What Obama’s Doing With Fox News
Fox News isn’t the number one cable news channel because it has a broad spectrum of viewers or because the quality of its news reportage is better than those of other cable news networks or organizations. It’s the number one cable news network because it’s explicitly conservative in viewpoint where other news networks and organizations are not. Fox News garners the viewers for whom ideology trumps news; every other news organization splits the rest of the viewers.
This is good news for Fox News, since four decades of conservative railing against “the liberal media” has given it a core of like-minded viewers, who being conservative are also loyal: they’re going to be with Fox News come hell or high water (as long as Fox News doesn’t change its ideological bent, that is). But it’s also good for the White House, because at the end of the day, Fox News’ nightly audience in the third quarter of this year was 2.25 million viewers in primetime (source). For perspective this means that it has roughly the same audience as your average Dollhouse episode, which was just yanked by Fox (the broadcast network, not the cable news network), so that its ratings wouldn’t stink up November Sweeps. Even with Fox News’ ratings going through the roof because of its little war with Obama, the actual number of viewers is minuscule. Or to put it otherwise, 2.5 million Americans watch Fox News, which means that 297.5 million Americans don’t.
Which makes it a low-risk ideological foil for the White House. Follow: The White House says Fox News is not a real news organization and is the propaganda arm of the GOP, Fox News throws a very public shit fit about it, which gives it higher ratings and an impetus to skew even more to the right in its presentation, and go out of its way to criticize Obama even further. Meanwhile the noise is all covered by multiple other news outlets, which in aggregate reach a much larger audience, which show Fox News anchors and personalities in the middle of ideological conniptions, confirming to the general population the proposition that, indeed, Fox News is more interested in politics than news, and reinforcing the impression that Fox News and the GOP are reading off the same page. Which makes the GOP look unreasonable in an era in which its popularity isn’t, shall we say, spectacular to begin with. To what end? Well, you might have heard there’s a health care debate going on.
Mind you, using politics to marginalize the press is not exactly a new thing; note, if you will, the aforementioned four decades of railing against the “liberal media.” What ought to make conservatives pissed off at Obama is not that he’s taking a page out of their playbook, but that he’s improved upon it. Conservatives moaned about liberal bias in the press to carve out an alternative ideological media under the guise of “balance,” but never managed to marginalize the “liberal media” in any significant way; it was just too damn big. Obama, on the other hand, is picking a fight with a small conservative entity and is essentially forcing it to do what he wants — make conservatism (and by extension the GOP) look like an extreme political position — by adding to what it needs to survive: an audience. But it’s a small-scale audience comprised of people already opposed to the president and his policies (ie., no great political loss). The conservative war on the media was Clausewitz; the Obama war on the media is Sun Tzu.
Does such a thing carry backlash potential? Sure, although possibly not as much as conservatives like to suggest. The White House has already run this play before — it used Rush Limbaugh as a foil earlier in the year, to good effect. Limbaugh loved it, because it was good for him and his ratings; it wasn’t so great for the GOP. People fretted that the White House elevating the stature of Limbaugh would backfire, but it doesn’t appear to have done any real damage to the White House. In a very real sense going after conservative media outlets and personalities is a smart strategy for Obama. Unlike the GOP, which is in such organizational disarray that no one really knows it’ll do next, conservative media outlets and personalities are reliable: They always move toward ratings. And that’s easy enough for the White House to manipulate to its own ends.
There is some irony that Obama and his White House are waging a media war on the GOP using the tools that everyone has assumed were for the GOP’s benefit. But there’s a saying that generals are always fighting the last war, not the current one. Well, the GOP is still fighting the last media war; Obama and his White House are fighting the current one. He’s winning it. And so is Fox News. And neither of them would have it any other way.