For liberals like me, Fox News was the channel to watch last night. As it became clear early on that Obama was going to take this thing, my household quickly switched the channel from CNN to Fox, eager to see the network’s massive breakdown play out in real time. After all, if the job of Fox News these past four years was to make Obama a one-term president, a goal the network not-incidentally shared with the Republican Party, Fox News super-duper seriously failed.
In 2009, White House communications director Anita Dunn called Fox News “either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party.” I don’t know about the “or” part. With massive funds and infinite air time, Roger Ailes’ little network that could spent the past four years demonizing president Obama (after a year of demonizing candidate Obama), and obsessively churning up non-news to scare the shit out of white guys and feed into the GOP bloodstream: from the Black Panthers’ remarkable rise to political power to that thing about the guns and Mexico named after an awesome Vin Diesel movie to the multifront war on Christmas/Christians/Christ to The Great Benghazi Conspiracy of 2012.
And what do they have to show for it? Not a Republican president. Not a Republican Senate. Not a repealed health care law. Adding insult to Tuesday’s injury, Eric Holder is still a free man.
Yes, ratings. Yes, money. I hear you. But if Fox News has any actual interest in helping the Republican Party or the conservative cause—and you can want to do this and make money, just like the GOP!—the network really flubbed it. So what happened, other than the mainstream media oppressors shutting down the truth once again and polling places letting Hispanics in?
In 2009, Gawker published a post titled “What’s Bad for the GOP is Good for Fox News,” arguing that Republicans’ worst nightmare—the election of a black, Democratic president who listens to the rap music and gives young, female, and non-white Americans hope—was actually a dream come true for Rupert Murdoch’s money-minting, 24-hour news network. Pointing to this illustrative graph, Gawker’s John Cook (who, full disclosure, is my husband) wrote that “the more viewers Fox attracts, the more voters the GOP repels.”
But in 2010, the GOP/Fox News Industrial Complex proved Gawker —and many Democrats who assumed Fox had taken things too far—wrong. With the aid of the Fox-bolstered Tea Party revolution, the Fox-created Socialist-in-Chief, the Fox-aired town hall debacles, and the Fox-supported conspiracy theories of Glenn Beck, Republicans won the House and the narrative. We all gave in and started calling it Obamacare. 2012 looked to be a lost cause.
But Fox overreached. The midterm results told Sean Hannity and Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly that they were doing something right, and so they kept at it. Donald Trump phoned in from Trump HQ daily to inform Greta Van Susteren’s viewers about his heroic quest for the missing birth certificate. Glenn Beck presented his irrefutable evidence that everything is connected and all roads lead to the Jews/Kenya/Cass Sunstein. Beck finally got canned in 2011, but Hannity picked up some of his nut-job slack. The liberals on Hannity’s panel got paler and sicklier by design (my theory, at least), and the true-believer conservatives became more insufferably confident and dismissive of any potential Obama revival.
So what does all this delusional thinking have to do with actual voters and their actual votes? As Conor Friedersdorf writes in his very smart Atlantic piece about the failure of the conservative media, it’s “easy to close oneself off inside a conservative echo chamber.” As he points out, Fox News and other conservative media are “far more intellectually closed” than, say, NPR. Fox News feeds its viewers a line of bull about the way the world is. Viewers buy this line of bull. Misinformed viewers become misinformed voters. And then misinformed voters are shocked when Obama wins. Hey, I thought everyone hated this guy? (The preceding is a very good reason why liberals should limit their MSNBC viewing, by the way.)
Friedersdorf argues that Fox not only deludes its viewers, but that it is part of a self-deluded system, in which right-wing talk radio and TV pundits like Dennis Prager and Hugh Hewitt actually also take the bait. They all reinforce each other’s divorce from reality, Friedersdorf suggests, until the whole thing blows up—as it did last night in that crazy MegynCam moment, as the anchor, faced with a raving Karl Rove, walked from the studio to one of the back offices to confront the network’s decision desk over its Ohio call. It was, of course, terrific TV. In our house it played as comedy, but I’m sure Fox’s loyal viewers, still holding out hope of a Romney turnaround, loved the drama of Kelly stalking the hallways, one of the network’s conservative crusaders on the hunt for nebbish number crunchers.
So is the talent at Fox News made up of true believers or cynical hacks? Most likely, the network—just like the pundit roundtable on air last night—contains some of each. For the ratings whores, it’s likely true that four more years of Obama is exactly what the network needs—but it’s clearly not what’s best for, say, Chris Christie. Fueled by intensity and hatred, Fox thrives as the opposition. The trouble is that for the GOP to survive, Republican candidates eventually have to get votes. When they fail, Fox gets to keep on printing money.
After Karl Rove’s on-air freakout and the aforementioned MegynCam challenge, Fox was forced to acknowledge that Obama had won the damn election. And now what are they left with? A whole lot of viewers who are quite surprised to find that they are once again outnumbered by Americans who actually like better access to health care and don’t all keep Carrie Mathison-style timelines of the Benghazi cables on their living room walls. Now these disappointed souls wonder: Why isn’t the world the way we thought it was Tuesday morning? Just guess where they will turn for the answer.