For me there was no doubt about the high point of Wednesday morning’s election coverage. At about four o’clock I flicked over to Fox to see how the good folks there were managing their grief. I was greeted by what – even by Fox standards – was an amazing sight. Karl Rove had become embroiled in a heated debate with his own network about their decision to call Ohio and the Presidency for Barack Obama. It was too early, he said. There were still lots of votes to be counted. They had to be right, not first.Not wishing to miss the opportunity for some fantastic television – even at their own expense – anchor Megan Kelly was dispatched to confront her network’s own decision desk. The startled analysts, who bore the excited but nervous demeanour of elves who’d been visited by their Snow Queen, assured Kelly that the call had been correct, and Ohio had indeed been held by the President. Rove, grudgingly, was forced to back down.
For students of modern US political history, this represented the closing of a circle. It was Rove’s successful effort to get Fox to reverse their call of Florida for Al Gore in 2000 that in many people’s eyes won George Bush the Presidency. Had the networks stuck with their original predictions, the recount saga would have been conducted against the backdrop of a narrow lead for Gore rather than for Bush, potentially with a very different outcome.
But watching Rove vainly raging against the dying of the light cemented for me a view that’s been forming throughout this campaign. Fox News, widely perceived to be one of the Republican party’s greatest assets, has actually become a liability to it.
To describe Fox as a polarising broadcaster would be to give understatement a manly bear-hug. For Democrats and the liberal Left it is effectively an extension of the GOP press office, prosecuting a vicious and biased campaign against their candidates and values. For Republicans and the Right it provides a vital balance against the liberal prejudices of the Main Stream Media. But whatever the perceptions, Fox – to my mind – proved to be an albatross around the neck of Mitt Romney throughout this campaign.
I first noticed it over the whole Benghazi saga. Day after day Fox would breathlessly unleash yet another leaked cable, or internal State Department memo, exposing failures in the protection of Ambassador Stevens, his staff and his embassy. And I ignored them; firstly because there were so many “revelations”, secondly because they were clearly being pushed as part of a wider political agenda and thirdly, because they were from Fox. And Fox, in my eyes, is synonymous with poor and partial journalism.
But in retrospect, some of what Fox was publishing was actually – in journalistic terms – solid material. Setting aside the crazy conspiracy theories, it was clear that concerns had been raised about security at the embassy compound. There were legitimate questions to be asked about the nature of the military response once the attack was under way. But these weren’t being asked – to any significant degree – by other media outlets. And they weren’t being asked – in part – because the story was being driven by Fox.
If I were one of Obama‘s press officers I would have been offering up a silent prayer of thanks that Fox was devoting so much time and energy to the Benghazi story. Because that provided the Democrats with their best way of keeping the issue compartmentalised. “You’re a serious outlet,” I would have told any journalists following up “You don’t honestly want to be seen to be picking up and running with something Fox is peddling do you?” And I’d have been right. They wouldn’t.
Fox, because of the nature of their political coverage, has become ghettoised in the eyes of the rest of the media. And as a result, it makes it much harder for Republican strategists to generate legs for stories or issues that Fox is leading with.
There is a second issue as well, which is that Fox has almost become the ultimate negative fact-check against Republicans. Obviously it was very, very rare for Fox to be overtly critical of Romney and his campaign. But when they were, the effect was hugely magnified.
When Fox’s news anchor Chris Wallace asked Romney political director Rich Beeson if his ads about Jeep production being shifted to China had been a “mistake”, Beeson quickly changed the subject. But the damage had already been done. The fact that “even Fox” was now questioning the truth of the ad was immediately held up by the Obama campaign – and other media outlets – as definitive proof the adverts were false and blowing back on Romney.
This has happened before. In 2008, Joseph Wurzelbacher, a plumber from Ohio, confronted Obama about his tax policy during an election walkabout. Wurzelbacher became an immediate media sensation, and overnight was drafted in as a surrogate for the McCain camp, pushing the image of Obama as someone out of touch with ordinary America. But then Wurzelbacher overreached himself, and started venturing onto issues like foreign policy. Fox anchor Shepherd Smith – who enjoys a reputation for independence – finally snapped, and took Wurzelbacher to task for a comment he had made about how “a vote for Obama is a vote for the death of Israel”. Concluding the interview Smith looked directly at the camera and said “Man, it just gets frightening sometimes.” Again, the fact that it was Fox that had challenged Wurzelbacher became the story, and brought a premature end to Joe the Plumber’s burgeoning media career.
There is also one other significant way in which Fox works against those it seeks to serve. In effect, it provides a false comfort zone for conservative politicians and their supporters.
As we saw with Benghazi, rather than try to penetrate mainstream media outlets, there was a clear tendency for Romney advisers to do easy “hand-offs” to Fox on issues they wanted up and running. It reminded me of when we in the Labour Party used to just drop our best material in the laps of the Mirror; they would run it big, and we’d think we were talking to the whole country. In fact, we were talking almost entirely to our own supporters.
Similarly, there were times in the campaign when I saw Karl Rove on Fox make quite a mature and compelling argument about how – despite the evidence of the polls – Romney was well placed to win. But then a few hours later I’d see Dick Morris making the same arguments in his cartoonish way. And as soon as I saw Dick Morris peddling the line, I knew for certain Rove was bluffing.
Perhaps most damaging of all was the way Fox prevented Romney and the Republicans from properly stress-testing their arguments. Time and again, a Romney surrogate would be taken apart on an issue like their economic policy or stance on abortion. But an hour later they’d be back in the Fox studio, being lobbed softballs and given a soft ride. And it lulled them and their campaign into thinking the earlier car-crash had been an aberration, just one more example of the venality of the MSM.
Obviously Fox is influential. They reach a wide audience, and are a major, well-resourced and professionally run national broadcast outlet. But I’m not so sure they’re as damaging to Democrats as Democrats fear, or as helpful to Republicans as Republicans like to think.
And as the GOP begins the process of sifting through the wreckage of its latest election defeat, it needs to learn a lesson. Just because you’re winning around Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, it doesn’t mean you’re winning around America.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.