for next week's Republican party convention is meant to belie its image as the party of middle-aged white men.
Suffering an election hangover after having been told by Fox News that Mitt Romney's victory was a sure thing (a "landslide" predicted by Dick Morris), some Republicans have promised to break their addiction to the right-wing news channel in the coming year. Vowing to venture beyond the comforts of the Fox News bubble, strategists insist it's crucial that the party address its "choir-preaching problem."
This grand experiment of marrying a political movement around a cable TV channel was a grand failure in 2012. But there's little indication that enough Republicans will have the courage, or even the desire, to break free from Fox's firm grip on branding the party.
For Fox News chief Roger Ailes, the network's slash-and-burn formula worked wonders in terms of catering a hardcore, hard-right audience of several million viewers. (Fox News is poised to post $1 billion in profits this year.) But in terms of supporting a national campaign and hosting a nationwide conversation about the country's future, Fox's work this year was a marked failure.
And that failure helped sink any hopes the GOP had of winning the White House.
From the farcical, underwhelming GOP primary that Fox News sponsored, through the general election campaign, it seemed that at every juncture where Romney suffered a major misstep, Fox misinformation hovered nearby. Again and again, Romney damaged his presidential hopes when he embraced the Fox News rhetoric; when he ran as the Fox News candidate.
Whether it was botching the facts surrounding the terrorist raid on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, parroting the Fox talking point about lazy, shiftless voters who make up "47 percent" of the electorate, or Romney's baffling embrace of reality TV show host-turned Fox News pontificator Donald Trump, the Republican candidate did damage to his chances whenever he let Fox News act as his chief campaign adviser.
Fox viewers didn't fare much better. Fed a year's worth of misinformation about the candidates, and completely misled about the state of the race (all the polls are skewed!), Fox faithful were left crushed on Election Night when Romney's fictitious landslide failed to materialize.
"On the biggest political story of the year," wrote Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic, "the conservative media just got its ass handed to it by the mainstream media."
Indeed, Fox's coverage of the campaign has been widely panned as an editorial and political fiasco. The coverage failed to move the needle in the direction of its favored Republican candidate, and the coverage remained detached from campaign reality for months at a time. (Megyn Kelly in July: The Obama campaign is "starting to panic." That was false.)
Following another lopsided loss to Obama, Republican strategist Mike Murphy urged Republicans to embrace a view of America that's not lifted from "Rush Limbaugh's dream journal." (The Fox News dream journal looks nearly identical to Limbaugh's.)
And San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll wondered if Romney's defeat marked the end of a Fox News era:
You had to wonder about Fox. This is the third presidential election in which Fox has been a major player, and the Democrats have won two of them. A combination of big money and big propaganda was supposed to carry the day for Romney and the Republicans, but it didn't. Could it be that the Fox model has played out?
Is the Fox model of a cable paranoia played out in terms of ratings? It is not. Is the Fox model of cable paranoia played out as an electoral blueprint? It sure looks that way.
Of course, conservatives should have thought that through before handing over the control of a political movement to Ailes and his misinformation minions. They should have thought twice about the long-term implication of having irresponsible media outlets like Fox supersede leadership within the Republican Party, and should have figured out first if Fox News had an off switch to use in case of emergencies.
Yet as Fox News segued into the de facto leader of the Republican Party, becoming the driving electoral force, and with Ailes entrenched in his kingmaker role, candidates had to bow down to Fox in search of votes and the channel's coveted free airtime.
And Andrew Sullivan noted in January:
The Republican Establishment is Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Karl Rove, and their mainfold products, from Hannity to Levin. They rule on the talk radio airwaves and on the GOP's own "news" channel, Fox.
There's a reason New York magazine labeled Ailes "the head of the Republican Party." And that's why a GOP source told the magazine, "You can't run for the Republican nomination without talking to Roger Every single candidate has consulted with Roger."
That meant campaigns were forced to become part of the channel's culture of personal destruction, as well as to blanket itself in Fox's signature self-pity. (Here was Mitt Romney adopting the right-wing whine that the conspiratorial press was out to sink his campaign.)
Still, the right-wing bubble was a comfortable place to inhabit if you thought of Obama as an historic monster, or if you required to be reminded of that fact many time a day, every day of the year. The bubble is the place where followers for four years were fed the feel-good GOP narrative about how Obama's presidency was a fiasco, that the Americans suffered a severe case of 2008 buyer's remorse, and that the president's re-election defeat was all but pre-ordained.
The one-part-panic, one-part-denial message may have cheered obsessive Obama-haters, but it didn't prepare conservatives for the reality of the campaign season. And it cost the GOP a lost year in the Fox News bubble.