Fox News Goes to the Middle (and Other Fantasies)

Is Fox News Channel going soft? In an election year? Some media figures seem to think the hard-right channel is going to the “middle,” but this seems to be a figment of the centrist imagination.

New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman has a short piece trying to make this case. His first bit of evidence is that Fox granted backstage access at its recent Republican debate to a New York Times reporter–as Sherman put it, “Fox‘s decision to allowTimes scribe Jim Rutenberg into the building to confront the candidates in person.” That sounds rather aggressive, and Sherman sees this as some sort of political shift:

If2010 was the year that Fox fueled the tea party–culminating in record ratings and the Republican sweep of the House midterms–2012 is shaping up to be the year that [Fox News president Roger] Ailes decided Fox will benefit if the political world recognizes that his network iswilling to make GOP candidates sweat in front of their base. Like any good candidate, the network plans to tack toward the center for the general election.

That “sweating” session was a debate moderated by three Republican attorneys general, who are in some ways to the right of some of the candidates–particularly Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Given that the conservative base of the Republican party seems to have questions about the ideological commitment of these two–especially Romney–the fact that Fox convened a debate where the candidates had to field questions from the right doesn’t really seem like playing to the “center.”

Sherman argues:

Conversations with Fox sources and media executives suggest a new strategy:Fox is trying to credibly capturethe center without alienating its loyal core of rabid viewers.To this end, the network is flexing its news-gathering muscles in high-profile ways that will capture media attention.

Fox has “news-gathering muscles”? Now this is news.

As Sherman points out in the piece, he’s not the first to make this Fox-t0-the-middle argument. That was Newsweek/Daily Beast‘s Howard Kurtz, who back in September tried to make a similar argument, based on interviews with Fox head Roger Ailes. Kurtz suggested that Ailes was “quietly repositioning America’s dominant cable-news channel”–specifically by hosting a debate where one could see

his anchors grilling the Republican contenders, which pleases the White House but cuts sharply against the network’s conservative image–and risks alienating its most rabid right-wing fans.

Again, this doesn’t quite add up–especially if one interprets the “grilling” to be of the right-wing base, red meat variety. Which seemed to be part of what was happening, according to Kurtz’s piece:

Hours before last week’s presidential debate in Orlando, Ailes’ anchors sat in a cavernous back room, hunched over laptops, and plotted how to trap the candidates. Chris Wallace said he would aim squarely at Rick Perry‘s weakness: “How do you feel about being criticized by some of your rivals as being too soft on illegal immigration? Then I go to Rick Santorum: Is Perry too soft?”

So pushing a right-wing position on immigration is going to the middle?

About the only real evidence of any ideological shift is the absence of Glenn Beck from Fox‘s line-up. One could argue that this is a shift to the middle, but if anything it’s a reminder that Beck’s program dealt in a conspiratorial brand of conservatism that was not so much to the right as it was off in the 4th dimension from Fox mainstays like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Without Beck, Fox is back to its normally arch-conservative self.

Kurtz also caught this bit:

Ailes raises a Fox initiative that he cooked up: “Are our producers on board on this ‘Regulation Nation’ stuff? Are they ginned up and ready to go?” Ailes, who claims to be “hands off” in developing the series, later boasts that “no other network will cover that subject …. I think regulations are totally out of control,” he adds, with bureaucrats hiring Ph.D.s to “sit in the basement and draw up regulations to try to ruin your life.” It is a message his troops cannot miss.

Those must be Fox‘s news-gathering muscles in action–going after an anti-White House, anti-regulation storyline popular with conservatives… and at odds with reality.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.